starring Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins
screenplay by Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor
directed by Guillermo del Toro
by Walter Chaw I watched Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water in a packed auditorium in Telluride, CO as a torrential rainstorm pounded the roof of what is, outside of the festival, an ice-skating rink, perched there with a park in front of it, the headwaters of the San Miguel to one side and the mountains to the other and all around. As the main character, cleaning lady Eliza (Sally Hawkins), turned on water for her bath, the cascading cacophony in the theatre joined in with a warm insularity I always equate with the Mandarin term for "cozy": two words that mean, or at least sound like they mean, "warm" and "noisy." The Shape of Water is like that, too, a gothic romance in the new del Toro style (after Crimson Peak, which, for me, was more noisy than warm, but mileage varies), which del Toro introduced as the evocation of a fantasy he had as a child upon watching Creature from the Black Lagoon in which the Creature falls in love with the girl and they live happily ever after. That's it, and were that truly it, The Shape of Water would be an instant classic rather than an acquired taste, perhaps--a future cult classic, certainly, that is forgiven for its odd digressions while justly-celebrated for its audacity. It's a triumph when it focuses in on the essential loneliness of misfits (the melancholic, Romanticist engine that drives del Toro's Hellboy movies), but in a subplot involving Russian spies, it becomes for long minutes time spent away from what works in favour of time spent with what doesn't. When del Toro has allowed intrusions like this in the past (see: his early masterpieces The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth), it's been up to us to infer the connection between his dark fables and his political concerns. Here he brings the subtext into text at a cost to the "warm/noisy" coziness of his work. For del Toro, insularity is a strength.
Eliza works at a military research facility that, under the guidance of sadistic Strickland (Michael Shannon), has captured a South American river "god" (Doug Jones) and is in the process of examining it for possible military exploitation. The head scientist, Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is a Russian spy in his spare time, wants to save the creature from vivisection, but time is running out. Meanwhile, Eliza discovers the Creature likes swing music and hard-boiled eggs, both of which she provides in great quantities in the short montage we get of their blossoming relationship. There's a scene in the middle of it all where the Creature wanders into the ornate moviehouse above which Eliza lives and stands there, stricken, by the images projecting across the screen. (Some Biblical epic, naturally.) I wanted more of that. Eliza's mute--an orphan discovered by a river in the fashion of many great mythological heroes--and has two friends: a co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who helps the always-a-little-late Eliza punch into work on time; and a neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), an old artist with a bad toupee and an apartment full of cats who likes to visit the pie diner down the way because he has an unrequited crush on the monstrous young man (Morgan Kelly) who works there. The pie is awful, but the longing is sweet. Eliza's time is measured out by egg-timers rather than coffee spoons, set on the edge of her sink while she masturbates in the tub like a metronome, pounding out the days alone. It's not that she's sexually-repressed, it's that her disability and vocation make her only attractive to monsters like Strickland, or monsters like the Creature.
So of course there's an escape, a rescue, and a call to action for Eliza's friends, with Giles's coming in a beautiful scene where Eliza demands his attention by grabbing his lapels and striking the wall of the lush hallway that leads to the street. There's the establishment of Strickland as the type of man who pisses without holding his cock, whose wife (Lauren Lee Smith) thinks that foreplay is telling her husband to wash his hands really well before freeing one breast--which makes sense, after all, because Strickland tells his boss (Nick Searcy) after losing two fingers that he's fine with "thumb, trigger finger, and pussy finger." The Shape of Water is about grace in the midst of ugliness, and how loneliness can be purifying, rejuvenating, as the world gets older and more tired. Poe talks about his own "The Raven" as a poem that attempts to marry beauty with death to achieve melancholy. Del Toro's after the same philosophy of composition. What trips up The Shape of Water is the espionage subplot, which finds Dr. Hoffstetler as a fighter, an "Eye of the Needle" of sorts; as wonderfully as it establishes the time and place as the early days of the Cold War, Sputnik threatening at any moment to drop bombs on grandmothers in Iowa and Kansas, it distracts from scenes where Eliza imagines she's dancing with the Creature like Alice Faye. Faye, referenced in the film, left Hollywood on her own terms at the height of her popularity to be a mother and homemaker. Eliza lip-syncs Faye's signature song, "You'll Never Know," to the Creature. Maybe she sings it. She's mute, I know. It's that kind of movie.
Still, The Shape of Water is a signature del Toro film: dangerous, edged, indicated by a deep, soul-weariness and a kind of Germanic Romanticism most common in painting and opera. Its best moments are with its misfits. Poor Giles says at one point to Eliza that he is absolutely alone, and your heart breaks for him because though the film is a fantasy, emotions like this are true. Hawkins, one of my favourite actors, is tremendous, physical--matched by Doug Jones, of course. Their scenes together are never anything but strange and glorious. There's no soft-peddling the bestiality of the piece, no side-stepping that Eliza sleeps with this Creature, whom del Toro never takes pains to make seem human. Shannon is at maximum Shannon. The Shape of Water is as strange and brave as people can be strange and brave, especially the quiet ones, the weird ones you don't think that much about, who hang out at the fringes of every crowd and watch with their odd, open expressions. In fact I do wish that it had been only about these people, that we had a little more time with Giles, Eliza, the Creature, and even Strickland, with his rotten fingers and his Stepford wife and children. I wish there was more, but there's enough. It's H.P. Lovecraft's Splash. I'll take it.