Guillermo del Toro’s ‘The Shape of Water’ Brings Tears, F-Bombs to Toronto

TIFF 2017: “She’s not a Disney f—ing princess,” director says of the character played by Sally Hawkins in his romantic fantasy

The Shape of Water
Fox Searchlight

Two days after winning the top jury prize at the Venice Film Festival, Guillermo del Toro’s deliriously romantic creature feature “The Shape of Water” had its first public showing at the Toronto International Film Festival. And once again, the film enraptured an audience with its unlikely but spectacular love story between a lonely, mute woman and an aquatic creature that looks like a marginally friendlier version of the Creature From the Black Lagoon.

On a ridiculously overcrowded night that also saw the TIFF public premieres of Andy Serkis’ “Breathe,” Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing,” Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour,” Angelina Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father,” Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles” and Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “The Shape of Water” still felt like something of an event.

That’s partly because it screened in the Elgin Theatre, where scenes from the movie were filmed; when the lavish interior of the theater first appeared on screen, the Elgin audience erupted into applause.

But that was nothing compared to the applause at the end of the film, when del Toro and his crew and actors were met with an extended standing ovation. As Alonso Duralde wrote for TheWrap when the film premiered in Venice, del Toro’s work here “transcends mere pastiche to craft a work that feels like the product of our collective film-going subconscious.”

In a raucous post-midnight Q&A that followed the screening, del Toro talked about the particular challenges of this film — “we crammed a $60 million movie into $19.5 million” — but mostly about how he wanted real, flawed characters in his fantastic world.

“There’s art and beauty and power in the primal images of fantasy,” he said. “But I wanted to show somebody real. [Hawkins’ character] masturbates in the bathtub – she’s not a Disney f—ing princess. And the creature might be a god, but he eats the f—ing cat.”

When an audience member with an autistic child spoke of how the relationship between the characters played by Hawkins and Octavia Spencer had moved her and given her hope, both actresses fought to compose themselves. But the mood quickly lightened — because even when del Toro was talking politics, he managed to make it brashly entertaining.

“I set the movie in 1962 because when people say, ‘Let’s make America great again,’ they’re thinking of that era,” he said of the film’s Cold War setting, which includes casually depicted racism and homophobia. “Yeah, it was great if you were a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. If not, you were f—ed.”

He stopped. “I’m sorry for cursing,” he said. “I know it’s not very Canadian.”

But, of course, he wasn’t really sorry, because he returned to that well for a line that served as a pretty good statement of purpose for the magical experience he’s created.

“It’s important that we choose love over fear,” he said. “As silly as it may sound, it’s the f—ing answer to everything.”