Please do not dismiss THE SHAPE OF WATER as “the fish-f*cking movie.” I don’t wanna hear it. You’ll only be doing yourselves, and the film community at large, a disservice.
Director/co-writer Guillermo Del Toro has crafted a soaring, heavenly feature that’s both a love letter to cinema and an anthem for outsiders everywhere. Playing like a “how to” on handling homage, the auteur and company made a poetic, beautiful and subversive fairy tale for adults. Get ready for pure bliss!
Mute, wistful dreamer Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins) lives in a small apartment above a sanctuary where people go to dream – a revival movie theater. It’s no wonder she’s about to fulfill a dream of her own. Her lonely, mundane life consists of finding small pleasures where she can get them, whether that be spending time with her cat-loving illustrator neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) or conversing at her janitorial job at a top secret lab with protective chatterbox best friend Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer). Eliza’s life changes when a special delivery arrives at the lab – an amphibian man (Doug Jones), or “the asset” as they call him. Along with him comes extra security: nefarious narcissist Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who’s hell-bent on conducting sadistic experiments on this poor water-dweller. Eliza bonds with the “asset,” expressing kindness towards him. This sort of compassion, of course, leads to a greater understanding – and also to her falling in love. But with Strickland pushing to dissect the asset and the Russians threatening to steal it, romance is a dangerous thing.
Needless to say, this is a wildly ambitious, bold project, and Del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor pull this off with aplomb. Blending all these story elements into a fully functioning, exhilarating and haunting narrative takes precise skill, navigating all the twists and turns. While it’s not wholly conventional in its notions, the filmmakers delight in taking traditional elements of fantasy in genre and flipping them upside down. Their take on THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (making her the pursuer instead) is a refreshing one, subverting expectations. Sprinkled throughout are loving homages to the works of Powell and Pressburger (BLACK NARCISSUS and THE RED SHOES), Wyler, Kieslowski (THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE), and Jeunet (AMELIE). Surprisingly, these filmmakers’ hallmarks aren’t a direct regurgitation, but rather a fond remembrance. The fluidity of Del Toro’s camera movement is entrancing, connoting the fluid nature of water itself, but also the genres he’s exploring.
Setting the story against the backdrop of the Cold War era bolsters thematic resonance. It’s a changing world (socio-politically, cinematically and what not) and what’s been heralded as progress may not exactly be that, as Del Toro’s film posits. It’s a time marked by intolerance, power, greed, anger – but also determination and hope. The outsiders are the heroes. The insiders are the monsters. Battles between good and evil also come into play, thematically resonating throughout the picture. And, like any traditional fairy tale (and I don’t mean the sanitized Disney ones), Del Toro isn’t afraid to play with light and dark tonalities, mixing scary and shocking imagery (like Strickland’s rotting fingers and their metaphorical connection) with sparkling, whimsical effervescence (specifically composer Alexandre Desplat’s Georges Delerue-inspired score).
The saturated color coding of Dan Laustsen’s incandescent cinematography, along with the eye-popping beauty of Paul D. Austerberry’s production design and Luis Sequeira’s costume design, augment the narrative. Blue, green and red are the overtones that color Eliza’s world, representing the future, progress and love. Yellow, amber and orange are linked to Giles and his journey. Black and white are reserved for the scientists, like kind-hearted Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), and government agents, who view the world in those stark terms.
THE SHAPE OF WATER best encapsulates the awe-inducing wonder only the best cinematic escapes can bring. For cinephiles, this is like a comforting, soothing cup of hot cocoa. Del Toro’s put to film his best work since THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE and PAN’S LABYRINTH. It’s hard to walk away not feeling impacted by its enchanting qualities.
THE SHAPE OF WATER is now playing in select theaters. It opens nationwide on December 22.