The Shape of Water is one of the best films of the year. It is the first film I have seen that threatens to topple Oliver Assayas’ Personal Shopper from its perch of ‘favorite/best movie of 2017’. Whether or not it succeeds will require further viewings.
Guillermo del Toro is unquestionably one the greatest directors working today, as well as the most visually distinctive. He is a director who seems to have an innate understanding of the term ‘dark beauty.’ Del Toro’s movies are often gorgeous and haunting in the way he weaves dreamlike imagery with achingly tender stories.
What del Toro has done here is quite simply cinematic magic at its peak. He has cobbled together a love story about outsiders, for outsiders, by outsiders, but accessible to everybody. The deftness of The Shape of Water as it moves nimbly from story to story leaves us spellbound as we’re never sure which character we’re going to follow next.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor at Occam’s laboratory. She lives next door to Giles (Richard Jenkins) a gay commercial artist. The two of them rent apartments above a rundown movie theater. This alone would be enough, but we are also treated to the homes and personal lives of Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Colonel Strickland (Micahel Shannon).
Del Toro allows us to see every character as the hero in their own story. We’re never asked to agree with or even empathize with these characters. He is confident enough in his abilities as a storyteller to show us these characters as they see themselves.
This allows us to understand Shannon’s Strickland, a pustule of a human being with almost no redeeming qualities. We’re not meant to understand Strickland though. He’s the villain in del Toro’s fairy tale. But we do come to understand Strickland’s view of his place in the world and how it should operate.
Much in the same way we come to understand Elisa and her view of her place in the world. Hawkins has no dialogue, with the exception of a musical fantasy number, and she commands every moment she’s on screen. Hawkins’ conveys a range of complex emotions with just a flick of her wrists and eyes. She can relay her feelings about other characters by how she stands with them in such a deep and revealing way that it borders on conjuring.
The ‘Asset’ as played by Doug Jones amplifies Hawkins’ performance. Jones’s work is all the more admirable considering the amount of prosthetic and makeup he must act through. The ‘Asset’ is an enigma. We know little of the backstory of where the creature came from. What little we do know comes from Strickland as he recounts it to his superior General Hoyt (Nick Searcy).
Jones and Hawkins bring to life a relationship without a single word of dialogue. It is, simply put, cinematic poetry. What del Toro, Hawkins, and Jones achieve is a fairy tale overflowing with longing, companionship, internal understanding, and lust. The history of movies is littered with such couples as Belle and the Beast, the Creature and Kay, King Kong and Ann, along with many, many others. With these films and others, there was an eroticism which was always vaguely hinted at.
The Shape of Water isn’t necessarily explicit so much as it dares to push the word ‘imply’ to the limits of its definition. Refreshingly it’s not shy about Elisa’s sex drive. As the movie opens, we are treated to her morning routine in which she has allotted time for masturbation. Once while eating corn flakes with Giles, he states, “You know corn flakes were invented to stop masturbation.” Hawkins’ silent response to this is a subtle gem of comedic timing.
The humor is part of what makes The Shape of Water so sublime. Del Toro and his co-writer Vanessa Taylor have loaded their movie with a wonderful depth of wit and observance of character idiosyncrasies. For instance when Dr. Hoffstetler, a Soviet spy in reality, complains to his superior. Every time they wish to talk he has to go to the same remote place, exchange the same cryptic phrases, only to be taken to the same crappy restaurant. “I may change my mind one of these days,” his superior responds. “Yes, but you never do.”
Taylor and del Toro wrote a sci-fi film, a cold war thriller, a creature feature, a period piece, a comedy, an erotic love story, and a suspense story rolled effortlessly into one. All while maintaining a sense of magical realism that never veers too far into one or the other. Amidst all of this, they have the nerve, and the audacity to show how we can turn a blind eye to horrors and abuses we know are wrong, just because they upset us.
As Elisa watches television with Giles, she switches channels and lands on a news report of a race riot. Giles walks away, “Turn that off! I don’t want to see it!” Later, after a mistaking a waiter’s patter for genuine interest, he sees the same waiter kick a black couple out for daring to sit at the counter. Giles is then asked to leave himself. He may not want to see it but whether he likes it or not he is just as complicit as anyone.
Empathy and love run through almost every vein of The Shape of Water. These are outsiders not because they choose to be but because they are told they are. Zelda (Octavia Spencer), Elisa’s friend and coworker, acts as Elisa’s voice. It’s fitting that Zelda be the one who speaks for Elisa, she, after all, knows the pain of having her personhood denied. Spencer, as ever, dominates as she waxes poetic while also complaining about the ups and downs of matrimony.
Dan Lausten, the cinematographer, has shot The Shape of Water in a way that makes you feel damp. Lausten and del Toro lovingly pay homage to the movies of yesteryear without getting bogged down in re-enactments or shot homages. It is a love poem to the movies without demanding you know actor’s names or directors intentions.
The Shape of Water in some ways feels like the movie del Toro has been trying to make all his life. It is a deeply personal film about alienation. But much like Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, it is somehow mysteriously relatable to us all.