The Shape of Water (2017)

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a stylish glimpse of an unusual love story set amid Cold War paranoia in Baltimore in 1962.

The Shape of WaterUSA
4*

Director:
Guillermo del Toro

Screenwriters:
Guillermo del Toro

Vanessa Taylor
Director of Photography:
Dan Laustsen

Running time: 120 minutes

The wonderful thing about fantasy films is that the bar of realism is set slightly lower than in most other stories. It’s not so much that the filmmaker can get away with more but that we relish the deviations from the strictures of reality, or realism, instead of criticising them. Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is set in Baltimore in the early 1960s, in the midst of Cold War paranoia, with set design that is magnificent, rich in detail and full of colour, but the film is also indisputably a work of exuberant imagination.

We begin underwater inside an apartment filled with watery silence. A young woman is peacefully sleeping in mid-air (or, rather, mid-water) above a couch. At least, we tell ourselves she is only sleeping. The image is mesmerising, and it derives its power not from the visuals alone but also from the accompanying voiceover. The narrator, who will shortly reveal himself as the woman’s neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), asks us, “If I spoke about it… if I did… what would I tell you?” By framing the story through this voice-over and emphasising the act of telling, the film firmly establishes itself as a (narrative) tale.

The woman is Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), and she works as a janitor at the government-run Occam Aerospace Research Center, whose main goal seems to be to beat the Soviets at this whole space thing, although the film is light on details. Her best friend, whom she has worked with for a decade, is the garrulous Zelda (Olivia Spencer), who spends most days speaking enough to carry entire conversations all on her own. She has to, not only because Elisa is quite shy but because she is mute, and she has lifelong scars on the side of her neck to prove it.

One day, a giant water-filled container arrives at the research centre, and the many-starred military officials mention something about it being one of the most sensitive shipments they have ever received. It turns out to be an amphibious humanoid – a fish-man – that has the shape and size of a man but is covered in scales and has nictitating membranes, like windshield wipers, instead of normal eyelids. Most importantly, it doesn’t speak, although it does squawk.

Thus, rather predictably, Elisa and the creature strike up a relationship. She plays him music and even feeds him the eggs she packed for lunch. He shows very little caution and is almost immediately taken with her. The feeling is mutual. In a beautiful scene delivered in sign language to her neighbour, Elisa explains that, for the first time, lack of speech is not a “lack” at all. But she is not the only one to take an interest in the creature: By virtue of their own status as outcasts or outsiders (the mute Elisa, the gay Giles, the black Zelda and the Russia-born Dr Hoffstetler), a number of people around her are drawn to and sympathise with this foreigner par excellence.

With respect to these outsiders, the film gently sketches their hopes and dreams, with the exception of Zelda, whose race and its limited value in 1962 Baltimore are only superficially and indirectly implied, for example when others engage in casual racism. The most egregious behaviour in this regard is that of Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), an odious man who only washes his hands before using the bathroom and rapes his wife in a very icky scene that takes place in broad daylight. He is the menacing power figure who looks down on anyone who doesn’t look like him, whether they are women, blacks or scale-covered critters.

Del Toro’s light touches throughout the film ensure more than a passing guffaw. One of the most cited moments is bound to be Elisa’s recurring masturbation in the bath tub every morning, which alternates with shots of eggs boiling in hot water on the stove. And most scenes involving one of the centre’s highest-ranking scientists, Dr Robert Hoffstetler, are precariously balanced on a knife’s edge between seriousness and uproarious comedy thanks to the facial expressions of actor Michael Stuhlbarg. And whenever he meets with a foreign power, the passwords that are exchanged at the rendezvous have something Coen brothers-esque about them. 

The director is also particularly sly with his transitions, and one example is the cut from severed fingers being dropped into a bag to Corn Flakes poured from another bag for breakfast. The implicit connection grosses us out even as we acknowledge the purely abstract connection with a laugh.

Elisa and the Amphibian Man (played by Doug Jones), as the credits call him, grow closer and eventually engage in an obviously consensual moment of bestiality that will undoubtedly draw laughter at every screening. Their silent bond is unbreakable and beautiful, although an imaginary black-and-white song-and-dance number late in the film feels wholly out of place.

Something else that feels out of place is the amount of access that the low-ranking Elisa has to what is supposed to be the research centre’s prized possession. She visits her amphibious friend nearly every day without ever facing punishment for trespassing. Fantasy films loosen the restrictions on how we perceive their realism but not their credibility, particularly if the story is set in a real world–like environment. And these visits in The Shape of Water push plausibility beyond breaking point.

While the meaning of the title is not at all apparent, the visuals are stunning, and not since Alfonso Cuarón’s 1998 Great Expectations has there been a film so focused on reminding us of the colour green. From the doors at the research centre and the punch clock time cards to Elisa’s dress, any number of items of furniture and, of course, the blueish shades of green in the water are ever-present and frame the tale as something out of the ordinary that vibrates vital energy.

There is no question this is the most solid piece of filmmaking that Guillermo del Toro has ever delivered, and while it is much more mature than your average fantasy film, it has the kind of magic that transports the adult viewer to a wonderland most often associated with nostalgia for childhood.

Viewed at the Bratislava International Film Festival 2017

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