The Shape of Water
In a1984, a rising young director by the name of Ron Howard directed Splash, a light-hearted romantic fantasy about a shy young man who falls in love with a mermaid. 35 years later, Mexican-born director Guillermo del Toro reverses Splash’s plot conceit to deliver one of the most disturbing yet intriguing love stories imaginable, making this one of the most memorable films of 2017.
Although I’ve categorized it as a romantic comedy because of its consistently amusing dialogue, Water is really a highly stylized examination of contemporary social/political issues cloaked as lowbrow romantic escapism. Military pomposity, casual homophobia, self-righteous religious bigotry masquerading as patriotism, callous disregard of the rights of society’s outcasts; these themes flit through the lines of the movie’s dialogue so effortlessly it would be easy to mislabel them as improvisational. Yet despite its outwardly haphazard visual appearance, The Shape of Water is as tightly crafted as a Swiss watch and as deliciously off-beat as any you’re likely to encounter in many a trip to your local theater.
Just don’t expect to enjoy its visual magic if you wait for it to appear as a cable T.V. offering. This is the type of film-making to be seen on a big screen in the darkened confines of movie theater, where fantasy and the suspension of disbelief are far more likely to be found than in one’s living room.
British actress Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine, Maudie) plays Elisa, a mute cleaning lady at a secret U.S. government research lab in the era of Sputnik and the space race. She shares a spacious, yet over crowded apartment atop a movie theater with Giles, (Richard Jenkins) a middle aged, mild-mannered illustrator whose self-effacing personality and love of old movies matches Elisa’s. But when a mysterious “guest’ arrives at the lab under the manically watchful eye of Federal agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) Elisa’s curiosity gets the better of her timidity and she forms a connection with the mysterious creature whose physical and mental capabilities become the subject of frighteningly amoral scrutiny by the U.S. Army and a small cadre of Russian spies who’ve infiltrated the site.
Aided by her wisecracking co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) Elisa begins first to feed, then communicate with and finally fall for the captive alien she secretly visits each day on her lunch breaks.(Have hard boiled eggs ever been used so effectively as an aphrodisiac?) Fearing Strickland’s intentions and offended by the racist, degrading treatment with which he treats his subordinates, Elisa arranges the prisoner’s escape from the confines of the surrealistically imagined prison in which he’s treated like a rabid animal. Relying on the erratic assistance of Zelda, Giles and a turn-coat Russian operative, Elisa and the object of her affections escape the confines of their physical and emotional environment providing audiences, in the film’s final frames, a hauntingly beautiful image of the ineffable – justice, true love and release from the confines of conventional life.
Director del Toro has enjoyed an extraordinarily varied career, from highly praised successes such as Pan’s Labyrinth to low-rent Mexican horror films, (Cronos) to Hollywood superhero action films ( Hellboy) and science fiction epics (Pacific Rim). After spending a decade early in his career as a makeup supervisor, he perfected his directorial skills in a series of Spanish-language Gothic horror films. His cinematic style remains gloriously florid here with visually disorienting sets, disturbingly humorous villains and the mesmerizing costume del Toro designed for Doug Jones, an often-seen but rarely recognized actor who portrays a character identified only as “Amphibian Man”. With a mixture of unnerving menace and curiously appealing vulnerability, Jones and del Toro have created an initially grotesque yet ultimately appealing and sympathetic monster, who functions as the perfect encapsulation of the alimentation experienced by nearly everyone in the storyline. In the end, The Shape of Water asks a simple but fundamental question; how can we connect with others if we cannot, on some level, identify with them?
So amid all the tantalizing images and deliciously amusing dialogue, Water is often suffused with a pitiless darkness, especially in agent Strickland, whose near rabid monologues carry more than a hint of the self-justifying political rants heard daily on today’s 24 hour news channels. In The Shape of Water’s surreal worldview, del Toro may have found his proper milieu – and in this often violent, occasionally gory love story, the director displays a lighthearted but dead-eyed view of the sacrifices we are called upon to make in order to achieve the dreams that shape our destinies.
The Verdict? Highly stylized romantic mayhem, with enough intriguing characters and visual imagery to more eclipse scores of lesser efforts.
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