Max Redmond Smith on Guillermo del Toro’s ‘The Shape of Water’ (2017)
Against the backdrop of Cold War era America, a fantastical romance is bubbling to the surface. Mute but hearing-able Elisa Esposito (played with incredible depth and spirit by the grossly underrated Sally Hawkins) is a cleaner in a government facility alongside her close colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer). During one of their rounds, the girls witness Strickland (Michael Shannon) stumble out of a laboratory clutching his chest, covered in buckets of blood. Inside that room is a foreign amphibious specimen. The girls are asked to attend to the mess (which becomes a reoccurrence) and soon curiosity begets Elisa, who discovers that the caged animal is in fact a humanoid amphibian suffering torture by Strickland. A relationship soon blossoms between Elisa and the Amphibian Man that could prove dangerous for both of them.
Elisa lives a life of routine. Every morning she wakes up at the same time, prepares her packed lunch, furiously masturbates in her bathtub, and visits her neighbour and friend, Giles (Richard Jenkins) to chat and watch television before leaving for work. Elisa’s daily routine is orchestrated with a punctual musicality, lovingly peppered at one moment with joyful dance footwork — practised with Giles while watching a musical on his television set — when leaving her apartment. Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro courageously counterpoints the playful fairy-tale musicality of Alexandre Desplat‘s masterful score with jarring imagery — Elisa’s masturbation, the skid-row town she lives in, and the tedious monotony of her life are humorously enunciated with a perennially upbeat tone. Del Toro crafts a world of formal exuberance that manifests his always impressive imagination.
The Shape of Water regresses (or perhaps, more appropriately, pro-gresses) to a primal form of visually dominant filmmaking — whilst still firmly keeping a foot in the door of contemporary cinema — by challenging the structures of cinematic communication we have come to accept and expect. As a mute who must communicate in visual cues, Elisa imbues symbols with a bolstered meaning and sincerity, making a spirited use of facial expressions and body language. Thematically, breakdowns in communications are rife: Zelda’s husband won’t speak to her; Strickland ignores his wife; Hoffstetler is sworn to secrecy; Giles speaks in a queer coded language that is never reciprocated, and walls are adorned with posters that read “loose lips sink ships”, or akin that prohibit speech. With his erudite knowledge of visual artistry and cinema history, del Toro employs arresting imagery with great affect. Often referring to his use of film style as “eye protein” (as opposed to “eye candy”) because the content is found (or can be found) within the form and its symbols, del Toro has crafted a film for our despondent time of collapsed communications, imbuing movement with love and showing the value of dialogue across thresholds.
The Shape of Water is, at its core, a commentary on the depth of communication and connection that can exist should we be willing to take the plunge. That which initially seems scary and monstrous can actually be quite beautiful should we have the courage to break down the doors of our perception. In a cinema terribly focused on dialogue-centric exposition that spoon feeds its spectators, The Shape of Water shows us other possibilities, a rejection that aligns with Charlie Kaufman’s words from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: “Constantly talking isn’t always communicating.”
The Shape of Water screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival