The Shape of Water, Del Toro, 2018
Cheesy title aside we’re going to explore ‘The Shape of Water’ and how it left me a little cold.
First off I want to state that I adore Guillermo del Toro and would consider him to be a true auteur. His films have a blend of child-like wonder and down right horror, a mix that shouldn’t work but really does! One of all my all time favourite films ever is Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Ever since I first watched it (over 10 years ago) I have loved Guillermo’s work and I eagerly followed the release of The Shape Of Water. (This article will likely contain some spoilers).
The Shape of Water is a moody, somewhat supernatural, tale that tells of the relationship between a lonely mute janitor, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and an aquatic humanoid creature (Doug Jones), who is being held captive in the government facility where Elisa works. As in many of Guillermo’s work he challenges the audience’s ideals of who the villain is, who the real monster is and instils a real sense of camaraderie and devotion between his characters.
The actors are receiving well earned praise for their performances, they each deliver a heartfelt and honest portrayal of their characters. Villain of the piece Michael Shannon brings a real sense of horror to his role. He is a bully from the get go but we see him rapidly change from well put together all round “All American man” to a desperate and dangerous man on the edge. Two scenes in particular stick out as showing the cracks in his perfect visage: The sex scene between him and his no doubt long suffering wife, where he covers her mouth with his hand demanding silence (this takes place the same day as meeting Elisa for the first time) and the second wherein he calls Elisa to his office and sexually harasses her. It is a poignant scene that reflects much of the news coming out of Hollywood at the moment and really puts it in front of the viewer.
Alongside the incredible physical performance from Doug, the help from a very talented team of visual effect artists elevates the portrayal of the mysterious amphibi-man to a really impressive level. Something that is surprising is that amongst its many Oscar nominations there is no mention of The Shape of Water in the visual effects category! Working alongside visual effects studio Mr. X, Guillermo pushed and invested serious time into his latest passion project. One thing that the Mr. X team really managed to capture was the incredible work Doug was doing beneath the layers of make up, as the portrayal is non verbal the emphasis has to be on the physical! The solution was a lengthy process involving scanning Doug’s face to capture what he was doing under the make up, this was then re mapped to a digital version of the creature’s face. The end result was that the team had a library of different emotions and facial expressions to pick from! Something that really contributes to Guillermo’s artistic style for me is the mixture of human performance and visual effects. With CGI technologies being as advanced as they are you could rely solely on CGI and still have a wonderful end result, but Guillermo’s mix leaves more of an impression as it feels altogether more human (even if the creature is not so).
Something this film does right from the get go is get the audience really heavily invested in the characters. The main characters are the underdogs, they are the minorities of 1960s America. Elisa the mute, her friend, co-worker and total hero Zelda (played by the ever incredible Octavia Spencer) is a black woman and her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) is a homosexual unemployed illustrator. It is these 3 ‘outcasts’ who come together and really deliver something fantastic. Giles himself is a real ‘fish out of water’. He was gay in a time when it was still considered by many as a ‘developmental maladjustment’ and also an illustrator struggling for work in the wake of the advertising industry incorporating photography into it’s adverts. It will not come as a surprise that all three have been nominated for an Oscar this year!
Okay, so all I have done so far is wax poetic about how great the film is but I did say it left me a little cold, so lets get to it. It is hard to pinpoint what it is specifically that was disappointing but I think it lies more in a few leaps made by the narrative more so then any of the visuals. Elisa is a low level janitor in a big government research facility, which you would imagine to have substantial levels of security guarding each room, especially with the recent capture and transfer of a a never-seen-before Amphibiman! But no, Elisa is able to come and go at will from his chamber and they can even eat lunch together. This seems a bit of a stretch and does lose a level of tension from the narrative. Where Elisa should be sneaking around, fearful of getting caught, she is just strolling in and out.
The relationship between Elisa and our merman feels like something a bit more out of convenience then something born out of love, ‘two freaks’ finding one another. It feels as though we are missing some key scenes between the 2 that really establish them being together instead of a few rushed meetings, again whilst she is suddenly allowed into the top secret lab. What Guillermo delivers feels like a homage to the B-movies but instead of The Creature From The Black Lagoon kidnapping the busty beauty (before getting shot by the heroes), the creature is rescued by the beauty. A good premise but in this case not entirely delivered upon.
This all being said, I am glad I watched ‘The Shape Of Water’ and would say that it deserves to win many of the awards it has been nominated for. But… it wont be something I rush to watch again. Let me know your thoughts! Did you love it? Did you hate it?