Crimson Peak (2015)

Directed by: Guillermo del Torro 

Written by: del Torro and Matthew Robbins

Crimson_Peak_theatrical_posterMonster vs man: that’s the recurring motif in Guillermo del Torro’s films. Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water are set during the Spanish civil war and early-cold war respectively. Both feature literal monsters that at times can be scary, but both films make plain that their real villains are fascists and conservative-militarists respectively. Between those two films del Torro came out with Crimson Peak. Set in late 19th century America and England, the film is consistent with del Torro’s tendency to attack right-wing ideologies. This time, however, the ideology is as old-fashioned as the film’s setting. The ideology is British arastocracism. 

Crimson Peak is a mildly amusing watch in 2020, in that it shares a plot theming device with the recently released Little Women. Its protagonist, Edith (Mia Wasikowska), is a young American woman with the literary talents to impress publishers, who is nonetheless blocked from getting published by their sexism. Edith is told that a quasi-ghost story she has written might be publishable if she adds a romantic element, but she promptly dismisses the proposal as sexist.

Edith’s sense of direction is promptly complicated by the arrival of  Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston),  an English aristocrat, who hopes that Edith’s father Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver) will invest in his clay mining technology. While Edith takes a liking to Thomas, her father is quick to quell his ambitions. He refuses to offer him money arguing that Thomas is a lazy son of privilege, whereas he (Cushing) has earned his wealth.

Despite having a constant air of horror, and some memorable bursts of color, Crimson Peak struck me as a bit underwhelming for much of its middle. Carter’s telling off of Thomas seemed to settle the film’s moral message once and for all (a message conveyed, unfortunately, from an uncritical-capitalist perspective). Another key point, established a bit too early in the script for my taste, is that Thomas’s sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), is morbid to say the least. Lucille is established in a scene in wish she glibly tells Edith about the death of butterflies, all the while a close-up depicts a dying butterfly being ripped apart by ants. In short, much of Crimson Peak is spent with the audience already knowing that Thomas and Lucille are corrupted by their inherited positions, and that Lucille may be particularly sinister. Subsequently, the audience is left with the dull experience of waiting for these apparent truths to explicitly reveal themselves and add up to something.

Luckily, there is more to Crimson Peak than meets the eye. There is some element of twist in the film’s third act and the film ends up making somewhat unpredictable observations about both aristocracy and the plasticity of love stories. Ultimately Crimson Peak proved a memorable movie, but the memorable was too little, too late to render the work overall entertaining. One weakness, I suppose, is that the film lacked del Torro’s signature (literal) monsters: they’re there, but not frequently, and certainly not to the degree necessary to register as characters. The film’s problems, however, go beyond the absence of charismatic monsters. Its real problem is the presence of blasé people.

One thing I’ve struggled with in reading English classics over the years is parsing what exactly is so attractive about their leading men. Mr. Darcy, Captain Wentsworth and Mr. Rochester all struck me as just rich men whose names got repeated a lot: yet in their respective stories they count as real heartthrobs. To del Torro and Matthew Robbins’s credit, they perfectly captured this dynamic in Thomas Sharpe. The character may be the one who pushes Edith away from her intellectualism-over-love lifestyle, but nothing he does on screen really rises above the standard of blandness.

Thomas’s blandness is to blame for the arguable overwriting of his sinister sister (his lack of charisma had to be made up for somewhere). It is also to blame for why the film’s middle feels lacking. Most importantly, however, it is what prevents the film’s twist from truly tying the work together. Thomas proves a complicated character, and the subject of what is perhaps del Torro’s most tragic and nuanced exploration of reactionary power structures. Crimson Peak’s structure ,unfortunately, makes his character development seem less like an arc and more like a list of bullet points; a list that’s quite repetitive prior to its conclusion.

While Pan’s Labyrinth spoke to an evil characterized by an acting body: a military force, Crimson Peak went for a target that wasn’t exactly moving. In fact that is its point: that aristocrats are hauntingly trapped in the past. The disturbing stagnancy of aristocratic culture might very well make for a good cinematic theme, but one has to be careful that one’s own film doesn’t take on that stagnancy itself.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Written and Directed by: Guillermo del Toro

Pan's_LabyrinthI was inspired to finally watch Pan’s Labyrinth for two related reasons. Firstly, I was recently introduced to del Toro’s fascination with monsters, insects and fairy tales by a travelling exhibit of his at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Secondly, The Shape of Water recently won the Oscar for best picture and del Toro was named best director. I had mixed feelings about this result. I think del Toro deserved the directorial award due to the beautiful world he created. As a script, I felt The Shape of Water fell a bit short: it made it a tad too obvious who was good and who was evil, depriving it of a necessary dose of complexity.

Of course, one way to think of The Shape of Water’s simplicity is to understand it as a fable or a fairy tale, albeit one for a PG-13 audience. del Toro has a clear fascintion with merging the worlds of adults and children. In The Shape of Water, I feel this made the script come up a little short. In the case of Pan’s Labyrinth, however, this quality makes the film the modern classic that it is.

Pan’s Labyrinth opens much like an early Disney movie (the approach parodied in Shrek), in the pages of a book. The reader is Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), roughly ten years old, who is travelling with her mother to live at the home of her stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). The year is 1944 and Vidal is a pro-Franco Spanish officer. Ofelia is insistent that she does not accept him as her father, however, it is unclear if she has any understanding of his politics, and to what degree her loathing of him is simply motivated by her love for her true father. The film’s initial tension is quickly introduced, as Ofelia’s pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) tells her she is too old for fairy tales. Ofelia is, unsurprisingly, not persuaded to give up her stories, and goes on a series of all-too-real fairy tale journeys all the while under the strict eyes of Vidal and her mother (who reluctantly enforces Vidal’s rules).

Ofelia’s refusal to outgrow fairy tales provides a direct connection between the text and its fairy-tale-loving writer. del Toro’s portrayal of Ofelia’s adventure proves that  she is indeed not too old for fairy tales. His approach to doing this, however, is to depict a fairy tale that is not all that kid-friendly. Its major players include a giant toad, a child-eating monster with eyes on its hands, and most importantly, a faun (who, despite the English translation of the film’s title, is not actually the famed Pan). The faun (Doug Jones as the body and Pablo Adán as the voice) is a good character, but he has demonic eyes and is crushingly strict; he’s not exactly the kind of cuddly mentor you’d envision in a kid-friendly fairy tale.

Ofelia’s adventure in fairy tales runs parallel to that of Vidal’s maid, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) who it turns out is a supporter of anti-Franco rebels. While Ofelia throws herself into the dangerous world of the child-eater, Mercedes makes herself vulnerable to Vidal’s cold, militaristic whims. Vidal’s way of being is characterized by his belief in patriarchal hierarchy, and willingness to brutalize all that get in his way. The co-existence of Ofelia and Mercedes’ horror stories make a number of a narrative points. On the one hand, their implicit connection adds a level of depth to Ofelia’s fairy tales, again sending the message that fairy tales cannot be dismissed as childish. On the other hand, since the parallel between Ofelia and Mercedes’ stories is limited (Ofelia’s magical foes are not blatantly allegorical to real life menaces) del Toro also sends the message that fairy tales can be compelling even if they do not have some meaningful connection to the real world. Finally, the combination of historical and fantastic drama in Pan’s Labyrinth speaks to the agency of children and the liberating effect of imagination. As much as we may like to think they are protected, children can get caught up in real world tragedies. While Ofelia is largely unable to participate or defend herself in the real world conflict, she is able to engage with it in her own way and with much more agency through her heroics in the world of fairy tales.

To get back to my original idea, there are undoubtedly parallels between Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water. Both star silenced protagonists Ofelia (who is too young to be political) and Eliza (who is mute). Both feature sidekicks who are also marginalized, though more able to speak to their conditions than the protagonists: Mercedes (a servant woman), and Zelda (an African-American woman and janitor). Both film’s also have blatantly bad antagonists, whose badness is characterized by their social conservatism. Finally, both films feature double agent doctors. While The Shape of Water’s (portrayed by Michael Stuhlbarg) doctor is a more developed character than the original, in all the other cases Pan’s Labyrinth’s characters come out just a little bit richer.

In the context their respective stories, Ofelia’s form of marginalization, thinking-like, dreaming-like and literally being a child makes her more vulnerable, and thus capable of more interesting interactions with her film’s terrors, than Eliza.

Mercedes, unlike Zelda, is not simply a sidekick but a secondary protagonist.

Most importantly, there is a subtle difference between Vidal and Strickland’s portrayal. Strickland is an outright caricature of right-wing badness: everything he says is cold and reactionary. Vidal, however, has just enough moments of vulnerability that rather than coming across as a caricature, he is in fact a portrayal of a certain terrifying, but real way of being. He is not devoid of love, as shown by his tenderness towards his son. Rather, he has simply become accustomed to a world in which all love shown by and towards him, is strictly filtered through the framework of traditionalist patriarchy.

That said, The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth are not the same film, and that difference is best demonstrated through their depictions of monsters (played by Doug Jones). In The Shape of Water, the monster is for all intents and purposes a misunderstood other: one to sympathize with. In Pan’s Labyrinth, we are still supposed to sympathize with some monsters (and certainly relative to the conventionally handsome true monster that is fascism), however, it is a more trying sympathy. We are challenged with the idea that for Ofelia the world of the faun is an escape from her horrible home life, despite the fact that the faun’s world is hardly a pleasant thing to escape to. In another scene (that I cannot describe without spoiling the movie), the faun behaves in a way reminiscent of God in an early biblical story. He gives Ofelia a horrible instruction presenting her with a painful moral conundrum and exposing the absurdity of having to live without safe moral authorities to turn to.

The god-like nature of the faun’s behaviour again contributes to the film’s overall affect of giving Ofelia choices not between a good and a bad situation, but between magical-fear and real-world horrors. Watching a child navigate this scenario is a shocking thing. Ivana Baquero’s performance is remarkable in that we never forget the injustice of what Ofelia has to face as a child, yet we simultaneously accept her as fully qualified hero. Guillermo del Toro may ultimately be remembered for his monsters, however, his writing and directing of fairy-tale loving Ofelia may in fact be his greatest accomplishment.

The Shape of Water (2017)

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro. Written by: del Toro and Vanessa Taylor

The_Shape_of_Water_(film)Guillermo del Toro is known for his fascination with monsters. This fascination is not a simple aesthetic desire to create novel looking beings: rather they symbolize “the other” as in those we do not see as part of respectable, human society. He cites, for example, Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, as an influence of his: a film that tells the stories of “circus freaks” from a sympathetic perspective.

This theme is readily apparent in The Shape of Water a story of Eliza Esposito, a mute janitor in the 50s who develops a relationship with a humanesque marine creature (Doug Jones) who is held captive at her workplace. Eliza (Sally Hawkins), explains her empathy for the creature by citing her own marginalized status. Meanwhile, the film’s antagonist, Strickland (Michael Shannon) is a US government agent who speaks in thinly veiled racist and sexist dogwhistles.

Thematically, therefore, The Shape of Water is a bit plain-stated. The film’s aesthetic, however, goes a long way towards making it a memorable work. The film is decidedly green. Eliza punches in a green time card (with help from her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), to go into her green dungeon of a building, where she cleans green-tiled bathrooms with bubble-like wells of green soap. While the exact meaning of the color is somewhat ambiguous, visually it serves to make Eliza’s life look much like the creature’s: she too is submerged in murky, green depth. It should be noted here, that there is nuance to this connection. Showing Eliza in the shadowy green depths of her work helps create the impression she is drowning (while by contrast the creature of course needs to be in water).

Del Toro could have opted for his green aesthetic to be a mere mood setter, something many viewers might simply process unconsciously. Instead, however, he works the word “green” into his scripts. Giles, Eliza’s friend and neighbour, lovingly keeps neon green pies in his fridge, even as he doesn’t enjoy them. Strickland, by contrast, takes great interest in a turquoise Cadillac, but before buying it awkwardly seeks assurance from the car salesman that it is not green.

It is thus through color, that Del Toro truly enriches his story of otherness. Giles a non-disabled white man, at times stands in contrast to the marginalized and principled Eliza, yet his compassion for the green pie (an other of sorts), is symbolic of his goodness. Strickland, a less redeemable white man (he’s a bit of a caricature in fact, though that’s not really a flaw in the movie, as Strickland’s characterization is an essential part of the film’s 50s aesthetic), goes out of his way to make sure the borderline green thing he loves is not green: his behaviour is reminiscent of “straight” men going out of their way to point out that they are not gay.

While green is the film’s primary color, red is it’s secondary shade. Red tends to appear in the film in the form of blood. One interpretation of the appearance of blood is that it is an invocation of Shylock’s “doesn’t a Jew bleed” speech. Be they green-haters or lovers, Russians or Americans, humans or non-humans all of the film’s characters bleed red.

The Shape of Water is simultaneously a political, and apolitical film. Through depicting intersecting racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism, Del Toro made a movie that he saw as a response to the rise of (presumably) the alt-right. At the same time, the film, through its logic of everyone bleeds, tries to transcend political ideology in favour of humanism (perhaps anthropomorph-ism is a better word in the context of this film). While there is a cold war subplot to the film, and it is an American agent that comes across as the film’s villain, for the most part the Soviet-American conflict simply contributes to the film’s period commitment. The film’s “good” Soviet, like the film’s “good” Americans, stands in contrast with his mission-focused superiors, as opposed to with “American ideals,” and vice versa.

In short, The Shape of Water is a film of various “others” uniting. Chief amongst the others is of course the creature. While largely anthropomorphic in its design, and compassionate towards humans in its behaviour, the character was carefully designed so as to not make it 100% obvious that he can be embraced by humans. One small example of this is his stunning eyes, which though charming, are indeed more fish than human like.

There is one scene near the end of the movie where the creature’s loveableness is indeed put into question. While the script largely brushes over this incident, it adds important nuance to the film. Loving the other is easy when it simply means resisting the textbook bigotry of figures like Strickland. It’s more of a challenge when there are times where the other does truly seem like an other.

There is one final thing I should point out. The Shape of Water shares some notable similarities with a Dutch student film called The Space Between Us, To be honest, what caught my attention most when I watched the short film was not its similarities with The Shape of Water, but that despite being a student film it’s graphics were on par with Del Toro’s big budget effort. There are notable similarities between the films such as the design of the monster (fish eyes included), the context in which the janitor finds it, and muteness (albeit, the protagonist in the short film is metaphorically mute as a gas-mask wearing working class woman in a world of authoritative soldiers and scientists). I am not a strong believer in intellectual property and believe in the retelling of stories. I am also hesitant to jump to conclusions, given that when asked to comment on this issue, Del Toro notes he had been developing this idea along with novelist Daniel Kraus since 2011 (The Space Between Us was released in 2015). That said, it would be a shame for The Space Between Us to go under-appreciated due to its similarities to the newer film, and moreover, I see no problem in using a bound-for-success film to prop up the viewership of a less visible effort (both are good works).

The controversy aside, The Shape of Water is a simple, plain-stated story, but one that also provides a lot of room for dialogue and analysis. Whether you like seeing dark science-fiction, or simply find fish-eyed creatures, whose vulnerability is expressed through their gill-based breathing, adorable, you should enjoy The Shape of Water.