The film calendar can be as predictable as the change of seasons, and perhaps even more predictable in light of Missouri’s weather this year. This is the time of year when the big Christmas titles and planned Oscar contenders start making their appearance, and it’s possible to have reasonable discussion about the frontrunners in the different categories. There are a lot more releases coming before the end of the year, of course, but I’ve already seen several that have to be in the conversation for the big awards. The most recent of those, which deserves a whole slew of nominations (Best Picture and Best Actress among them), is Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, a charming fantasy and his best film since Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).
In The Shape of Water, del Toro and co-screenwriter Vanessa Taylor make it appear easy to do something that is really quite difficult—grounding the film from start to finish in a fictional world that has its own inner logic. The story is set in the early 1960s Baltimore, where Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work as cleaners in some kind of military research facility. It’s a great set-up for the story to follow, because cleaners can and do go just about anywhere in a facility (it’s not like the big shots are going to clean up after themselves) without anyone really noticing them (because who really pays attention to the cleaning staff?).
Elisa, whose name recalls Eliza Doolittle from Pygmalion, and whose general appearance and life circumstances recall Cinderella, is mute but can hear. She lives a minimalist existence in a steam punk sort of garret, complete with earth-toned, vaguely Victorian wallpaper and wooden furniture that contrasts sharply with the modernist architecture and metallic surfaces of the research facility. This old-fashioned domicile is a clear tip-off to her inner goodness, a trope Hollywood has been riffing on since at least the Art Deco era. Elisa is platonic friends with her next-door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a graphic artist who destroyed his career due to alcohol abuse. She’s very good to him, bringing him plates of food and humoring his moods, while he’s often boorish towards her and assumes she has no thoughts or desires of her own (pro tip—just because someone can’t speak doesn’t mean they can’t think).
It’s a man’s world at work also, with Michael Shannon chewing up the scenery as Strickland, a mean and ambitious military man. Strickland’s role in the story is similar to that of the evil grand vizier in fairy tales—he’s not officially in charge (that would be General Hoyt, played by Nick Searcy), but pulls the strings in the day-to-day running of things. Things get interesting when the facility acquires a sort of merman (Doug Jones, a frequent del Toro collaborator) who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Gill Man from The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Like that creature, this one has been greatly wronged, in this case forcibly brought from his home in South America to be studied, abused, and discarded. In contrast to everyone else at the facility, Elisa, who has been overlooked her entire life, recognizes the merman as a kindred spirit. Before long she is feeding him hard-boiled eggs and playing music for him on a portable phonograph.
The Shape of Water is a fantasy, but also a social critique of the early 1960s. Contrary to the dominant narrative of happy homemakers and prosperous men in gray flannel suits, it was not a great time for everyone. In fact, a variety of prejudices (racism, misogyny, and homophobia among them) were built into that society, and Del Toro calls them out, one by one. This film was completed before the current allegations about Harvey Weinstein had surfaced, but several scenes in it ring particularly true given when has been alleged about his behavior, to say nothing of decades of reports of sexual harassment and worse within science and academia. You might expect an American film set during the Cold War to feature a Russian villain, but del Toro turns that trope on its head. He also calls out the need to dominate, which is central to Shannon’s character, and it’s about time that attitude got some criticism rather than being held up as some kind of virtue.
The Shape of Water is the kind of film in which all the parts have to work together; fortunately, they do. Dan Laustsen’s camera is constantly moving, often swirling around the characters as if floating on air (or swimming in the water), in the process reminding you that you are watching a constructed fantasy rather than an imitation of real life. The Shape of Water is infused with the spirit of Golden Age Hollywood musicals, snippets of which are often seen on TV screens within the film, and Alexandre Desplat’s score helps create just the right mood for each phase of the story. The look of The Shape of Water is also key in selling the story, and special kudos must go to production designer Paul D. Austerberry, art director by Nigel Churcher, and costume designer Luis Sequeira. The result is a film that is thoroughly entertaining but also has something to say, and can be enjoyed on many different levels. | Sarah Boslaugh