With The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro goes all-out to create his most confident work yet: an affecting, sumptuous 1950s-set romance combined with a B-movie creature feature.
Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa, a cleaner working in a top-secret scientific research facility. She lives an understated, unremarkable existence: starting the day by fingering herself in the bath, eating some eggs, and bidding farewell to her neighbour before spending many hours mopping after scientists with best friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). That's before the creature arrives. Encased in a glass capsule, Elisa first spies it being wheeled into a cleaning area (shh, suspend your disbelief), and begins to realise that its capable of communication. What follows is the development of a beautiful romance over various lunch breaks and after-work soirees. But there’s a problem: the presence of Strickland (Michael Shannon), a vengeful, sadistic secret agent with the ambition of dissecting the animal.
It’s a magical, often tense, and fantastically retro story from start to finish, and, to his credit, Del Toro doesn’t hold back on the tale he’s trying to tell. The Shape of Water definitely has the power to make its audience more than a little uncomfortable with its explicit treatment of sexual relationships between species, so just be warned…. It’s also worth noting that ‘the good guys’ and ‘the baddies’ are pretty clear-cut. Elisa and Zelda don’t really have any detracting factors; and it’s hardly ambiguous who we’re supposed to hate – ‘hey look this guy is a sexual pest and tortures animals’, or ‘this guy hates black people and gay people’. Sure, the thinly sketched characterisation is all part of the B-Movie appeal – but at times it can feel as if we’re watching a game with a foregone conclusion.
Yet these are secondary considerations to make when it’s just such a beautiful, textured, and wonderful piece of work: something that harks back to the golden age of cinema and invites us to kneel at its alter. It almost feels like a lucid fever dream an audience member might have had after seeing ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’ upon release: personal, heartfelt, and imaginative in equal measure.
But, make no mistake, this isn't a 'happy' film in many ways. Del Toro isn't afraid to acknowledge that he's making an adult film for adult audiences - and despite the surprise of the darkness amidst the traditional fairytale stylings, the overall effect is that of something less inconsequential than a parable: a piece of cinematic magic with a realist grounding that most definitely adds a vicious crust under that airy-clouds of the romance. Strickland, in particular, proves to be an angry force of nature - a whirlwind of misogynist hate and desperate masculinity. Yet, when we peer behind his own facade, we can see the threads of a good man - loyal, hard-working, pressured. Has the world made him bitter, or has his job? It's a mystery that we never really solve, and one that perhaps would yield unpalatable answers about the world in which we live.
|A visual marvel...|
Visually, it’s a marvel. Del Toro has decided that the colour green is to be a motif throughout this work – letting it seep like water into wallpapers, the sky, and the characters themselves (think A Cure for Wellness). It's symbolic of decay, but also of growth and new life in the same way that the algae on top of the pond is often thought of as dirty, but is in fact the opposite. The picture has a visual cohesiveness that runs from the first frame to the last, keeping the entire affair together even as the plot threatens to break off the rails. It’s also well known that Del Toro is a cinephile at heart, and the concept of ‘movies’ hangs over the action in The Shape of Water more than anything else. I mean, Elisa lives above a beautiful cinema – and in one fantastically poignant scene finds the creature in there, staring at the alternate world projected upon the screen. It’s a moment in which an enthusiastic physically reconnects with the past he so fetishizes: something magical and transcendent.
All in all, it’s an interesting example of how an adult might reimagine their childhood favourites. The 50s grandeur, the spectre of the retro creature feature, and the ravishing romance are all there. And, yet, these people are violent, racist, misogynistic assholes. They abuse and discard those underneath them as if they’re nothing: degrading, and belittling, and fucking them until there’s nothing left. And, as the audience, we’re left to wander as the credits roll: what’s next? It is, in many ways, the perfect combination of fairytale and the middle-American abyss: magical and affecting, yet profoundly melancholy.
|The Shape of Water gets 4 stars!|