The Shape of Water
Director: Guillermo del Toro. Starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins. Length: 119 minutes.
It’s 1962, the middle of the Cold War, and Elisa is a mute girl working as a cleaning lady in a research facility where the Americans study new technologies to trump the Russians. The girl has only two friends, her neighbor Giles, a down-on-his-luck painter, and her spunky colleague Zelda.
One day, the ruthless colonel Strickland brings to the facility a mysterious humanoid amphibious creature. The strange being becomes the object of study of the fascinated Dr. Hoftstetler, and the victim of Strickland’s violence.
Feeling sorry for him, Elisa forms a friendship with the creature that will become more and more overwhelming.
With the award-winning The Shape of Water (Golden Lion in Venice, Golden Globe for best directing and best soundtrack and an astonishing 13 Oscar nominations) Del Toro explores the themes most dear to him in a less audacious and more aesthetically cohesive form than some of his previous works (Pan’s Labyrinth, Mimic).
The languidly nostalgic world Elisa moves through possesses the poetic styling critics look for in great cinema. The stylistic coherence is striking in every detail, making up for a few narrative incoherences, and envelops the viewer in a dimension in which is easy to get lost.
The movie, often sold by ad campaigns as a romantic fairy tale, is actually, in full Del Toro fashion, a reflection on the nature of power and on how it interacts with the dignity of the individual.
The love between Elisa and the creature is not born from the encounter with otherness, but is instead the mirroring of two outcasts, magnified in their diversity by the means of cinema, from acting to lighting, to framing and the use of color.
Elisa, whose childhood wound lets her enter a totally different world, shares with the creature not only her loneliness but also the “divinity” (the creature is identified by south-american indigenous people as “divine”) of those who keep their dignity pure, incorruptible by the system’s violent conformism.
Every institution, family included, is represented as a stifling constraint eluded only by solitude, celebrated as the only form of resistance.
It’s not by chance that Del Toro has chosen the early sixties, the cradle of advertisement and the celebration of the self-made man, an era of billboards covered with perfect families, concealing behind a dazzling smile the price paid to conformism and the deaths of Vietnam.
The Shape of Water then, is an eminently political movie which, in moving between fantasy and spy thriller plays ironically with genres to give life to characters sometimes even too emblematic, to the detriment of their complexity.
If there’s one criticism to be made to Del Toro’s brilliant visionary world it’s that the charcters move on too static and predetermined tracks, without really being put to the test in their own convictions.
So the self-made Strickland can maybe change his mind on the creature’s true nature, but not on the nature of failure, imprisoned in his logic of performance; in the same way, the erudite homosexual painter will have to be repeatedly rejected by the system before deciding to risk everything.
Characters marching on a straight track, ending up not that far from where they started. The exception is patriot and scientist Dr Hoftstetler who, comprehending too late the true nature of dignity, is responsibly ready to pay the price for it.
To find an alternative, we must leave the world we know and go where the political reasoning of the spy thriller gives way to the fantasy, with its infinite possibilities.
It’s a pity the this fracture within the movie, battling between ironic disillusion and otherworldly yearning, ends up compromising the revolutionary scope of the message.
Problematic elements for the viewer: some scenes with nudity, one sex scene, various instances of violence.