London Film Festival

Guillermo’s Latest Monster in “The Shape of Water”

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“Monsters are evangelical creatures for me. When I was a kid, monsters made me feel that I could fit somewhere, even if it was… an imaginary place where the grotesque and the abnormal were celebrated and accepted.” – Guillermo Del Toro.

We enter the boring and mundane existence of Elisa (Hawkins) a voiceless orphan who communicates through sign language and is scraping together a living working as a cleaner in a top-secret government laboratory, where a range of dubious experiments are run.

Elisa continues with her day to day routine until a suspicious delivery arrives and is housed in the chamber that she is responsible for cleaning.  The “delivery” is an unusual sea monster being studied by the FBI that Elisa fall’s in love with. 

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The film’s message of a  mute woman who falls for a captured sea monster is a tribute to outsiders of all kinds — a message that has been well received by festival audiences as a crucially relevant one. They come from completely different world’s and can only communicate through signing to each other in an environment that is hostile to them both.

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In a recent interview, Guillermo expands further on the location and setting of the film. When America says, “Let’s make America great again,” they are dreaming of 1962. Why? They are dreaming of a time when cars have jet fins. Kitchens are super practical and fast. People are moving to the suburbs. Wives have time, they are coiffed with huge hairspray locks and petticoat skirts, and kids are watching TV. TV dinners and Jell-O, and everyone talking about the future. Sputnik and the space race.  It was a very optimistic time.

Kennedy is in the White House. There is a little war starting that is going to end really quickly, called Vietnam. Then, at the end of ’62, Kennedy is killed and the disillusionment begins. It’s the other Camelot, crystallized in the American imagination as the ideal time. But it was [only] ideal if you were a WASP—a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. If you were anybody else, it was not that great, which is very similar to what we are experiencing today. And a lot of the things we thought we had progressed past, we haven’t.”

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Laura Podolsky’s essay “Of Monster Masses and Hybrid Heroes: Del Toro’s English Language Films” she identifies his intertwining of Race and Horror, ( Mimic 1998, Blade 2002, Hellboy II 2008) and the potential of his films for socio-political critique.

All three films deal with a particular fascination of horrifying multitudes  (of insects, cloned vampires and tooth fairies) the latter two films deal with more hybrid like creature, whose part monster and part human characteristics encourage the audience to identify with them and the concept of the “other”.

“The idea of otherness and being seen as the enemy. What I feel as an immigrant. What I feel is an ugly undercurrent not in the past — not in the origins of fascism — but now. It is a movie that talks about the present for me. Even if it’s set in 1962, it talks about me now.” – Guillermo 

Guillermo through his monster facilitates the classic immigrant story, post arrival and pre-acceptance if indeed that is a fully attainable “goal” or “privilege”.

The hostility of the new world, different language,  a new way of life, coupled with a suspicion of being newcomers speaking in foreign tongues perfectly reflects the current refugee crisis and the treatment of millions of displaced people who have left their homes,  with many of then swept up onto our shore’s at times dead on arrival.

Many of those who do survive are stigmatised by the press and communities and others who are living in a culture of fear against the new wave of immigrants. These “outsiders” are real and exist in abundance and as Guillermo quite correctly says, although  The Shape Of Water is set in 1962, it is relevant now.

The art direction also help transport us into this dark, beautiful fairy tale with performances from Richard Jenkins, Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer,  Micheal Shannon and Doug Jones as the sea monster.

Guillermo is fully intent on achieving his goal this time with his sea monster who “gets” his girl, offering us a glimmer of hope for the future.

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