The craft of Guillermo del Toro’s latest is top notch, but an unremarkable screenplay leads to an emotionally unfulfilling finale.
Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro quickly became an audience favorite following the success of his debut feature Cronos in 1993 and then The Devil’s Backbone in 2001. These films would mark Del Toro as one of the few directors making non-English language films whose films could cross over and reach success in the mainstream. Later, in 2006, Del Toro released the Oscar-nominated Pan’s Labyrinth, which is now regarded as one of the most universally celebrated Mexican films in recent cinema history. It is perhaps Del Toro’s fascination with the Gothic that allows his films to stand in their own corner, operating with malice and mysticism that is entirely unique to the auteur. The Shape of Water is Del Toro’s latest film and it continues to operate in accordance with the director’s established milieu, this time within a greater scope.
At once a love story, creature feature, and an ode to the magic of cinema, The Shape of Water has a lot on its palette. Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa, a mute woman who lives above a movie theatre. It is the year 1962 and Elisa spends her nights as a janitor in highly guarded government research facility. With the arrival of the immediately menacing Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) is a new “asset”. Conveniently, Eliza and her coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are sent to clean the home of this new arrival, which is revealed as a muscled, Creature From the Black Lagoon-looking monster. Like Eliza, this creature does not speak. Thus, Eliza finds comradeship with the asset, teaching him sign language and human behaviors along the way. As she witnesses Strickland’s continued abuse of her beloved friend, Eliza realizes that this love transcends friendship, and is in fact laced with romantic and physical longings. Along with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) – who is gay and for that reason apparently understands Elisa’s bestial desires – Elisa plans to free the creature from captivity so that the two can spend their lives together.
Along with co-writer Vanessa Taylor, Del Toro creates a narrative that is easy to get lost in. Mesmerized by the stunning craft of the film, it becomes easy to fall under its spell, rather than examine the machinations at play. The Shape of Water is a beautiful film – this is undeniable. Del Toro has continued to hone his craft over the past twenty-five years, and if anything this film shows that he is most definitely at the top of his game. A proper mention must be given to cinematographer Dan Laustsen, production designer Paul Austerberry, art director Nigel Churcher, and costume designer Luis Sequeira. Each of the aforementioned artists provides Oscar-worthy contributions to the film. To the film’s overall benefit, the quality and grandeur of the craft are of such a high level that the generic elements are so easy to overlook. When the film’s hypnotic spell broke just past the film’s three-quarter mark, I couldn’t help but ask myself a series of troubling questions. Near tears just moments before, I now tasted uneasiness. Why does Elisa love this creature? Why is Elisa’s inability to speak her defining – and only – remarkable trait? Why was our first encounter with our heroine one in which she strips nude and proceeds to masturbate in the bathtub?
There is an overwhelming feeling of love in The Shape of Water. This love is not the one shared between Elisa and the creature, but Del Toro’s love for cinema. Setting Elisa’s apartment above a movie house – shot at the very venue that held all four of the film’s festival screenings – is only one of the film’s continued allusions of nostalgia to a changed art form. Later, the film contains a sumptuous – yet unwarranted – song and dance sequence between the film’s star-crossed lovers, done in the style of the Golden Age Hollywood musicals. This is a love I will accept, yet Del Toro strives for something more. While the film sets to provide a more heartfelt alternative to the couplings of Fay Wray and King Kong or Julie Adams and the Gill-Man, it instead offers a romance that is in line with its predecessors; uncomfortable, unwarranted, kind of gross, and too easily justifiable with metaphor.