With the cinema overrun with superheroes, space wars, and action romps, one can forget that there is such a thing as stylistic cinema, romantic stories, and general artistry. Thankfully Guillermo del Toro’s latest film reminds us these things are not fables, but real magic that true wizards can weave.
In The Shape of Water, del Toro combines much-loved genre cinema –science fiction, musicals, and film noir- with the aesthetics of fantasy romance and Cold War movies. It may sound like an odd mixture, but -almost magically- all the ingredients blend together to create something overwhelmingly satisfying and visually stunning. Considering that his last film was Crimson Peak: a gothic horror/romance about love, a haunted house, and a disturbing brother-sister relationship, it comes as no surprise that del Toro has chosen to tread the boards of strange/forbidden love a second time. After all, those stories do make the best movies!
The film’s protagonist is Elisa (Sally Hawkins): a lovely mute woman who lives in an apartment above a film theatre and works as a cleaner in a high-security government laboratory. Despite having friends in her closeted gay neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her talkative workmate Zelda (Octavia Spencer), Elisa’s life is very lonely. But that changes the day a strange water-filled tank is brought into the lab. Elisa discovers that the tank contains a mysterious Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) that she finds herself drawn to and –through secret meetings- the two form a close bond. But when Elisa learns that her employers plan to vivisect the creature –aiming to find possible advantages for the Space Race- she, Giles, and the lab’s marine scientist – who is also a Soviet spy- concoct a plan to set him free.
The doomed love story is truly timeless, but del Toro takes it a step further and makes is even more beautiful by adding elements of fantasy/science fiction as well as the Hollywood musical. The central romance is emphasized by the characters’ both being unable to speak and their entire courtship is achieved without words, raising their love to an emotional level that literally cannot be described. Indeed the one scene where it comes close is one of the most unexpected and enchanting sequences of the film, which involves a stunning black and white ballroom sequence a la La La Land set against the ballad ‘You’ll Never Know’ from Hello, Frisco, Hello (1943). Hearts will break.
In between the secret rendezvous a sinister Cold War drama takes place featuring such recognizable characters as the secret agent (Michael Stuhlbarg) and the hardboiled head of security (Michael Shannon). This is where the film gets its MA rating with suspense and graphic violence that will make you squirm, but is still done tastefully like Pan’s Labyrinth or Crimson Peak.
And then we have Doug Jones in all his webbed and gilled glory. The Shape of Water is his sixth film with Guillermo del Toro and there is obviously no greater love. For those who are still wondering, yes this Amphibian Man is the one and the same from Hellboy. An evolution of the iconic Gill-Man from Creature From the Black Lagoon, Jones’ Amphibian Man is the achievement of makeup, prosthetic, and costume designers who have all banded together to create a strange and alluring blue beauty. Despite having CGI added on top and having no dialogue to speak of, the Amphibian Man is a mesmerizing character with enough human-like qualities to inspire attachment from the audience and enough alien-ness to be frightening.
Amongst the Bladerunners, Justice Leagues, and Last Jedis, The Shape of Water is a change of pace, a change of style, and a film that reminds us that there is still such a thing as beautiful cinema.