A LONELY, INHIBITED, sexually frustrated woman develops a feeling of human empathy, which morphs into love for an extra-terrestrial, aquatic creature. “The Shape of Water” is a bold, weird fable of love and its opposite number, hate.
A compelling Sally Hawkins (“Paddington”) who miraculously combines mousy spinsterish reserve with raw sexuality is Elisa Esposito. She is a shy, mute cleaner whose lowly (social) stature and narrow circle of friends masks a huge generosity of spirit, and a stubborn fearlessness. Her opposite number is the always watchable Michael Shannon as Richard Strickland (notice the name: strict land), a dark, tortured soul, incapable of love and, like his severed fingers, rotting from within.
As her unexpected love for this strange creature blossoms, his all-consuming hatred for it deepens…as if, like the balance between matter and antimatter, love’s life-affirming power needs its balance of hate’s destructiveness.
It is clear from the very beginning that Elisa and her gay, ostracized friend (Richard Jenkins) live slightly off-centre lives… as if they’re both waiting for something to happen. Hers is one of routine and repetition: get up with the alarm, run a bath, masturbate, boil an egg, drift off to sleep on the morning bus, clock in, clean the floors of the vast cavernous mysterious government research centres where she works and return home.
His too is also one of routine, expressed by his by-the-book regimentation.
Their routines are broken by the arrival of a large, sealed tank containing a creature captured somewhere in South America.
Both Elisa and Richard respond to the creature with the curiosity it commands. Both want to know more about this strange being. But whereas her -human-curiosity leads her to try to understand and communicate with the creature (And that she is mute affords her a means of communication unconstrained by language), his – institutional- curiosity (He is a mere agent of an implacable and amoral army general) pushes him toward dissection and murder.
Her communication with the creature is all gesture. (Actions speak louder than words). And the gesture that soothes his savage beast is the offer of an egg. The symbolism of a woman offering him her eggs is not misunderstood. Their growing love is liberating (She must free the creature from its chains), life changing and life enhancing. And ultimately (for this is no child’s fairy story) sexual. The two become one, floating in a world of their own.
Thus it is with love…it is as wondrous as it is rare (They are the only ones in the story to find love)
But for him, the creature is the ultimate “other”…the “other” that, because it is not understood, is therefore threatening. It doesn’t look like him (He muses at one point that God looks human…or rather, God looks like a White man) and therefore must be tortured, chained up and eliminated. This is the only way institutions understand how to deal with “the other”, be they aquatic creatures or, for that matter, Mexicans, Blacks, Muslims…whatever.
But the pleasure of “The Shape of Water” isn’t just the story; it’s the telling of it. From the moment when the titles begin immersing us in its floating, undulating world of water, to the strongly accented shadows (of Dan Lausten’s cinematography) that shape every carefully orchestrated frame, director Guillermo del Toro conjures up an unique and very distinct world. That said, I felt at times that I could have been watching some lost Orson Wells movie. The texture of the movie has that same sense of visual craftsmanship and cinematic drama.
Sylvain Arseneault’s sound design also makes its presence notably felt…almost as though, in compensation for Elisa’s muteness, del Toro needed to give a clearly articulate aural voice to the movie. The sound comes across as a series of communicating layers: the clip clop of hurrying footsteps that synchronize with the thuds and clanks of machinery, the hoots and screeches of the outside world, the bubbling, gurgles of whooshing water…all knitted together by Alexandre Desplat’s subtle score.
So, was this worth “best movie” accolades? It is a masterful piece of pure cinematic bliss. And so, well deserving of its laurels. Personally I prefer the quieter, more tangibly real movies such as “Lady Bird” and the unrewarded “The Florida Project”.
But, hey, I’m not complaining.
THE SHAPE OF WATER: Director/Writer: Guillermo del Toro (“Crimson Peak”). With: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spenser, Richard Jenkins. Cinematography: Dan Lausten (“John Wick Chapter 2”, “Crimson Peak”). Production Designer: Paul D. Austerberry (“”Pompeii 2014”, “The Twilight Saga”). Composer: Alexandre Desplat (“The Twilight Saga”, “Harry Potter”)