Academy Awards

Guillermo del Toro looks at love and acceptance in adult fairy tale The Shape of Water

The Mexican director talks about the notion of “otherness’ in the film about a mute laboratory worker who falls in love with an amphibious creature that is going to be dissected

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 September, 2017, 11:48am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 February, 2018, 4:54pm

A fairy tale in which a mute cleaner in a government laboratory falls in love with an aquatic creature facing dissection – an appeal to embrace differences – premiered at the Venice film festival on Thursday.

Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa, the cleaner in the lab whose life changes when she befriends the amphibious creature, which has been captured by government scientists to study its breathing patterns for use in space travel.

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“It’s a very political fairy tale about love and coming together, about how we are told to stay apart for stupid reasons when we are all together,” says del Toro.

The film is one of 21 US and international films vying for the Golden Lion that will be awarded on September 9 after days of screenings, parties and red carpet glamour.

The Shape of Water features a fantastical creature – a cross between human and fish with glowing spots on its skin – to point to “the otherness” people so often reject, says Del Toro.

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The notion of otherness is evoked through other characters, such as Elisa’s black friend Zelda, played by Octavia Spencer, or her secretly gay neighbour, played by Richard Jenkins.

“I’m Mexican and I know what it is to be looked at as the ‘other’,” says Del Toro. “The creature represents something that can be either divine or debased according to who looks at it.”

Michael Shannon stars as Strickland, a ruthless government agent uninterested in genuine science and willing to cut the creature into pieces, if that is what he is ordered to do.

“He doesn’t see anyone because his arrogance is so big,” says Del Toro. “It speaks about the issue we have today that choosing fear over love is a disaster.”

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Hawkins was told about the role when she was writing notes for a film about a mermaid, a coincidence she says was “magic and rare”.

“When all those synchronistic, odd things that are almost beyond you happen, then you know it’s for a good reason,”she says the Britain-born actress.

The film is set in 1960s America but Del Toro says the tale is relevant today.

“It’s so hard to talk about emotions these days ... and talk about love but it’s still the strongest force in the universe. The Beatles and Jesus cannot be wrong.”