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Non-Review Review: The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water is a beautiful emerald fairy tale, told from the fringes.

Set in the early sixties, against the backdrop of “the last days of a fair prince’s reign”, The Shape of Water promises to regale audience members with the story of “the princess without a voice” and “the monster who tried to end it all.” However the most striking aspect of The Shape of Water is in how it chooses to focus its magical story. The Shape of Water is a story largely about those who are silenced on the margins, right down to its decision to cast Sally Hawkins as protagonist Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaner working in a secret government lab.

He’s in a glass case of emotion.

The Shape of Water is very much an exploration of the concept of “the other”, of the lives of those who exist outside the confines of “normal” society. The film’s central antagonist is a happily married white American man, who finds himself set against a collection of misfits and outcasts; a mute orphan, a black cleaning lady, a gay designer, an immigrant scientist, and a monstrosity pulled from the depths of the Amazon river. Coasting from the conservative fifties, Colonel Richard Strickland faces the threat that everything he accepts as granted might be washed away.

The Shape of Water suffers from some minor pacing problems in its romantic adventure, but these are minor issues in a haunting and enchanting piece of work.

The Creature from the Black Ops Department.

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a loving ode to the art of cinema and escape. The movie is saturated with all manner of cinematic references, rather overt or implicit. Elisa lives above a cinema, the camera repeatedly panning through the floorboards to offer a literal escape from her humdrum existence into the majesty of something like Cleopatra. Across the hall, Giles leaves the television playing so that he might appreciate the technical marvels of the lips moving on Mister Ed or Bill Robinson’s iconic “stair dance” from The Little Colonel.

However, this movie magic extends beyond the confines of these screens. Early in the movie, Elisa imagines an escape from her life through a bedazzled set of red shoes, in a nod to The Red Shoes. However, those red shoes suggest another cinematic point of reference reinforced by the movie’s deep emerald colour scheme. In some ways, The Shape of Water is an inverted take on The Wizard of Oz, with a magical entity swept away to a more mundane and grounded existence. (Is Elisa’s silence also perhaps a nod to silent cinematic storytelling?)

A mute point.

The Shape of Water is an extended homage to classic Hollywood film making. The creature at the centre of the story is a spiritual descendant of those classic movie monsters, most obviously the eponymous entity in The Creature from the Black Lagoon. However, part of the charm of The Shape of Water is in watching one of these old-style creatures share narrative space with the outcast figures traditionally treated as metaphors in these stories; the “other” often forced to hide behind monstrosity in classic cinema.

The Shape of Water has a lyrical quality to its storytelling, as befits a live action fairy tale. The colours are hypersaturated and the surroundings seem stylised, even in the most innocuous of locations. Colonel Richard Strickland’s suburban home somehow seems less real than the mysterious creature locked away in the vault, the eerie all-too-bright yellow suggesting an idealised home life that could never have existed. It provides a nice contrast with the grotty surroundings in which Elisa and Giles find themselves living.

An epic sweep.

The movie’s fairy tale quality bleeds over into theme and narrative. The heroes of The Shape of Water are all individuals who exist on the periphery of society, often seen and never heard. Elisa works as a cleaning lady, slipping into and out of high security areas without anybody paying any attention to her. She was rendered mute as a child, her voice box cut before she was abandoned. Her silence is evocative and revealing. Elisa has no voice; even if she did, would anybody bother to hear it?

Michael Shannon is cast as Richard Strickland. Strickland a man assured of his authority and his provenance by virtue of his gender, his race, and his social standing. He describes the creature at the centre of the story as “an affront”, which Elisa’s African American colleague Zelda Fuller clarifies as “an offense.” Strickland does not suggest to whom the creature might be an offense, instead suggesting that his own opinion is enough to render that fact. He balks at the idea of the creature as a god. “God looks like me, He looks like you. He probably looks more like me.”

Crossing the Shannon.

Strickland has been raised with expectations about his life. He wants a family, he wants an expensive car, he wants a position of authority. More than that, he expects others to respect his position by virtue of his status. He admits to be drawn to Elisa because of her silence, because of her literal inability to speak back to him. “It really gets me going,” he confesses. While making love to his wife, he has similar expectations. “Silent,” he instructs her. “I need you to be silent.” Anything that challenges Strickland’s understanding of the world is an abomination and must be destroyed.

While Strickland demands that they acknowledge his status, the heroes of The Shape of Water are not allowed to acknowledge their identities. Disguise is a recurring motif in the film, with characters frequently forced to conceal their true selves in order to survive in the world. Giles is a gay man who struggles to survive as an advertising artist. Doctor Robert Hoffstetler is not who he claims to be at all. In its own weird way, this recalls the way in which directors like James Whale would sneak ideas about these identities into films, with canny subterfuge.

“You shall call me… ‘Aquaman’.”
“Actually, I think that’s taken.”
“Okay. Back to the drawing board.”

The characters in The Shape of Water often seem suffocated by their green surroundings, even if a canny car sales man might describe it as “teal.” Delivering art work with a red piece of jello at the centre, Giles is warned, “The future is green.” There is a sense of a world with little room for wonder or magic, one too driven by a sense of materialism. The characters in The Shape of Water are smothered by the world, existing in fringe spaces. Elisa’s apartment exists in a loft over a gigantic cinema, the end of the hallway split into two apartments.

There are points when The Shape of Water seems to be constructing a capitalist critique, particularly with Strickland’s yearning for a Cadillac and with a late observation that “decency” is just a commodity for “export”, but The Shape of Water never quite makes that leap. Indeed, in the context of the Cold War, The Shape of Water focus most overtly on the blunt force of nationalism. Knowledge is merely a political tool, not an absolute good. “We don’t want to learn,” reflects a Russian spymaster. “We want the Americans not to learn.”

Engines of progress.

The Shape of Water is beautiful and eloquent. Working with frequent collaborator cinematographer Dan Laustsen, Guillermo del Toro creates a rich and textured world that feels at once grounded and tangible, while still feeling like it was drawn from the film maker’s lush imagination. The production design on the creature itself is astounding, a loving homage to classic cinematic technique, particular the work of make-up artist Mike Hill and the performance of Doug Jones. The Shapes of Water is a joy to sit back and experience.

However, there are some minor storytelling issues, particularly around the pacing of the film. The movie makes an interesting and daring transition around its midpoint, the sort of set piece that might usually be reserved for the climax of the story. It is an intriguing creative choice, because it prevents the movie from feeling too formulaic, despite the debt that it owes to classic monster movies. There is dynamism to this creative decision, and it means that certain narrative decisions get a bit more room to breathe, and that the film can meditate upon them.

Something fishy going on here.

At the same time, this choice does throw off the balance of the movie. The Shape of Water feels like that midpoint should arrive either slightly earlier or slightly later, one half lengthened and the other shortened. In fact, there are two sequences in the second half of the film that feel redundant in the company of each other; there may be more economical ways to achieve the same narrative outcome. Still, these issues are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things.

The Shape of Water is a beautiful modern monster movie, one that understands the central dynamics of the genre and decides that “the Other” is not merely an abstract concept to be explored through metaphor. It is movie that takes a lot of the subtext of classic horror movies, buried beneath the heteronormativity of the Hayes Code, and lays it bare. The results are beautiful.

7 Responses

  1. Great, insightful review. It is precisely that concept of “The Other” which attracts me to this film, because I am not a big fan of the director or fantasy films. Since “Blue Jasmine”, Sally Hawkins really grew on me and I am sure she has tons of talent to share here.

    • Well, I mean, it’s still a classic monster movie. It is just one that takes the central subtext of these sorts of films and makes it the central text.

  2. Your review is really filled with love for this movie… I am looking forward to seeing it.

    P. S. Many have stated it’s Del Toro finest work to date, what do you think of it? (As for me, I don’t like to categorize thee films that way…)

  3. So Del Toro makes a horror fairy tale movie set in the real life past with a villain obsessed with masculinity and an ambiguous ending that may or may not be true or fantasy…

    I think someone could make a fun article comparing The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth, since they feel like spiritual companions.

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