We’ve been watching films that garnered nominations in the last Academy Awards, the ones we missed prior to the ceremony. We’ve seen Coco and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri both of which I enjoyed tremendously although neither drove me to my keyboard to relive the experience of seeing them and putting down on words what I thought and felt about them.
But The Shape of Water was different. When the end credits rolled, my initial reaction was that it wasn’t as intense as Three Billboards and it definitely was no Pan’s Labyrinth. I fell asleep thinking about Del Toro’s latest. When I woke up, words filled my head and all I needed to do was unscramble them.
The Shape of Water is categorized as a fantasy-drama. It is, really. Except that to label it that neatly is to miss everything else that it is about. It is also obviously a fairy tale and a love story. It explores a question that I first heard asked when I was in the fourth grade. We were discussing the legend of Taal Volcano and the kapre with whom a young maiden fell in love with, and our teacher, a Miss Alcedo who later became Mrs. Cenar, asked the class, “Would you fall in love with someone as ugly as a kapre?” I said I would because it’s character that counted. She said she wouldn’t.
Looking back, I should have qualified my answer. Falling in love with a not-so-good looking human being was not something I’d discount. But falling in love with a non-human, even if he were as good-looking as Achilles, well, that’s fantasy. In fantasies, love affairs between humans and non-humans are as ordinary as love affairs between two humans. In The Shape of Water, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning woman in a secret government facility, fell in love with “Amphibian Man” (Doug Jones) who was being held captive in the facility.
Set during the Cold War era, “Amphibian Man” was brought to the secret laboratory for study in the Americans’ attempt to outdo the Russians in the Space Race. Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the sadistic project head, had been ordered to vivisect the creature for study. Meanwhile, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Soviet spy posing as a scientist in the secret government facility, was ordered by his superiors to euthanize the creature.
Amid the struggle to take advantage of any useful information that could be gleaned from “Amphibian Man”, Elisa, with the help of her next-door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), an initially reluctant Dr. Hoffstetler and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a fellow cleaning woman, snuck “Amphibian Man” out of the facility and brought him to her apartment where she kept him in the bath tub. Studying weather forecasts, she planned to release him on a rainy night when the water level in a nearby canal would rise and released into the river from where the “Amphibian Man” could swim to safety toward the ocean.
As with his previous films, Guillermo del Toro maximized the use of visuals to tell the story of The Shape of Water. Muted colors and dream-like sequences replete with nostalgic music. The story is simple enough but the way it is told can make even the most jaded human feel hope. It doesn’t seek to make the viewer suspend disbelief; it simply harps in the natural preponderance to be awed by the larger-than-life experience.
Imagine Beauty and the Beast but with a far-from-beautiful heroine without a voice to communicate her affection, her fears, her desires and her love, and a Beast that is never going to turn into a handsome prince. Yet, the desire to save each other from harm and death is just as great, and the evil people surrounding the lovers are even more fearsome.
Micheal Shannon is so wickedly good as Colonel Richard Strickland, the character that personifies everything that’s wrong with human beings and the male gender—bereft of any instinct to treat with dignity any living creature he considered his inferior whether it be a reptile in human form or a woman performing a menial job. He uses an electric cattle prod to communicate with “Amphibian Man”. He makes sexual advances toward Elisa and tells her that the thought is even more attractive knowing that, being mute, it would be harder for her to tell on him.
Beyond Strickland, The Shape of Water is peopled with humans that exhibit varying degrees of evilness. There’s the Pie Guy (Morgan Kelly) who is both a homophobic and a racist. When he discovers that Giles only came to his place because he is romantically interested in him (his pies are terrible), he tells him not to come back again. When a black couple come in to eat, he tells them they could order and take the food out, but not sit down.
Then, there’s Brewster Fuller, Zelda’s husband, who does nothing but watch television and expects his wife to cook, clean up and do everything for him.
And, finally, there’s the frigging government people—Americans and Russians, bureaucrats and military alike.
That’s Del Toro. Interspersed in the fantasy are his not-so-subtle critiques on the faults and failures of human culture and history. It was the tragedy of war in Pan’s Labyrinth, it was the folly of noble titles and inherited estates in Crimson Peak and, yes, in more ways than one, The Shape of Water is also a social commentary. The film is set in the 1960’s but how much has really changed? The election of a racist and chauvinist to The White House seems to have the multitude of racists and chauvinists crawling out of the woodwork.
The Shape of Water is a beautiful film but, among Del Toro’s works, Pan’s Labyrinth is still at the top of my list.