Oscar Film Reviews: The Shape of Water

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By Claire Pak

There’s a pseudo-genre in pop media where narratives about prejudice—racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, you get the drift—are metaphorized by using monsters or aliens or magical what-have-yous. District 9 and James Cameron’s Avatar pop into mind, as well as the recent Netflix original movie Bright. Director Guillermo del Toro’s Shape of Water is another film that is deeply interested in the “other,”  in those who are ostracized or ignored in a society. The romantic interest in the film is an amphibious fish-man who the US and Soviet Russian governments treat like a particularly muscular teddy bear in the middle of an “it’s mine” “no it’s mine” tug-of-war contest. His sentience is ignored or disregarded by both institutions.

But unlike most of those other films I’ve mentioned, Shape of Water ties together a story where violence against a fantastical creature coincides with the real-life prejudice faced by those marginalized in the early 1960s Cold War United States. The heroine, Elisa, played by Sally Hawkins, is a mute janitor, her neighbor, Giles, is a gay illustrator, and her co-worker Zelda is an African-American woman serving as Elisa’s interpreter. Even though the various protest movements of the 1960s are given only a passing reference, the marginalization they face and their struggle to just be is subtly but unavoidably woven into the narrative. I wouldn’t say that the film is perfect in its representation, but the way it uses genre without turning those directly hurt by prejudice into fictional creatures—the way Avatar does, for instance—gives the narrative a more forceful punch as these characters face escalating levels of violence through the story.

Sally Hawkins’ portrays Elisa with warmth and charisma, communicating with her eyes and gestures what other actors would be hard-pressed to pull off in flowery monologue. It’s true that she isn’t fluent in American Sign Language, and a bit of that shows (while I can’t personally speak to the quality of her ASL, I’ve heard rather negative things by people who can actually sign). But her expressive eyebrows and facial expressions make her great fun to watch. The supporting cast is talented, too, and filled with charismatic performances from the likes of Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures), Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) and Michael Stuhlbarg (Call Me By Your Name).

Yes, the film is about a romance between Elisa and a six-foot-three blue fish-man from the Amazon. With “romance,” I do mean that they don’t just end with a chaste kiss and move on. Nothing very explicit—there’s an elegant sweetness to the film as it embraces sex and sexuality as a normal part of everyday life—but yes, apparently, it is possible to have sex with a fish-amphibian-person. At the hands of basically any other director, that might be a somewhat alienating premise to most of the audience. But the creature is lovingly brought to life by an incredible makeup team (yes, that’s not all digital effects, and yes, the film absolutely got robbed of an Oscars makeup nomination) and some seriously commendable acting from Doug Jones as he labors underneath three hours worth of makeup and animatronics in sub-zero temperatures. It is, however, hard to tell whether it’s him or the makeup doing the heavy lifting, considering that the fact that the creature looks like a three-dimensional living being, something that can be touched, is a large factor in how arresting he is to watch. But Jones uses his height to fill up the screen and intimidate, towering over other characters even in captivity, and he sells the playful curiosity with which he approaches Elisa, managing to turn teeth and gills and blue stripes into something human, and even cute.

Guillermo del Toro’s own not-so-subtle love of monsters paints every frame and narrative beat of the story. As a director, he’s enamored with genre: his filmography largely consists of ghost stories (Devil’s Backbone, Crimson Peak), superhero adaptations (Blade II, Hellboy), dark fairytales (Pan’s Labyrinth)—oh, and “mecha”s fighting giant interdimensional sea creatures (Pacific Rim). But he’s never satisfied with only spectacle, instead seeking to depict the emotional realities that fantasy operates under. So many of his monsters and ghosts are representative of trauma, both historical and personal, or are symbols of the violence perpetrated by the real villains, whether they are Nazis or Francoists or unaffiliated bigots. The vivid, fantasy worlds del Toro presents are not places that exist elsewhere, but rather exist in the shadows of our daily lives, forcibly hidden from view by those who want to conceal their own misdeeds.

Del Toro has won Best Director at the Golden Globes and the British Academy Film Awards for The Shape of Water, and is in the running for Best Director in the Oscars. Really, The Shape of Water is one of his best looking films, saturated in almost oil-painting-like colors that emphasize the picture book quality that he’s going for. Each space, too, reflects its own particular character through lighting and framing: the clinical grays of the government laboratory, the fading reds of the seats in a movie theater, and the deep blues of love throughout the movie. The colors, framing, and lighting work together to create a sort of heightened reality, where a fish-man and a woman can fall in love without anybody batting an eye, except, of course, the authoritarian institutions who despise them both.

The scenes that involve the creature in particular are some of del Toro’s most inventive and romantic (a strange thing to say about the guy who brought you Pan’s Labyrinth, but hey, the monster in question is not a terrifying eyeless child-eating nightmare in this one). They help sell the romance, which at times can feel less like a fully-fledged relationship than a sweeping metaphor, where the fish-man stands for anybody who has been ostracized or ignored.

It’s a feeling that becomes especially noticeable when the film gives a lot of screen time to the villain, Strickland (played with a lot of menacing energy by Michael Shannon), who is the real monster of the piece. He’s violent and controlling with a terribly inflated but surprisingly fragile ego, and the racism and sexism he exhibits toward Elisa and Zelda manifest in subtle yet insidious ways. The film likes to focus on small moments where his authority slowly disintegrates: there’s a fun gag about his fancy new car which doubles as a symbol of his masculinity and as a satiric demonstration with how completely he buys into the 1960s American suburbia values of conformity. Strickland is an entertaining and sometimes frightening character to watch, but I wonder if his clear emotional arc was at the cost of a nuanced arc for Elisa and her fish-man.

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a Cold War American fairytale, complete with rich, storybook colors and lighting, fantastical underwater shots, and an unrepentantly evil monster. But even as it embraces its fantastical aesthetic and story, it refuses to be only escapism. Even as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Civil Rights Movement are largely relegated to background events, caught on TV or newspapers, American-Russian tensions fuel the conflicts the characters face, while racism, sexism and other prejudices are flippantly tossed around by the villain. Fantastical cinema is not always means of escape, as del Toro demonstrates, but has the potential to be a medium of real empathy and change.

FilmSteven Norwalk