Marginalized identity in 'The Shape of Water': Q&A with Guillermo del Toro
Guillermo del Toro, a Mexican-American film director and writer, is renowned for his hybrid genres, weaving fairy tales with dark, haunting imagery of the sexual, religious and taboo. From his award-winning Spanish gothic films like “Pan’s Labyrinth” to his supernatural-robot-monster stories like “Pacific Rim” and “Hellboy,” del Toro has made himself a household name in an industry traditionally dominated by The Whites. His upcoming film, “The Shape of Water,” is set to be released in December. But unlike most of his past works, he has made its underlying messages clear. In a Q&A session with Michigan in Color, del Toro explained his messages and intentions to promote the upcoming film.
“The Shape of Water” is set in the Cold War era and follows government laboratory cleaner Elisa (Sally Hawkins, “Paddington 2”) as she encounters a captured Amazonian, an amphibious creature called “the Asset.” The story details the two falling in love. Her attempt to break the Asset out of its imprisonment, with co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer, “The Help”) and next-door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins, “Comrade Detective”), is obstructed by the violence of secret Soviet spy Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, “The Looming Tower”) and abusive American Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannnon, “Pottersville”). Del Toro expands on his choice for the Cold War as a backdrop and what details the setting offers.
“I think that movies that happen anywhere, matter nowhere; movies that happen anytime, matter at no time. Storytellers choose the place they take place in, and the time they take place in, very carefully and very specifically, del Toro said. “I think for me is of course, the Cold War, and the Space Race, of course, but it is the last fairy tale time in America — a time in which America kind of dreams itself into what we conceive as the modern America. The media is shaping the consciousness and the identity of the country and you have a candidate in the White House be a damage yet to escalate, and you have suburban wealth everywhere: cars in every garage, TV, kitchens, petticoats and hairspray. It’s really a time of great hope for the future. In fact, we become so obsessed with the idea of the future, and I thought that and the Cold War were the perfect settings to bring a creature from the ancient past and a love story in a time of difficult communication.”
Del Toro’s plain political commentary comes from the treatment of the Asset, who is tortured and abused by high-status white men simply because they are different. He calls it a representation of “The Other.”
“Also the movie is a movie about our problems today and about demonizing The Other and about fearing or hating The Other, and how that is a much more destructive position than learning to love and understand,” del Toro said. “I thought, well, if I thought about today, there are two topics all over the news, we get it in the news, in social media, but if I say, ‘Once upon a time, this language, we used it too’ — this is a fairy tale for troubled times, and people can lower their guard a little bit more, and listen to the story and listen to the characters and talk about the issues, and the circumstance of the issues.”
Something less prominent, but equally important, are the identities of the characters. Protagonist Elisa is mute, but her disability does not render her character flat. She is still presented as a whole human being, with adult sexual desires and emotional capabilities. The film manages to capture her romance with the Asset in its fullest sense without verbal communication — a feat which del Toro detailed in the Q&A.
“The first thing is that I think that words can lie but looks cannot. I wanted to have characters that were able to communicate to the audience their emotions and their love through looks, touch, and body language and essence, because it’s impossible to talk about love," del Toro said. "You can sing about love but you cannot talk. And the idea is that Sally, the main character Elisa, and the creature have this in common: They are not looked at as complete beings, and yet they are. They are reduced to ideologies or ideas that are more reductive in complexity, to the point that the creature is actually read by different people as different things throughout the film. For the antagonist Strickland, he is read as a filthy thing that came from South America; for the Russian scientist, he is seen as the magic of nature and science; to Elisa, he is part of her essence, that she recognizes. And for Elisa, she is read as different things for different characters. For Octavia Spencer, she is basically a listener to her in her monologue; for Giles, she is almost like a daughter; and for Strickland, she is a woman that he wants to dominate, or he thinks he controls because she is under his employment. And she is much more than that. The only one that sees Elisa exactly as she is, without seeing her incomplete, is the creature, is this elemental god from the Amazon that is as much a singularity as she is.
“There is also a monologue in the movie, that Elisa has; it is a gesture monologue, a sign-language monologue, that plays much stronger with her emotions than being channeled by words. Her eyes are more hungry, there’s more emotion, her body — her sentiment vibrates through her body — and it is really quite a powerful scene because she cannot talk.”
Between amphibian sex, shoot-outs in the rain and deep spiritual poetry, del Toro does what many big-name Hollywood directors have not: He manages to represent marginalized identities without making it the crutch of the whole plot. Elisa might be mute, but her disability does not affect the voice she has in the film; Zelda is a Black woman, without being the Black woman the film depends on to make a political statement; Giles is closeted as gay, but his sexuality does not define his entire presence on screen. The characters own their identities rather than the other way around, and the subtle change stands out. And when that is all stated and acknowledged, there is still so much more to take apart and analyze — from the color choices of the sets and costumes to the production techniques and inclusion of monologues and spoken word. When the misrepresentation of marginalized communities in film are widespread, “The Shape of Water” proves one very important thing: You can still be inclusive and make a good movie. Period.