The drowned world
Guillermo del Toro's latest begins with a world already underwater--fish fluttering down a carpeted hallway, chairs and tables spinning in slow motion, a lamp and alarm clock settling gradually down to arrange themselves on a side table while the princess--head wrapped in a sleep mask--sinks into her couch. Then the alarm rings jerking Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) out of her gentle greenlit dream.
There's plenty to pick apart in The Shape of Water starting with the script--too schematic too simpleminded too sentimental; wears not just its heart but politically correct agenda ostentatiously on its sleeve.
Octavia Spencer as Zelda, Richard Jenkins as Giles, Hawkins and even Doug Jones (nameless under all that fish makeup) do well enough with the thin material, playing not so much characters as a carefully diverse (by race sex orientation even species) portfolio of stereotypes with conviction and humor (Spencer in particular deserves an MVP for her brass, while Jenkins deserves a nod for his delicately sketched lonely artist). Poor Michael Shannon is the prominent exception stuck with functioning as the picture's putative monster, the strictly one-note Colonel Strickland.
That said Strickland--like the present occupant of the White House--offers some entertainment value, in the way he goads us into anticipating just how appalling his granite-jawed officer can get, from issues of hygiene (he washes his hands before he urinates) to macho swagger (swings a long black vicious-looking cattleprod from which, Elisa can't help but notice, blood drips) to unimaginative sex with the wife (man grunting on top). Just when you think he's scraped the barrel's bottom he manages to break through to a new low.
Del Toro has arguably sketched more interesting villains. Captain Vidal in Laberinto del Fauno was driven by the impulse to procreate, produce an heir to which he can pass on his fascist ideals; Nomak in Blade 2 seeks revenge on his father who (in turn) seeks to destroy him; Prince Nuada in Hellboy 2: The Golden Army dreams of regaining the kingdom his father lost to encroaching humans (Does Del Toro have daddy issues? One wonders). Strickland's highest ambition is to maintain the primacy of the (What else?) patriarchal white male with as much entitled arrogance as he can muster.
Note how Del Toro pushes the metaphor with our beloved chief executive* pretty far but arguably not too far (no obscenely large waistline, no urine-tinted hair). He does give us a gratifyingly comic moment where the creature shortens two of Strickland's fingers to an abrupt nub.**
*(A presidential candidate at the time of production, though his racist anti-immigrant message had been resonating throughout the year)
**(The filmmaker likes to mete out sadistic punishment democratically (some would say indiscriminately), to virtuous and villainous alike)
That all said it isn't so much the obvious-as-daylight narrative that carries the film as it is the passion del Toro puts into the details. You might say the material--cobbled together from Jack Arnold's The Creature From the Black Lagoon (and in fact someone mentions capturing the creature somewhere in South America, where the earlier film was set) and del Toro's own Hellboy movies (a more malevolent incarnation of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense) with bits of Cinema Paradiso and a Fred Astaire musical thrown in--is just an excuse for del Toro to tell his first balls-deep no-holes-barred love story.
One might mention Sally Hawkins' fearless miming, fearless not so much for the nudity (she has a superb body she needn't be ashamed of) as for the emotional nakedness, the patience and trust to build a character out of gestures and narrative context and facial microexpressions, as opposed to spoken lines of dialogue (I'd say her most interesting moments are when she holds back from 'saying' something she badly wants to say--a challenge to suggest, I imagine, when playing a deaf mute).
Same with Doug Jones' creature: Jones and del Toro play coy at first, introducing the creature first in a steel-and-glass water coffin, later as a length of chain dragging back and forth in an ominously dark pool (okay, a smaller black lagoon). His first closeup is as carefully lit and presented as any glamor shot: turquoise and wrought-iron face framing a pair of sapphire eyes (a nictitating membrane like a coyly tossed veil drawn briefly across); a killer bod (to match Hawkin's fleshy own) rearing up out of the water to present itself for worship.
What makes Jones' performance however, is his dignity. The spine arches back in unconscious pride; even manacled there's the sense of tattered grandeur about him, like a prince in chains. When Giles meets him for the first time del Toro shoots over the creature's shoulder, preparing us for Giles' reaction of horror and awe (an old genre cliche)--we see the awe all right but then Jenkins breathes: "He's beautiful!" and spends the rest of the night trying to sketch him.
Elisa and creature--both without speaking voice (though both perfectly capable of expressing sounds of anguish or pain) make perfect dancing partners in what isn't so much a filmed narrative as it is a filmed ballet, with del Toro's lenses acting as a perfect third: for the length of the film the camera glides past them swirls round them captures them casually posed in a series of lyrically framed shots.
The dance wouldn't be half as memorable without Dan Laustsen's subterranean lighting (all of Baltimore seems not just underground but dripping gleaming wet) and Alexandre Desplat's fairytale music. Del Toro has a thing for tunnel systems and sewers and Laustsen--who has worked on del Toro's Mimic (set mostly in the New York subways) and Crimson Peak (set in a Gormenghast-style mansion with a (What else?) vasty basement)--has given full voice to the filmmaker's ideas. Desplat's delicate flute (suggesting the amorphousness of water) and chimes (suggesting water drip echoing against stone walls) add emotional color to the darkly lit sets: not so much forbidding as sewers often are but a system of reverberating caverns, the glow coming from what seems like a hoard of gold doubloons and prismatic gemstones hidden just around the corner.
Try not to listen too hard to Giles' opening narration--his listing a 'princess' a 'prince' a threatening 'monster' is too on-the-nose--but instead enjoy Jenkin's soothing delivery as a teller's practiced introduction to the story proper. Try too not to make much out of a dance sequence late in the film--mainly del Toro rendering baldly explicit what has been so beautifully metaphorical all a long. Try (skip the rest of this paragraph if you intend to see the film!) not to think the plot through too hard--why when she's sprung the creature does Elisa wait for some stupid canal to fill up with rainwater (Because she wants to know the creature better!)? Why when the creature escapes does Strickland's attention wander away from Elisa so quickly (Because he's that much of a misogynist!)? Why if the creature had the power to heal doesn't he heal his water deficiency earlier (Because it takes a lot out of him, and he can't do it continuously!)? Where do Elisa's gills come from (She's one of them, silly!) why if she was like the creature can she breath better than he can and why did she end up in an orphanage at all (Questions questions!)?
Most of all try not to compare this too closely to Arnold's masterpiece. What makes Arnold's (not to mention Cooper and Schoedsack's) monster movies so effective is that they not for one moment give the audience the pleasure of sentiment. They're no-fat no-nonsense thrillers, built for mean speed, and if they do pause to give us a moment of poetry eroticism desire (Kong plucking at Ann Darrow's tattered clothes; the Creature mirroring Kay Lawrence's languorous swimming) the moments stand out like perverse little jewels studding the films' stony steely surfaces. Arnold's is an unabashed classic; this at best is a lovely if stickier tribute.
Do try (as if you needed the advice!) to focus on the creature--easily the most intricately lovingly realized in del Toro's varied menagerie (addressed to sculptor Mike Hill: "I don’t want you to make a creature; you’re designing the leading man"). The film's amphibian biped is the ultimate social outsider / illegal immigrant: unfamiliar with our harshly patriarchal world or its equally harsh language ("We're created in the Lord's image; you don't think that's what the Lord looks like do you?") incarcerated by a more militarized United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (complete with manacles and cattleprods) slated to suffer an even worse fate than most aliens, at least the kind in humanoid form (dissection for further study).
If you can do that if (and this a big 'if') you can sit and settle and open yourself up to the possibility of being charmed and enchanted and falling in love again--the film just might work. If you can't--well I understand, but can't help feeling just a little bit sorry.
First published in Businessworld 2.23.18