Guillermo del Toro loves fairy tales. That’s been clear to moviegoers the world over since “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which took the Mexican auteur to new levels of international acclaim, and it’s brought into sharper relief than ever before by “The Shape of Water.” Its narrative, about a mute woman who falls in love with a fish-like creature at a research facility during the height of the Cold War, is both out-there and familiar — a description that applies to del Toro’s work in general.
Like all the best fairy tales, there’s a reservoir of darkness just beneath the surface of his latest; also like them, it’s a strange story told in a straightforward manner. Call it the shape of del Toro.
The way he’s perceived in the popular imagination is unique insofar as his outré subject matter often obscures the fact that, at his core, he’s a deeply conventional storyteller. He’s often (and rightly) described as a visionary, but unlike other filmmakers to whom that title is designated — Jean-Luc Godard, Terrence Malick — he rarely plays with form. “The Shape of Water” has emerged as del Toro’s most well-received outing in more than a decade not just because it’s beautiful, but because it weds its creator’s one-of-a-kind sensibilities to an archetypal narrative — what happens in the film is strange, whereas the way it happens onscreen is anything but.
Far from incidental, this is part of what makes del Toro’s movies so effective. In drawing relatively little attention to craft and technique, he foregrounds the story. “The Shape of Water” is a sight to behold, but its aesthetics are in service of the narrative rather than the other way around.
There’s also Sally Hawkins. The increasingly essential actress is to this movie as Belle was to Jean Cocteau’s “La Belle et la Bête,” an emotional center for everything else to revolve around. Her character, a janitor who works the graveyard shift and communicates via sign language, has one of those presences that inspires you to hope against hope that things will work out for her. She feels unreachable, maybe even unknowable, while also giving off a certain warmth — like a stranger who instantly makes you feel at ease in her company.
The film’s other star bears much of the credit for del Toro’s fantastical reputation. Doug Jones has collaborated with the director seven times now, most famously as both the Faun and the Pale Man in “Pan’s Labyrinth” and here as the creature known only as the Asset. His performance, like Hawkins’, is powerful not in spite of its wordlessness but because of it. “I love monsters the way people worship holy images,” del Toro has said. “To me, they really connect in a very fundamental way to my identity.”
That’s his power, and maybe even his secret: Del Toro knows we go to his movie to be amazed. He also knows not to overwhelm his audience with trickery or distract from the story being told. (Compare that to someone like Gaspar Noé, whose provocative ideas frequently take a backseat to a maximalist style that’s more overwhelming than enriching.)
Del Toro has said that he owns nearly 150 collections of fairy tales — they’re “a way for us to understand the world,” he told Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” shortly after the release of “Pan’s Labyrinth” — and has absorbed their lessons like few others. Watching his movies has the rare effect of making you feel young again even as you know that, like Pinocchio or Snow White, the magic will soon be lifted.