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

The Feast of Stephen (2009)

James Franco applies the language of cinema to adapt an Anthony Hecht poem and produces a work of sexual intensity that nicely dovetails with the films of dedicatee Kenneth Anger.

The Feast of StephenUSA
3.5*

Director:
James Franco

Screenwriter:
James Franco

Director of Photography:
Christina Voros

Running time: 266 seconds

James Franco’s The Feast of Stephen, a five-minute short film adapted from the eponymous poem by Anthony Hecht, is about sex, violence, violence as sex and sex as violence. Its ambiguous depiction of homoeroticism makes it difficult to determine whether or not it is a fantasy woven from reality, although the director overplays his hand in the second half with an unnecessarily literal portrayal of what was already quite apparent in the first half.

This wordless black-and-white short dedicated to experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger has something in common with one of the director’s earliest films, Fireworks, released more than 60 years earlier in 1947. Anger’s film was about a teenager (played by Anger himself) who goes in search of “relief” and finds it after wading through some sadomasochism. Like Fireworks, Franco’s film touches on the issue of shame and violence but also, eventually, sexual gratification, albeit tinged with violence and scatology, but luckily The Feast of Stephen takes a more serious tack and eschews the camp so often visible in Anger’s oeuvre, as Franco spares us the sight of milk-covered flesh.

The film opens on a basketball court, where four teenage boys – two of them shirtless – are passing the ball and shooting hoops. Along the fence comes a boy, the titular Stephen, wearing long trousers, a long-sleeved T-shirt and glasses – clearly, at odds with the rest of the group. Stephen stares at them, and something they look back at him, straight into the camera. He stares at them, and they start moving in slow motion, their youthful torsos rippling in the afternoon sun. He stares at them and notices how their hands playfully touch each other’s taut bodies. Suddenly, his desire is made manifest by more carnal images of the boys’ genitals. Now, Stephen is staring even more intently, and when one of them looks back, and the camera rushes towards him, it is clear Stephen has been caught out. He bolts off, his secret now out in the open, but the violence that ensues when the quartet of boys catch up to him also makes his innermost thoughts a reality.

The pounding that he gets all over his body, experienced most acutely in his groin, gradually becomes a pounding from behind. At this point, the implication is clear, but this is also the moment at which Franco goes too far in order to emphasise beyond a shadow of a doubt that this act of violence has a strong sexual undertone, as a cut suddenly removes all clothing, and we see Stephen being penetrated by the boys over whom he’d been tripping out. Of course, this moment is as imagined as the earlier moment of nudity that had briefly revealed the boys on court in the buff, and perhaps this prior image forms a sturdy means of support for the later scene, although both intellectually and emotionally it would have benefited from much tighter editing during the sodomy scene.

Despite its last-minute overreach, The Feast of Stephen is a seriously executed film that is thoroughly enjoyable and – unlike many of Franco’s other works – never overstays its welcome. The camera work has a grittiness that fits its subject very well, and while the lead actor comes across as more of a blank canvas than an actual character, the players’ movements are all beautifully coordinated. The film doesn’t have the grace or the sensuality of, say, Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour, but the brutality wrapped in fantasy makes for two easily accessible levels on which to process the events, and in a film less than five minutes long, that is not bad at all.

Lucy (2014)

Luc Besson’s fantastical, mad rush of a movie reminds us that the cinema is capable of wonderful things.

lucy-luc-besson-posterFrance/USA
4*

Director:
Luc Besson

Screenwriter:
Luc Besson

Director of Photography:
Thierry Arbogast

Running time: 90 minutes

Effortlessly referencing films as disparate as Nymphomaniac, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Transcendencealthough with a deliberate lack of seriousness, Luc Besson’s Lucy is a breathless combination of visual effects and sympathetic fantasy like only the cinema can deliver. It never strives for anything more than pure entertainment and even sidesteps issues of power in favour of showing us unexpected domination, often by very gentle means, but the result is a thrilling ride you won’t want to miss.

The central (widely debunked) idea is one that most people have heard about at school or at college: Humans use a very small amount of their brain, and there is no telling what deeds we may be capable of if we used more. The screenplay hypothesises what would happen in a scenario where someone absorbed large quantities of CPH4, which is supposedly formed in the bodies of pregnant women to help the fetus grow, thereby rendering the individual almost infinitely brilliant.

Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, the girlfriend of a smalltime drug dealer in Taiwan, who is kidnapped and forced to be a drug mule carrying CPH4, hidden in a bag stitched into her stomach. But when one of her kidnappers tries to fondle her and she fights back, she also gets kicked in the stomach, and the CPH4 bursts into her veins, filling her with immense power and boosting her mental capacity into the higher double-digits.

The person who gives meaning and a measure of credibility to her rapid development is the brain researcher, Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman, who provides the fantastical plot with the right measure of gravitas it needs while also linking the material with that of Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, a similar but far inferior movie in which he played a very similar part). Norman has written volumes on the potential of the human brain, but most of it is pure conjecture. That is, until Lucy contacts him. She has just read all his work in a matter of minutes and tells him he is on the right track. However, she has only about 24 hours left on Earth as her mind will expand to the point where her body cannot contain her any longer.

And so the clock starts ticking while director Luc Besson points us in strange but thoroughly entertaining directions. The first half of the film is unexpectedly closely tied to Lars von Trier’s two-part Nymphomaniac films, as simplistic metaphors are made very vivid, although the effect is at times laughable, such as when Lucy is in danger and there is a sudden cut to an antelope being chased by a cheetah. These references culminate with Besson’s use of Mozart’s “Requiem”, which Von Trier also used in his film.

But while the film’s loose structure enables Besson to incorporate references to 2001: A Space Odyssey, in particular the stargate sequence but also the unforgettable monkey, obviously played by someone in an ape suit, with which both Kubrick’s and Besson’s films open. By the time we meet up with the monkey again towards the end of Lucy, having gone through something of a magical ride on a time machine that conjures up haunting images, we realise that Besson is attracting us on a primal level, through memories and desires to see moments from the past in a way only made possible by the technology of the present.

The film is not entirely successful, however, as it suffers from a few dialogues that don’t come across as particularly believable, such as the overly descriptive telephone conversation between Lucy and her mother, and a faux stargate sequence that simply cannot compete with the one that came 45 years earlier in one of Kubrick’s masterpieces.

A few details are also missing, such as an explanation for her ability to learn languages without any significant exposure to them, or her inability to notice her car being tailed when her level of brain use is nearing 99 percent. But in general, the plot is very easy to follow and while the film never appears to be pretentious, it certainly strikes a very able balance between amusement and intelligence, inasmuch as the one is constrained by the other in a form of mass entertainment like this one.

This may seem at times like a dumbed-down version of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, but while there is enough to keep the popcorn gallery entertained, Lucy also shows us the wonders the cinema can make us a witness to by recreating time in its almost unimaginable richness. Words cannot adequately describe the sense of awe we feel seeing the world going in reverse in fast motion, and while these sequences are also slightly comical, they remind us what movies can make us see and feel that we can never experience in the world outside the theater.