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Film Review: The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water (2017; Directed by Guillermo del Toro)

Guillermo del Toro believes in many things, most of them fervently. Love and beauty, ghosts and darkness, people and monsters, art and literature. But what he believes in, above all, is movies. Specifically, and idiosyncratically, he believes zealously in the beguiling wonder of genre movies. Del Toro revels in the balance of audience engagement, visionary imagination, and the direct emotional/intellectual appeals of genre movies, how they generalize and focus big, unwieldy ideas simultaneously. Del Toro’s films are art and entertainment (and drawn from any number of other inspirations and sources as well) fused together, their bizarre, dreamlike troubled loveliness elevating genre movies but constructed inescapably from their accessible, open-armed DNA.

This is meant to serve as an illustrative preface for The Shape of Water, del Toro’s most magical, absorbing, and ambiguously moving work since his shamanistic career peak of a decade ago, Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s ironic that the director’s dedication to genre work, having previously proscribed his prestige-film profile in Hollywood – where the gold-statuette-conferring Academy looks down its nose at genre fare unless it’s thunderously successful or in their chosen genre (and a genre it absolutely is, no matter the unspoken disavowals): the realist drama – should bear fruit with his biggest awards-season breakthrough since Pan’s Labyrinth. It certainly can’t hurt the film’s case in this regard that The Shape of Water is punchdrunk in love with classic film, beginning with del Toro’s specific inspiration of 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon and continuing with included intertextual clips of other Studio Era films.

But The Shape of Water is telling a very different kind of story from the stardust fantasies of vintage Hollywood, though hardly a very different kind of story within del Toro’s oeuvre. Del Toro has long been fascinated by magnificent misfits and compelling monsters, and by their struggles to coexist with a prejudiced status quo protected by neighbourhood-fascist gatekeepers of social conformity. These gatekeepers, who brutally repress the unique beauty of weird outcasts in semi-desperate anxiety at the tenuousness of their own status, are the real monsters, Del Toro tends to suggest; here, he does so quite openly in an opening narration over a ravishingly-realized underwater apartment building. In another time and place (indeed, in the very time and place that The Shape of Water is set: 1960s America) these men (they’re always unfailingly men, aren’t they, ultimately?) were fêted as heroes of the sociopolitical vanguard, as virtuous all-American exemplars of liberty and truth. Those non-conformist unfortunates that they crushed under their polished wingtips sported in contrast the irremovable stain of sedition, which during the Cold War quite obviously carried the inescapable whiff of reviled communism.

The Shape of Water consciously and modernly inverts the assumed order of its historical context: the clean-cut suburban white man in the crisp suit is the vicious villain to be defeated, and the non-human monster gets the girl (and much, much more literally than you would have ever wanted to imagine). The girl is Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute custodian at a government research center (it’s called Occam, one of del Toro’s dizzying array of throwaway referential jokes) in 1960s Baltimore. Silently but reliably cleaning up alongside her chatterbox compatriot Zelda (Octavia Spencer), Elisa spends many of her off hours with her aging, closeted bachelor neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) and his cats, watching Hollywood classics of an earlier time.

She’s lonely and thirsting for deeper connection, however, which is where the monster comes in. Named in the credits as Amphibious Man and played by frequent del Toro collaborator Doug Jones (who does for performance in prosthetic makeup what Andy Serkis has done for digital motion-capture acting), the mysterious creature plucked from the Amazon River where the natives worshipped him as a god is referred to as “the asset” by the lab staff and by the movie’s aforementioned real monster, his mean-spirited, thin-tied minder Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon). Amphibious Man is cautious and hostile towards the abusive Strickland (he rips off two of the man’s fingers, which are found by Elisa and re-attached but spend the rest of the film turning symbolically black and necrotic) and the facility’s scientists, but Elisa is allowed to tidy the chamber where his elaborate, controlled-conditions tank (with its highly-designed, mid-century neo-gothic-steampunk appearance) is located, and she begins to forge a tentative connection with the being over hard-boiled eggs and big-band jazz records. Elisa overhears the authorities’ pitilessly pragmatic plan to learn what they can from the creature and then terminate it before the Soviets find out about him, however, and hatches a scheme to spring him from his enclosure and eventually release him into a canal and thus to the sea.

Strickland is a classic Michael Shannon typecast role: the mid-level functionary in a crisp suit, simmering with incipient self-loathing that he directs at those he can wield power over in the form of violent anger (he’s an American counterpart of Pan’s Labyrinth‘s brutal Francoist antagonist, Captain Vidal). With his postcard suburban family, aspirational Cadillac (which predictably gets smashed up in the midst of the escape caper), self-help motivational books about achieving success, biblical analogies, and purposely modest taste for cheap green sucker candies, Strickland is a picture of thwarted masculine mastery transmuted into petty authoritarian viciousness. Del Toro (who co-wrote the screenplay with Vanessa Taylor) contrasts him not only with the soulful and empathetic Amphibious Man and the intelligent, strong, and determined but subordinate women Elisa and Zelda (whose involvement in the creature’s escape he casually but ignorantly dismisses due to their lowly métier) but with Occam labs scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a sensitive and protective force in favour of continuing to study the creature but also a covert Soviet spy named Dimitri; his Russian superiors are ruthless nogoodniks similar to Strickland, but it shouldn’t be surprising in a Guillermo del Toro Cold War film that the Soviet agent is more sympathetic than American government types.

Giles, played superbly by Jenkins with kind-hearted sarcasm and exasperated patience, features in a subplot that also contrasts Strickland’s striving pursuit of conformist success. A talented but outdated commercial illustrator whose Rockwell-esque drawings of blissful American families enraptured by coveted American products are losing favour to photography, Giles frequents a local diner and pretends to like their disgusting key lime pie in order to interact with a handsome young waiter. With his art rejected by future-gazing ad agencies and his object of homosexual affection rebuffing an open advance in the same breath as he prejudicially shoos an African-American couple from the segregated diner, Giles dedicates himself instead to aiding in Elisa’s quest to safeguard Amphibious Man and release him to freedom, and is rewarded with a new bloom of youth thanks to the creature’s semi-magical healing and regenerative powers.

The true poetic focus of del Toro’s film alchemy is Elisa and her amphibian-man lover. Hawkins (a Best Actress Oscar nomination shoo-in, and a very likely winner) and Jones both give (practically) wordless performances of extraordinary emotionally communicative power, which are fully necessary to sell the considerable and bold leaps taken by the narrative. I say “practically wordless” because the classic-film-loving Elisa is allowed to express her effusive adoration of Amphibious Man in an unexpected and delightful Hollywood musical fantasy sequence.

But del Toro’s deep-delving themes are brilliantly grounded also in symbolic objects and images. Hard-boiled eggs are Elisa’s favoured snack and the crack in the door to her deep connection with Amphibious Man, but also quite clear symbols of feminine fertility: she employs an egg-timer while self-pleasuring in her bath, which is also the setting for her first sexual encounter with the creature. The Shape of Water is suffused like a sponge with images of water: not only liquid in which Amphibious Man and Elisa are submerged on numerous occassions (and in which they together experience an elegant weightless freedom that the terrestrial world denies them), but wet fresh-mopped floors, glasses of drinking water, and pouring rain, the eeries horizontal movement of which on a bus window after Elisa and the creature become lovers poetically coalesces into two raindrops melding into one. The amphibian hue of green is also saturating The Shape of Water‘s palette (the cinematography is by Dan Laustsen, who also beautifully shot del Toro’s otherwise disappointing Crimson Peak), in the colours of Occam’s halls and rooms, in Elisa and Zelda’s uniforms and timecards, in the nutrients sprinkled in Amphibian Man’s aqua-habitats, in Strickland’s candies and his Cadillac (“It’s teal,” the salesman insists), in the key lime pies, even in the focal-point Jell-O in Giles’ advertising illustration.

The Shape of Water combines all of these elements to constitute a film of such textual and visual complexity, of such exquisite beauty and potent thematic heft, that it eclipses its genre film origins and inspirations and leaves us gazing in awe-struck wonder at the cinema screen, like Amphibious Man in the empty movie palace downstairs from Elisa’s apartment. But it never forsakes those genre beginnings as lesser lights, never uses them merely as stepping stones or clever reference points, but clutches them tightly to its breast as it soars. It’s an additional irony that, despite its great debt to genre material, The Shape of Water doesn’t really fit a genre. This is a poetic science-fiction fantasy romance, a comedy and a drama, with tragic and caper and thriller elements. It’s close to being unclassifiable and it’s not completely original, but it’s undeniably unique. It’s also a wonderful, transporting film, an entertaining and heartening work of popular art by a singular artist, and a new classic. Guillermo del Toro believes in many things, and in The Shape of Water he does everything in his power make you believe in them, too.

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