The Shape of Water (2017)
“Words lie, but looks don’t…When you fall in love, you fall in love, absolutely, all at once, all-in. It’s a miracle” (Guillermo del Toro).
“Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find You all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with Your love, It humbles my heart, For You are everywhere” .
This tale of unlikely love between the Princess without Voice or Elisa and the creature from the Amazon has been nominated for thirteen Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and there are good reasons for this furore. Mexican director Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006)) has finally made the movie he wanted to make for a long time. Del Toro merges different cinematic genres (fantasy, drama and romance), while paying tribute to black-and-white Hollywood musicals and B-movie monsters, to produce a movie which is almost faultless in its directional execution, acting and emotional content. The director draws on a number of sources to tell the unlikely love story which, among many other things, portrays and sympathises with the lives of the “underdog” minority, and engagingly sets out the high-pressure conditions of living in the times of the Cold War.
Undoubtedly drawing heavily on “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954) and, probably, on Soviet “Amphibian Man” (1962), Guillermo del Toro’s story is about Elisa (Sally Hawkins (“Blue Jasmine” (2013)), a mute woman who works as a cleaner at a top-secret military facility in the US. Elisa, who can hear but cannot speak, is often protected in social circumstances by her kind co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer (“The Help” (2011)). Zelda is not the only friend of Elisa since Elisa lives next door to a gay artist Giles (Richard Jenkins) and they often spend time together watching films. At work, however, the atmosphere is often uncomfortable because in charge of the research military facility is a despotic man Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon (“Nocturnal Animals” (2016)). The story is that Strickland is overseeing “the most sensitive asset to be housed in [the] facility”, an amphibious creature (Doug Jones (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) that can breathe both on land and underwater. Curious and fascinated by the creature, Elisa soon establishes her first contact with the Amphibian Man, which later on leads to friendship and even something more. The drama is that, apart from Strickland’s inhuman treatment of the creature, the Russian service, spying on the facility, is also interested in the creature. After Strickland decides to get rid of the creature, Elisa pulls all her efforts to try to save her new friend, and the final scenes are one nerve-wrecking showdown.
The Cold War Soviet Union-US military competition is just part of the story, and it is a relief to find out that a Russia (Soviet Union)-related character (Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg (“Blue Jasmine”))) in the movie is, surprisingly, not presented as a bad one. However, the love between Elisa and the Amphibian Man in particular captures all the attention. Like in “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), in “The Shape of Water”, it is the female character that comes to the rescue in the final scenes to try to save (warn) the beloved creature. Also, much like in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1996) (or Victor Hugo novel), the female character develops a strange fascination with the deformed or unusual-looking male figure, and that figure happens to be under the charge of a strict and despotic person. In the “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, that figure who has control over Quasimodo is Frollo; in del Toro’s work – that figure is Strickland.
One thing to notice immediately in “The Shape of Water” is that all characters in the film could as well be the main stars in their own spin-off movies – so interesting and larger-than-life they appear to the audience. In fact, del Toro wrote lengthy background stories on most of them, including on Zelda, Elisa’s friend at work, on Giles, Elisa’s friendly neighbour, on Dr. Hoffstetler, a researcher at the facility, and on Strickland himself. Del Toro’s main characters are sourced from a minority group (a mute woman, a black woman, a gay man/poor artist, a Soviet spy, a creature from the Amazon) who all have to battle the domination of white men either at their own work place or at a research facility. Their background-stories are even there in the film, for example, we are given more than a glimpse of both Zelda’s and Strickland’s family lives, frequently visit the home of Dr. Hoffstetler and are being acquainted with the working conditions of a gay artist Giles, as well as shown Giles’ attempts to become romantic with a bartender at a local café. It is this merging of a traditional beauty-and-the beast romantic story with the more modern and complex theme of repressed and abused minorities fighting back which feels so innovative in “The Shape of Water.
The characters appear that complete thanks to the outstanding acting too. Hawkins hardly says anything at all in the film, being an inquisitive observer at one point, and a shy, “Amelie” (2001)-like romantic in other instances, but it is thanks to her powerful presentation that we feel so much emotion, and repressed longing in the heart of Elisa. In fact, the script of del Toro was written specifically with Sally Hawkins and Michael Shannon in mind. Octavia Spencer plays Zelda, Elisa’s co-worker, like only Spencer could – with the air of camaraderie, understating and casualness. For me, though, the best film scenes, apart from the romantic scenes involving Elisa and her lover, are those involving Michael Shannon as Strickland. Shannon is fantastic in the role of a despotic overseer of the facility, and the whole aura around his character is that full of complex menace and tension. Whether Strickland interrogates the two cleaning ladies, chit-chats with them in a men’s toilet or lovingly-obsessively cares for his new car (to contrast with his abominable handling of the living creature), Shannon’s scenes are nothing short of powerful, interesting and intriguing.
Structurally and cinematographically, “The Shape of Water” is also a strong movie. Some noted how the story seems predictable and “too comfortable” with itself, but this is a very unfair description. “The Shape of Water” may not be as cerebral as the work of Villeneuve or Lanthimos, but it uses, first and foremost, traditional story-telling techniques, which pay due tribute to stories and movies long gone. In terms of a plot (rather than visual effects), “The Shape of Water” is more in line with the work of Spielberg, with Elisa playing the role of a boy in “E.T. Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), and the Amphibian Man playing the role of an alien. It is a touching tale of extraordinary connections established between two breathing and living entities who feel in-tune and at ease with one another. The thought-provoking ending of del Toro’s film is the proof of the film trying to go for something different and imaginative.
“The Shape of Water” marks the third collaboration between cinematographer Dan Laustsen (“Crimson Peak” (2015)) and director del Toro, and what a collaboration it has proven to be! Del Toro opens his movie as though a true fairy-tale is about to be told (similar to “Beauty and the Beast”), and we are presented with a fantastic scene of a fully-submerged-into-water apartment with chairs and other furniture items floating. Such fantastical displays are what make this film so visually-engrossing and transporting. The production sets are also beautifully-designed, with a lot of attention paid to small details. Elisa’s apartment is a marvellous place, situated just above a cinema complex, and when the apartment is filled with water, “rain” falls on people watching the movie below. In fact, as del Toro says himself – “this is a movie that is in love with cinema”, and apart from Elisa’s apartment being situated just above a cinema complex building, Elisa and her friend Giles watch black and white musicals on a TV, and Elisa even at one point finds her amphibian lover “enjoying” a movie in the cinema auditorium, similar to the main characters in both “Amelie” and “Leon” (1994).
The whole movie design reminds of Tim Burton/Terry Gilliam, and being a fan of all things Japanese, del Toro knows only too well what an amazing effect a difference between light and dark can make in one single frame. Elisa’s apartment is done in the shades of blue and green, with a watery feel to it, to be contrasted with the sterile/clinical atmosphere present at Elisa’s work place, and with bright-coloured interiors of Strickland’s house. Such vivid contrasts are present elsewhere as well. If Elisa, together with the Amphibian Man, eats her eggs whole, then Strickland eats omelettes, and if Strickland is shown as performing rapid, robotic-like sexual acts in bed with his wife, Elisa and her lover’s love acts are either shyly implied at or take place slowly either in a bathtub or underwater.
For all its apparent perfection, “The Shape of Water” is not a flawless film. Firstly, in retrospect, the background of the Cold War (including all the Russian espionage) is not even needed to tell this engaging story. The plot feels stuffed as it is with the “asset”’s torturous relationship with Strickland, and its loving relationship with Elisa, not to mention all the vivid sideline characters and the showing of their perspectives, including Zelda (Spencer) and Giles (Jenkins). The director tries to pay a side tribute to his own “Pan’s Labyrinth”, but even though the Cold War background provides additional excitement to the film, it really has nothing new to contribute (and, in that way Dr. Hoffstetler could have been just a man torn between his professional duties or threats and his desire to help to rescue the creature). Secondly, perhaps by merging different genres, including comedy, romance, and drama, the character of the Amphibian Man (Jones) is a bit underdeveloped and confusing. If only he had more screen-time for the audience to get to know him better (such as his intelligence or devotion to Elisa) then maybe we would have believed more in the unlikely coupling and love blossoming between Elisa and the Amphibian Man. The problem is that sometimes Jones’ character is a helpless creature being tortured, and at other moments we see him in a comic situation crouching amidst the gang of cats. It is not clear whether he should make us laugh, cry or inspired.
“The Shape of Water” is a very beautiful, entertaining film with great acting and production design, not to mention the stunning score created by Alexandre Desplat (“The Painted Veil” (2006), “Tale of Tales” (2015)). The only concern is that del Toro could have instilled more personality in the Amphibian Man, and in that way, the love story between Elisa and the Amphibian Man could have probably been even more convincing, and, thus, more touching. The creature in “The Shape of Water” can sometimes be viewed as a comically exotic home pet to be kept in a bath, rather than a serious romantic hero who was taken advantage of, and that creates an unfair impression. Apart from that, del Toro has made a movie whose dark, sublime, watery beauty is indisputable, and whose story is as much an exciting, intriguing and romantic traditional beauty-and-the-beast ballad and it is a captivating homage to the different and the extraordinary. 9/10