This review of Guillermo del Toro’s American fantasy drama “The Shape of Water” is long overdue, as I saw it before it won 4 Oscars. Still, I was very curious about it as I like most films that del Toro has directed.
Guillermo del Toro is a Mexican director who has made it big in Hollywood. He specialises in fantasy and horror and has directed films like “Pan’s Labyrinth”, “Crimson Peak”, “Hellboy” and “Pacific Rim”. As for “The Shape of Water” he has said that he wanted to do a take on Jack Arnold’s 1954 horror film “Creature from the Black Lagoon”, but with a happy ending where the monster gets the girl. In many ways he has succeeded.
The 2 hours and 3 minutes long film takes place in 1962 in Baltimore at the height of the Cold War. It tells the story of the mute cleaning lady Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) who works at a secret governmental research laboratory with her talkative friend, interpreter and colleague through ten years Zelda Delilah Fuller (Octavia Spencer). When not at work, Elisa watches films for free in the cinema below her apartment or spends time with her next-door neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), a middle-aged, homosexual, struggling advertising illustrator, who loves cats and watching black-and-white musicals on telly.
The laboratory receives a humanoid amphibian creature (Doug Jones) captured from a South American river by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Strickland is the baddie of the film, who torments the creature to learn it secrets and who treats everyone with contempt as he vainly but falsely sees himself - an American white male - as superior to everyone else. The mute Elisa and the tortured amphibian man form a strong bond, so when Strickland orders a vivisection of the creature, Elisa plans to move it to her apartment and eventually free it with the help of Zelda, Giles and a laboratory scientist named Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) - who is in truth a Soviet spy named Dimitri Mosenkov. What happens next you have to see for yourself, but as you probably know, “The Shape of Water” has become known as “A Film About a Woman Who Has Sex with a Fish”!
When that is said, “The Shape of Water” is a nice feel-good film, wonderfully filmed by my fellow-Dane Dan Laustsen, who provides the cinematography with a touch of magic and beauty. It is a tender, poetic film, sometimes even funny, but never really scary (or surprising!), although its violence scenes are more graphic than the sex scenes. The cast is amazing too, especially Michael Stuhlbarg as Hoffstetler / Mosenkov in my opinion, but they are all good.
Still, the film is not without issues. For one, to get the ball rolling, the film claims that Elisa is lonely because she is mute, so it takes someone who doesn’t see her as lacking something to fall for her. The problem is, that Elisa is not lonely, heck she has more friends than me, and nobody seems to mind that she is mute, in fact they are all able to sign except for the bullies and the baddies, and who wants to talk to them anyway? So yes, Elisa is single but not lonely, and her lacking a partner doesn’t seem to have anything to do with her being mute as people generally likes her. Besides, she is doing better than most, with friends, a job, her own apartment etc.
Furthermore, there is the whole “happily ever after” concept, because is beastiality indeed a happy ending? Yes, I know, the film is not about a woman having sex with a fish, but about finding someone who loves you no matter what you are, but everybody loved Elisa to begin with and the amphibian man was even worshipped as a god in South America, so the theme of finding that special one only serves as a pretext for something else, but what? A woman having sex with a fish, perhaps? In any case, speaking as a woman, I always feel a bit nauseous when men make women have sex with non-human creatures/things in the name of art and then I don’t care if it’s Leda and the Swan in Greek mythology or Elisa and the amphibian man here in “The Shape of Water”.
Oh well, all in all, “The Shape of Water” is a good film, but Oscar-good? I have no idea as I haven’t seen any of the other films that were nominated. Still, “The Shape of Water” won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Music Score and Best Production Design, but not for best cinematography, which I think is a big shame.
Although I think it fully deserved that del Toro should win an Oscar for best director at some point, I’m not sure it should be for “The Shape of Water”. It’s simply not “big” enough, in my eyes, to be Oscar-material, but of course the Academy loved it as they love films about films, and “The Shape of Water” is a true meta-film. Not only does it refer to “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, it also makes clever use of Giles’ beloved black-and-white musicals, Elisa’s apartment is inspired by one in the British 1948 drama “The Red Shoes” (based on the fairy tale of Hans Christian Andersen – another Dane!), and then of course there are the films in the downstairs cinema. So if ever you want to win an Oscar, be sure to make a film about films!
To sum up: although “The Shape of Water” may not be quite Oscar-good, it is good, and because of its cinematography, cast, magic and poetic sides as well as its funny and touching moments, I’ll give it four out of five stars: ****