The Shape of Water
by REGGIE WOLTZ
A Study in Teal
Movies can be used to tell all kinds of stories. From realist dramas to fantastical science fiction, the versatility of the medium is well-documented. Usually a certain genre prescribes a set of expectations to its plot. Romantic comedies have two people fall in and out of love, only to come back together in the end. Film noir sees its heroic detective tempted by a femme fatale in the midst of a tense investigation. Villains in horror movies kill the black guy first. Oftentimes, filmmakers can blend genres to create their own presence, separating themselves from any expectations the audience might have.
Guillermo del Toro’s films exist on an entirely different plane. His movies don’t just blend genres, they redefine them. The best descriptor for his movies that I can come up with is “fairy tale filmmaking.” Now, these aren’t original projects so much as they are a unique spin on classic stories about things that go bump in the night. The Devil’s Backbone and Crimson Peak are del Toro’s modern retellings of ghost stories, Pacific Rim is his idea of a monster flick, and Pan’s Labyrinth is basically Alice in Wonderland, just set during the Spanish Civil War. To the naked eye, these films may seem just like the dozens of horror and fantasy movies that come out every year. But, beyond that, there is a depth to del Toro’s work that other filmmakers seldom, if ever, are able to match.
So what is the element in these movies that separate them from their counterparts? Well, it’s actually two elements: aesthetic and heart. Horror movies can scare your pants off just fine. We watch them for the same reason that we ride roller coasters, to get the adrenaline pumping and feel a sense of controlled terror that we can’t get from our daily lives. Sure, del Toro can pull this off effectively, but he is ultimately interested in a more meaningful experience. He would rather draw us into a vibrant world with characters that are complex and worth rooting for, while delivering a moral for us to take home.
The Shape of Water is the epitome of these intentions. At its core, this movie is Beauty and the Beast with protagonists that can’t speak. However, the lush appearance of its setting, the personalities of its characters, and the incredible amount of heart behind it make the film so much more.
Just as Guillermo del Toro is an anomaly of a film maker, his characters in Shape of Water are also misfits. The magnetic Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a mute janitor in a secret government lab, where she meets, falls in love with, and attempts to save a humanoid amphibian known only as “The Asset.” She is unable to connect with others to a large degree, making the relationships that she does have incredibly fascinating. Particularly her interactions with the Asset are little experiences of their own, culminating in a number of evocative scenes that are heartening and eye-catching in equal measures.
The dynamic between these two is an anomaly in its own right. Whereas most movies that center on a relationship will temper the beauty of love with the inevitable struggles that come with it, del Toro leaves his film’s romance pure and uncut. Rather than seeming unrealistic, this has the effect of allowing his film to remain emotionally potent throughout. Of course, if the two characters would have been able to talk, they would have broken up after three months of arguing over what kind of food to get for dinner. But that’s another story.
Hawkins is backed up by fantastic supporting performances from Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, and Michael Stuhlbarg. These characters really drive home the point of misfits trying to make their way through life.
Jenkins portrays an aged gay man in the Cold War-era United States, when alternative sexuality wasn’t exactly an accepted concept. Spencer plays a coworker of Esposito’s that serves as her sign language translator and treats her as a therapist, constantly talking Elisa’s ear off about her loveless marriage. Stuhlbarg plays a scientist in the government lab who works as a secret operative for the Russians but whose true allegiances lay in trying to learn from and protect his pet project at a time when everything must be done for the good of his nation and not himself. These characters are all oddities, stuck in a time that does not support their unique ideals, and yet they come together to create a happy ending for Elisa.
The holistic dedication to this theme is the true core of this film and the emotional satisfaction that comes thanks to del Toro’s efforts is what will stick with you after leaving the theater. But that is not to say that sensory experience of the film is any less effective.
The combination of Baltimore and the Cold War as a setting is not one that brings to mind a gorgeous atmosphere. And yet, del Toro creates just that through his imaginative use of colors (you have never seen teal like this before) and camera work. In a film where words are at somewhat of a premium, The Shape of Water’s visually storytelling picks up the slack and then some. The audience is hypnotically drawn in and carried on the shoulders of its characters all the way from the underground laboratory to the docks of Baltimore’s harbor until we are baptized in the beauty of the film’s conclusion.
Despite the brilliance of Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro’s real magnum opus is The Shape of Water. It perfects what del Toro has been honing for years, telling a fantastical story with stunning visuals and enough heart to cause cardiac arrhythmia. Despite the predictability of its plot, you feel for its characters and are easily swept up in its visual splendor. It is a more beautiful and beastly Beauty and the Beast, and yet stands alone as utterly unique—just like the masterful filmmaker behind it.
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