It’s arguable that 2018 may go down as the year of the genre movie as the likes of Get Out and The Shape of Water fight their way into real contention at the Academy Awards, making well-made but conventional fare like The Post and Darkest Hour look slightly staid in the process. Maybe this is down to savvy directors tweaking their work to align with Academy voters, or perhaps the notoriously stuffy members are beginning to smell what’s been under their noses all along.
Whatever the reason it’s gratifying to see the work of Guillermo del Toro gain popular acclaim. He’s long been one of the most imaginative and distinctive genre filmmakers, ever since he debuted with Cronos in the early 90’s. The Shape of Water is a logical continuation of his work to date, and much of that DNA can be seen in the wonderful Spanish fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth which wowed critics and adventurous viewers alike in 2006.
The story is set in 1944, during the early years of the Franco regime, and begins with a gender reversal of Cinderella. Instead of an eligible widower wedding a wicked aristocrat, the sickly, pregnant Carmen (Ariadna Gil) moves to rural Spain after marrying Falange officer Captain Vidal (Sergi López). With her she brings her eleven year-old daughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a curious and headstrong girl who hates her brutal, authoritarian father. As her mother becomes more ill and Vidal spends his time hunting Spanish Maquis rebels, Ofelia is visited by a faun (Doug Jones) who tells her she is really Moanna, the lost princess of the underworld. He gives her three tasks to fulfil to achieve immortality and take her place in the underworld once more.
Perhaps more than any of his other films, Pan’s Labyrinth has come to be regarded as the quintessence of del Toro’s work. It’s a summation of his thematic concerns and his style. It incorporates fairy tales; and is soaked in the inherent violence that lurks in the stories collected by the likes of the Brothers Grimm. The fantasy world into which the faun draws Ofelia is no escapist Utopia from the horrors of Franco’s real-world regime. Like Red Riding Hood; like Hansel and Gretel, her fight to regain her childish innocence paradoxically requires her to fight tooth and claw. This realm is an ethereal mirror held up to the world of the brutal Vidal and her ailing mother.
Like in Hellboy and The Devil’s Backbone del Toro is interested in the way fantastical figures and their surroundings interact with real life. It’s both Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland and Picasso’s ‘Guernica’; the quest of Theseus and Goya’s ‘The Third of May’. Like an avaricious magpie, del Toro has raided the stuffed nests of literature and history and constructed something familiar but defiantly his own, grand and rich and shimmering.
Del Toro’s fantasies work due to their depth and tangibility. This is best realised in the now iconic, terrifying scene in which Ofelia must steal a dagger from the lair of the Pale Man (Jones again, a talismanic presence in the director’s work), a child-eating monster with grotesque sagging skin and eyes in his hands. The decision to use a costume rather than CGI is inspired. Thanks to masterful design and Jones’ eerie physicality, the Pale Man exudes real threat. Poor Baquero looks genuinely frightened, and no wonder. The folds and jowls of the figure’s pendulous flesh imply he has lost weight through hibernation and if woken, he’s going to be starving, and it won’t be the lavish feast in front of him he’ll be craving. An extra ghoulish shiver is provided by subtext. Del Toro has confirmed that The Pale Man is an allegory for the activities of the Catholic Church in the cover up of child abuse.
As usual, del Toro’s human monsters are just as scary. López is a vicious regime simmered down to a gelid microcosm. He has no love for his new wife, he just wants a son to raise in his own image, as he was raised in the shadow of his Fascist father. He is utterly ruthless in his pursuit of the rebels, a stance bluntly hammered into the unfortunate face of an innocent farmer early in the film (long-time viewers of del Toro will have spotted his strange penchant for extreme facial trauma). The actor’s talent for villainy will have come as no surprise to anyone who saw him in Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things, but he’s less insidious, more openly nasty, than in that film.
It can be argued, and there is an open parallel with The Shape of Water here, that Vidal is rather a one-note character (the kind referred to as ‘Very Bad Men’ in Stephen King novels). He’s defined purely by his zealous dedication to his cause. This is also the case with Michael Shannon’s Colonel Strickland. As both are military men, this implies a distrust of conformity and a slavish devotion to a particular ideology on del Toro’s part. Both are however afforded a sliver of humanity in their anxiety of how they’re perceived. Vidal wants to be idolised by his infant son. Strickland wants the respect of his superiors, personified by the no-nonsense General. Both are also undone by the strength and intelligence of the women they disdain.
A further link between these films is that some of the initial crumbs of a story that del Toro rejected for Pan’s Labyrinth resurfaced again. In the very early stages he considered a tale in which a woman falls in love with a faun. It would have worked, but we’ve surely been best served as viewers with the film we got, and the germ of romance between two species carried over to The Shape of Water. The faun here provides the ambiguity that the tale needs. He’s both a guiding father figure and the potential trickster of Ofelia’s own mind. He’s the personification of nature at its most mercurial; nurturing one moment and given to fits of rage the next.
Young Ivana Baquero acts as the fulcrum around which all these elements pivot. She seems mature beyond her years, but still demonstrates a child’s wonder and occasional willful disobedience that draws the ire of both her stepfather and the faun. It seems odd that she dropped off the cinematic radar for a long time after the release of the film, appearing only sporadically until The Shannara Chronicles in 2016. There is a lot asked of her and she’s more than up to it. The film would be a lesser work without her. She’s very much the glue holding it all together.
Pan’s Labyrinth remains one of the best films of the century so far. Taking the basic theme of good and evil as a touchstone, del Toro delivers an epic fable about the loss and regaining of innocence, and how taking refuge from the real world enabled a girl to find her place within it. It’s seductive and sinister, beautiful and brutal all at once. Very few filmmakers can spin so many tonal plates all at once without a noticeable tectonic grind, but then very few filmmakers grasp the true nature of the fairytale. Del Toro certainly does and delivers a story that feels both modern and timeless.