Shape of Water: Del Toro’s Emotional Fable for Adults

The Shape of Water is Guillermo del Toro’s crowd-pleasing fairy tale for adults.

World premiering at the Venice Film Fest, and playing at Telluride and Toronto, it’s easily the most acclaimed feature at Venice, equally embraced by both critics and spectators, which seldom happens.

If my reading is right, this should be the strongest Oscar card of Fox Searchlight, which will release the film on December 8, at the height of the awards season.

Working at the top of his creative powers, this is del Tor’s most enjoyable movie, containing “something for everybody,” but in the positive sense of the term.  It’s a movie that del Toro has been wanting to make for decades, in which he has invested all the skills he has acquired over the years.

Last night’s world premiere was a sight to behold, with the longest (about 7-8 minutes) standing ovation I have witnessed in Venice. The women around me were so overwhelmed by the fable’s ending that they passed clinex among them.

To be sure, it’s not del Toro’s best film–that spot is still reserved to Pan’s Labyrinth, the Spanish-speaking film of 2006, which was richer in its political contexts and subtexts.  However, Shape of Water is technically and visually his his most fully realized and emotionally touching feature, especially when placed in an impressive career of two decades, full of achievements in both the indie and mainstream sectors.

Like Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, del Toro’s movie blends imaginatively different genres, but unlike Payne’s it achieves that without showing the joints and the seams.

Indeed, Shape of Water is a monster movie, a sci-fi, a romantic melodrama, a Cold War political thriller—even a musical. The marvel of it all is how engaging and charming the film is, without ever being manipulative.

Del Toro has taken huge risks in blending kitsch and art, stylized and realistic visuals, absurdist love story and erotic sexuality, elements of B-Hollywood movies retold with bravura style.  He has acknowledged his love of Hollywood cinema—high and low (“Creature from the Blue Lagoon,” Astaire-Rogers musicals), but holding that he could only have made this picture as a mature man who understands the nature of love.

Only a bold and audacious director could have structured his fantasia around two protagonists, who literally cannot speak. All the dialogue (and plot) is delivered by secondary characters, such as Zelda (Octavia Spencer), Elisa’s colleague.

The heroine, Elisa, is a young, bright woman (played by the incomparable Sally Hawkins), living alone in apartment above crumbling repertory cinema in Downtown Baltimore. She works nights as janitor at the Aerospace Research Centre, where some mysterious experiments are taking place.

The movie is book-ended by narration, voiced by Elisa’s neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), also a solitary man. He describes her “a princess without a voice,” a mute who had her vocal cords cut in childhood. Though she commands sign language, Elisa’s is used to the fact of not being heard—or even noticed. That’s the quality that makes the creature (Doug Jones) different from other men: he listens to her. The sympathetic monster is an amphibious humanoid, whose body is used for a study aiming to give the US edge in the ongoing space race with the Soviet Union.

Though grounded at the height of the Cold War–in 1962–del Toro’s concerns are timeless. The film exerts its visual magic in a smooth and fluent way.

While watching, I kept thinking of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic The Little Mermaid, retold here with a gender reversal at its core.

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