If I spoke about it, if I did, what would I tell you, I wonder?
The Shape of Water – which led the Oscar race with 13 nominations and won four, including Best Picture and Best Director – begins in true fairytale fashion with a raconteur giving a cryptic introduction to what we may expect: a “princess without a voice”, a monster, love and loss and the threat of an unhappy ending. The tone is set for an enchanting thriller-cum-melodrama, offering the best of director Guillermo del Toro’s treasure house after the successes of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. It places the beautiful, mythical story of its daydreaming Amélie-esque protagonist against the backdrop of Cold War tension in 1960s America. The film draws most prominently from the 1954 horror Creature from the Black Lagoon, and triggers a recognition for many classics (it is currently sued for plagiarism). Its uniqueness lies in its ability to bring together fantasy and real human emotion by combining mythical elements with the all-too-real issues of sexism, workplace sexual harassment, racism and homophobia, which – despite being set somewhat sixty years ago – gives the film a sense of timeliness. Furthermore, it aptly conveys emotions so raw and complex that behind the metaphors and fantastic elements it seems as real as any experience of the human soul can be.
The story follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who is mute, an outcast, and peculiarly soulful. By day, she works as a cleaning lady in a research facility alongside her tongue-in-cheek “fairy-godmother” companion Zelda (Octavia Spencer). At night, she spends time with her nextdoor neighbour, an older, unsuccessful gay gentleman, Giles (Richard Jenkins) with whom they can only rely on each other to ease their loneliness. She escapes the pains of being “incomplete” by seemingly finding amusement in the odd or sometimes perfectly mundane routines she strictly abides by. Water shapes Elisa’s life with elements that function almost as Easter eggs leading up to the final climax; she was found as a baby “in the water”, with mysterious scars that later clarify her inability to speak. Her erotic fantasies are essentially linked with water and so it is no surprise that when the research centre brings in a creature who looks half-fish, half-human and is rumoured to be a god of water, she is immediately drawn to him. In fact, her first instinct is to share her dinner of hard boiled eggs with him and soon seems as comfortable as no one else in the film. As neither can talk, their communication is represented in the film’s music – and the music in this film is oh-so-wonderful – and very soon it seems like they were always made for each other, a case of soulmates coming together by fate and instinct. This makes perhaps the most fantastic and unrealistic element of the story: does del Toro believe in predetermined perfect soulmates which only the cheesiest of Hollywood movies dare to suggest? Or is it the elemental recognition of like to like? She is mute and “incomplete” and imperfect, different from others and so is he. They finally find acceptance and adoring eyes to submerge in. Both interpretations may be correct, but the little clues about Elisa suggest more evidence to the former; they are long-lost soulmates and they are meant to be together. Still, what del Toro’s genius and Sally Hawkins stunningly expressive eyes can achieve is to present it without drawing scepticism or immediate rejection of this romantic silliness. It made me think that there is something more to the magical and grandiose – true love and destiny and genuine raw human emotion. And for that I treasure this movie; I feel like I know more about human emotions after having seen it. Could you wish for more when you walk out of a cinema?
Michael Shannon’s antagonist is the perfect apparent villain partly due to being an enormous cliché as an archetypical soulless monster contrastable to the protagonists and partly because he is allowed a perfectly minor amount of pitiful background story that his cliché-ness demands. He is also a product of his time, a caricature of the strong American man who acts tough because otherwise he is “nothing”. He drives a Cadillac, reads self-help books about positive thinking and prefers his women (wife!) to be silent during impersonal missionary sex. He also engages in some casual workplace sexual harassment. He’s a bully to the outcasts and he is flawlessly disgusting and scary at it.
The supporting cast is altogether excellent; their stories are powerful and individually captivating, each embodying an important aspect of being oppressed and unaccepted in some way. They all combine into a collage of social and political tensions which flow uninterrupted through the magical atmosphere created by melancholic music that would still be wonderful in any French café, and the gorgeous cinematography that blends lights and shades of blue into a bewitching game with the senses; the whole picture feels underwater. The atmosphere mirrors the soul of Elisa and it is what makes up the perfect balance to the melancholic tension and makes it a delight to watch.