This past fall, I was lucky enough to catch Guillermo del Toro’s “At Home with Monsters,” a touring museum exhibition that had been on my radar since its stint at the LACMA back in 2016. The exhibit is a veritable cabinet of curiosities, with every nook and cranny packed with art, artifacts, books, and props culled from del Toro’s personal collection. I ended up going back a second time just to take it all in. The exhibit is a glimpse into the mind of someone who is excited and moved by pop culture; an enthusiastic film historian and collector who surrounds himself with his influences, and who is openly sensitive to the ways in which they play a vital role in his creative process.
Early last week Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet accused del Toro of plagiarism. According to the French director, the sequence in The Shape of Water where Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins dance in unison while seated as an old musical number plays in the background was “[copy] and pasted” from Jeunet’s 1991’s art-house hit Delicatessen. The scene from Delicatessen features Dominique Pinon and Karin Viard bouncing in unison on a boxspring to the beat of “Dreams of Old Hawaii,” which plays on a nearby TV.
It’s pretty rich for a director like Jeunet to suggest that cinema exists (or ought to exist) in a creative vacuum. Especially when his own films owe so much to the work of others, particularly Krzysztof Kieślowski. Tellingly, when Jeunet confronted del Toro in person with his accusation, del Toro rightfully reminded him that they both owe a creative debt to Terry Gilliam. Presumably, Jeunet left out the part where del Toro then dropped the mic he was holding and produced a business card reading: “you can’t own whimsy or sea-foam green, dumbass.”
Luckily for us, del Toro has a Ph.D. in subtweeting and addressed Jeunet’s accusation indirectly by posting a clip from “Pontiac Star Parade,” in which Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor perform a seated back-and-forth tap dance to their favorite musical numbers. Compared with Delicatessen’s synchronized Hawaiian boxspring bouncing, Kelly and O’Connor’s performance has a superlatively stronger parental claim to the scene from Shape. Or, as Alfonso Cuarón puts it: “Wow! Gene Kelly plagiarized Delicatessen in 1960!”
All told, Jeunet’s accusation is not only unfounded and childish, but it’s far less interesting than the question it raises, namely: where, in film, is the line between homage and plagiarism?
Del Toro will be the first to tell you that he’s an influenced director. And of all his canon, The Shape of Water feels the most intertextually sumptuous. You could fill a book with the cinematic threads that run throughout Shape, from the palpable presence of Creature from the Black Lagoon to the subtler undertones of films like Gods and Monsters, The Red Shoes, and Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête.
Some have even argued, rather compellingly, that del Toro’s life-long infatuation with cinema is the real romantic center of the film. As The AV Club’s A.A. Dowd writes, in The Shape of Water, del Toro “[concocts] a self-consciously old-fashioned curiosity that also pauses occasionally to marvel at a snippet of real Golden Age movie magic…and it features one irresistibly resonant image: a creature of the black lagoon standing ramrod straight in an auditorium, basking in the glow of the silver screen.”
While del Toro certainly goes above and beyond, it’s safe to say that every filmmaker has dabbled in some form of homage during their careers. The borrowing and retooling of ideas is a core part of what makes film tick. To argue otherwise is to deny a cinematic tradition of resonant, fruitful, and revealing intertextuality. And so we find ourselves at the gate of a somewhat contentious question: what is the difference between a nod and a rip-off?
In entertainment litigation, plagiarism is typically housed within the wheelhouse of federal copyright infringement. As entertainment lawyer Jennifer McGrath puts it, “a claim for copyright infringement arises where an infringer has (1) access to your work and (2) there is a “substantial similarity” of expression between your work and the infringer’s work.” Bluntly put, the determining factor between homage and plagiarism is one of intention: either a filmmaker transparently deploys a reference as a reference, or a filmmaker knowingly passes off someone else’s work as their own.
So, how are directors to communicate this transparency? With a bibliography after the credits? With interjections à la VH1’s Pop Up Video? Should Donnie Yen have paused mid-Rogue One, looked into the camera, and issued a formal statement that Chirrut Îmwe was a direct nod to Zatoichi?
Teasing out the ways in which a cinematic reference identifies itself as a reference isn’t so easily done. Homage makes use of everything from outright tongue-in-cheek declarations to more oblique and aesthetic gestures. The complexity of how homage operates within a “grey area” may be one of the reasons why it tends to be misconstrued as something malicious by folks who mistake imitation for theft. Which is a shame, because it’s this complexity that makes homage, reference, and intertextuality such a rich cinematic language.
One of the most baffling parts of Jeunet’s accusation is his frustration that someone with as much imagination and talent as del Toro would feel the need to “steal” the ideas of others. Ignoring the fact that del Toro was almost certainly not making reference to Delicatessen let alone “stealing” from it, Jeunet’s insinuation, to me, seems to fundamentally misunderstand the cinematic role of homage.
The films, comic books, and art we are exposed to play an immeasurable role in our development as imaginative creators. Being able to weave those influences into one’s work, and to remark on what they have mean to you, requires an immense amount of talent. Gesturing to the films that inspire us is not, as Jeunet seems to suggest, a lesser form of filmmaking. When done with reverence, it is a natural part of loving, and making, cinema.