The Shape of Water
At the Myrna Loy
Suspend disbelief all ye who swim here: “The Shape of Water” is more poem than script, an elusive philosophical reflection on love.
A mute woman falls in love with a handsome slimy creature from the deep blue sea. Their relationship is probably illegal in 49 states – not sure about Boulder, Colorado, which is pretty chill.
“The Shape of Water” is being hailed as Guillermo Del Toro’s masterpiece for which he’s one of the favorites (together with Christopher Nolan, “Dunkirk”) to win the Best Director Oscar. In some ways, Del Toro’s “Water” is a similar achievement to Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” yet another film that moves like a dolphin through cinematic waters.
We’ve seen this story before as “Beauty and the Beast” in which a woman falls in love with a creature. But this time the love affair is more uncomfortable, both because there’s intriguing intimacy and because, as Variety notes, the beast doesn’t ultimately transform into Prince Charming.
Plus, we’ve never seen the story told by a visionary such as Del Toro, the creator of the masterpiece “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
“The saddest journey in the world is the one that follows a precise itinerary,” Del Toro once said. “Then you're not a traveler. You're just a *** tourist.”
The adult fairy tale begins in Baltimore in the 1960s during the Cold War at a secret facility. In a well-guarded aquarium swims “The Asset,” an exotic blue amphibious creature captured in the Amazon.
Enter our heroines: a mute janitor named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Elisa discovers the creature and grows increasingly fond of it, feeding it hard-boiled eggs while playing Glenn Miller jazz. The creature swims, back-flipping as if to dance, to those tunes.
The one misstep in this exquisite film comes when the script struggles to create superfluous tension by manufacturing villains who want to kill the beautiful Asset. Sneering spies and other Cold War silliness culminate with Elisa plotting to spring the creature free of captivity.
Turning an amphibious love story into a Cold War thriller was unnecessary and artistically jarring. The last thing we needed was sinister spies polluting a touching interspecies love story.
But “The Shape of Water” still emerges as a lovely film filled with elegant cinematography, a fine score and an ensemble of authentic performances. The always wonderful Richard Jenkins plays Elisa’s gay neighbor. Hawkins may well be nominated as Best Actress. And Spencer is her usual magnetic, compassionate self.
At its heart, “Shape” is a simple love story in which a “princess without voice” falls in love with an equally silenced creature from the deep blue lagoon.
Set in the sixties, a time of cultural unrest, the script amplifies the devaluing of women, of blacks, of gays and, ultimately, of “animals.” Arrogant white males trample over anyone and anything different from themselves.
Del Toro is a romantic who once said that “love is the answer to everything.” Although symbols abound, Del Toro ultimately reduces this tale to one of love between two equally estranged beings.
Del Toro drapes that love affair in haunting visuals, including rooms full of water where a multi-colored creature and a shy lady can make waves. Everything beyond romance is really a distraction or diversion.
“The Shape of Water” is an art film that’s gaining mainstream acclaim, a rare fete. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” another Ang Lee film, also featured spellbinding visuals which captivated the masses.
The appeal of such an esoteric, slightly shocking, love story provides a glimmer of hope that an uncompromising work of art can triumph in the land of reboots, remakes, sequels and prequels.