Winding down the day with a good old escapist fantasy – there’s nothing quite like it. If, as it happens, you’re attending a hotly-anticipated gala premiere in Central London, strolling down a red carpet past a variety of media outlets, gratifyingly underdressed (not that I’m ever anything of the sort, but these public gala audiences do tend toward the try-hard), it’s more like winding the day right back up again. Nothing in London ever happens as quickly as you’d like it to, nor as you planned it to, so I wasn’t exactly ready for my sole screening today, occurring even as it did as the sun was making its daily departure. But there’s nothing quite like a good old escapist fantasy, and there’s no-one quite like Guillermo del Toro.
Our maestro took to the stage, accompanied by producer J. Miles Dale, composer Alexandre Desplat, and actor Richard Jenkins, following a brief introduction from London Film Festival director Clare Stewart for his own brief introduction (Sally Hawkins, the film’s lead, was taken ill and thus couldn’t attend). He told us he’d see us after the film. He wouldn’t. Likely no-one had told him he had only these moments to engage in a generous dialogue with his audience, a dialogue that the BFI had engineered to be anything but. Del Toro is never reticent to speak, it seems, nor to laugh, nor to engage with his public in the friendliest manner conceivable – after all, he works purely to engage with us, as his best films do with such warmth and gregariousness. Describing The Shape of Water, tonight’s LFF American Airlines Gala, as an urgent antidote for these troubled times, a fairytale constructed out of emotionality rather than sentimentality, a rebuke to the notion that cynicism betrays intelligence and feeling betrays weakness, he whet our appetite for what he claims is his favourite of all of his movies, and for what is certainly one of his best films.
Once again, del Toro looks to the West’s past (specifically, America in the early ‘60s) to explain its present, and it fits that he builds his world through the fundamentals of existence – eggs, water, an emphasis on emotional connection over blunt communicative ‘skills.’ We emerge onto the surface of the film as in a dream, entering a landscape entirely his own, despite its clear allusions to reality: two dingy apartments above a Baltimore movie theatre, a secret government facility with Soviet leaks, a bona fide movie monster that is anything but, and vice versa. The Shape of Water reveals itself as a playful piece of imaginative brilliance, literally green and excitable, but with a vicious streak, much like the curious humanoid creature offering an escape in different forms for different characters.
This is a colourful, expressive film, one not rooted in retro sensibilities but in deference to the lessons of old in the pursuit of forging a path forward, as this world too teeters on the brink of potential collapse. Del Toro mines his ability to find profundity in the most unexpected locations, to toy with prejudices bad and good in fashioning a film entirely from original cloth, in turning his focus again toward the forgotten. The Shape of Water promotes compassion and understanding, much as a fable like it is inclined to do, but with the kind of urgent, contemporary directness that makes this as much a film for our time as it is a film from our time and, indeed, about our time. Rendered useless is the idea of the escapist fantasy as a distraction, no longer in the 1960s but in the information-saturated 2010s, where such ignorance is close to impossible. Del Toro gives us an escape from which we can return looking anew, if only slightly, on this teetering world, having visited his and left it a little more hopeful. There’s nothing quite like that feeling.
#LFF2017 is a documentary-heavy lineup for me, though it’s been a while since I’ve seen one. Tomorrow kicks off a string of six consecutive films of which only one is not a doc, starting with El Mar La Mar from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab alum J. P. Sniadecki and new director Joshua Bonnetta, then the final film from legendary documentarian Michael Glawogger, and finished by editor Monika Willi, Untitled. Time now, however, for your turn to escape. Clear off!
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