I stand upon my soapbox and scream into the noise; desperately begging filmmakers to do something new or different. Stop making sequels to Mama Mia, I say. Do we really need a Jumanji remake? Don’t you think six Transformers movies is around five too many? Guillermo Del Toro responds with a film about a mute woman and a fish man falling in love and eating eggs. And you know what? It’s beautiful, mesmerizing and heartfelt. It’s also among the best films he’s ever made.
The Shape of Water follows Eliza, a mute woman living in Baltimore in the 1960’s and working at a government research center as a cleaner. After a creature simply referred to as “the asset” is brought to the facility, it/he and Eliza begin to form an unlikely friendship. Nothing that occurs during subsequent events is particularly surprising, yet it all manages to feel simultaneously familiar and wholly original.
It comes as no shock that the camerawork, set design, and coloration are all top notch. Del Toro continues to make a case for using practical effects instead of their digital counterparts and continues to be the very best example of just how stellar they can look and feel. The creature design is stunning and distinct. The sets are bursting with character and atmosphere. The hints of green lighting provide a sense of otherworldly ambiance. The camera floats around the characters weightlessly, as if it too were underwater. Dunkirk and Blade Runner 2049, two of the most visually arresting films I have ever seen, came out this year. Somehow The Shape of Water manages not only to be their equal but in many instances surpass them.
Performance wise, Del Toro seems to have pulled the very best out of every actor on set. Michael Shannon plays a wonderfully detestable and thoroughly unhinged villain, Sally Hawkins gives an award-worthy performance despite never saying a word, and Doug Jones proves yet again that he is the Andy Serkis of practical effects. Equally enjoyable to watch are Richard Jenkins as Eliza’s neighbor Giles, and Octavia Spencer as her friend Zelda. Every character feels real, storied, and natural. I cannot express just how refreshing it is to actually have reasons to care about a protagonist, hate an antagonist, or remember anybody after the credits roll.
The concept of a romance between an amphibian and a woman was always going to be a hard sell, yet somehow Del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor managed to make me take it completely seriously. While the actual romance itself never felt entirely developed or authentic, I would consider it a rousing victory that I never once felt gross or weird for watching a movie about fish romance. One questionable musical number aside, I felt like the filmmakers fully understood how to keep the idea from looking or feeling silly.
Typically in “beauty and beast” or creature romances, there is some human element to the “beast” or a complete transformation to keep the audience from feeling uncomfortable. The titular beast in Beauty and the Beast turns into a rugged prince-man. The titular mermaid in The Little Mermaid loses her fish bits and marries a rugged prince-man. The not-quite-titular fish-man in The Shape of Water is just as slimy, gilled, and flappy at the end of the film as he was at the beginning.
This gives way to some of the more nuanced things going on beneath the surface (water pun) of the concept. If you take the broad strokes of the plot and view them instead as metaphors, you end up with a rather poignant social message about love, understanding, and time. I will not be digging into any of that here for fear of detracting from the experience of figuring it out for yourself, but it is remarkable that Del Toro was able to craft a film that’s as enjoyable to simply watch as it is to analyze. That is a tightrope that many filmmakers fall from, both in the world of big dumb blockbusters and smaller mostly intelligent films.
On a slightly random note, The Shape of Water deserves high marks for its approach to nudity. I have a significant problem with films that are willing to show all manners of violence in graphic detail but are afraid to display characters in various states of undress. It creates a tonal dissonance that devalues the world that had been constructed up to that point in a small, but significant way.
We are presumably being shown an ice pick driven into a man’s eye for a reason: it implies the danger of the situation or sets the tone for the world in some way. Furthermore, it makes the audience feel uncomfortable, and on some level, it aligns viewers with the characters on screen regarding their relationship to this violence.
When in the same film as the aforementioned eye/ice Pick incident characters have sex beneath the sheets and fully clothed, there is now a tonal inconsistency that I find distracting. Clearly, it should be up to each individual performer what they are or are not comfortable with, and in no way whatsoever does gratuitous sex automatically improve a film. It is just something that I have found irritating in (particularly R rated) movies in the past. I’ve even had this problem with previous films by Guillermo Del Toro.
In The Shape of Water, nudity is simply there. It is not voyeuristic, nor even overtly sexualized. It is simply part of the way that the world works, and as we are given a viewport into the life of Eliza, it is only natural that this would be a part of that life. Similarly, it gives us a certain intimacy with her that reflects the film’s basis as an emotionally intimate story.
Many rambling paragraphs about well-executed nudity aside, What I am trying to say is that The Shape of Water is truly something special. I replay scenes over in my head, surprised by how vivid they remain. I puzzle over how a film like this ever got made, let alone made so well. I can’t seem to forget its characters, its music, or its heart. What a rare, weird, and beautiful film this is.