I'm unable to adjudge whether it is the outstanding performance of the cast or the brilliant narration of the love story that pushes The Shape of Water to the level of a classic. But I'm certainly able to call it one not because of its critical reception but because of what it aims to highlight and succeeds. Guillermo del Toro's protagonist is a mute, young woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) who plans to save a mystical human-like amphibian from the clutches of a government-run scientific research institute where she works, and which is managed by a sadist and unscrupulous ex-Army (Michael Shannon). It is her love and sympathy for the creature that motivates to do what she does, but Toro projects it as a connection between two creatures with their own flaws and shortcomings. The Shape of Water is purely a love story and nothing else, narrated in the classic 80s style which only uplifts its appeal. Hawkins is Godlike, but I'm without words at the impeccable performance of Richard Jenkins, Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Octavia Spencer who play more than life. They are so intricate and IN the character that more than the otherwise bland love story I was impressed by their natural skills. Together with Alexandre Desplat's melodious background score and a fitting production setup that puts James Cameron's Avatar (2009) into shame, the film goes above and beyond as to what it sets to achieve. Which is why I will recommend it to anyone who's familiar with Toro's filmography and those who simply appreciate good cinema. The Shape of Water is good cinema and we must appreciate it. TN.
What shape can you give to water, to life, relationships? Should the shapes be pre-determined, where the evolving can be boxed in? Should they be judged by whether or not they fit in? Elisa is a mute cleaning lady who goes through life with clockwork regularity. The mundane humdrum of her life is broken by the desperate flapping limbs, blood and loneliness of an alternate humanlike living form, brought in from the Amazonian swamps, for whom she develops an instinctive sympathy and quickly, love. Guillermo del Toro traces the heroic in the vulnerable, the innocent, the marginalized. In ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, it was the sweet child Ophelia who was summoned by a faun to fulfill the tasks that would allow her to reclaim her childhood. Here it is Elisa who comes to the rescue of the being who is alternately referred as ‘creature’, ‘asset’ or even ‘God’. His entry is followed by the song “Babalu’ sung by Caterina Valente and Silvio Francesca. The song makes a reference to the Santería deity Babalú Ayé, and suggests the godlike importance of the watery creature who has just been brought. Elisa rescues this creature, this deity, from a research facility that sees his only use in anatomical study through vivisection. In turn, she is rescued from a mechanical life where even her self-pleasuring is timed through a suggestive egg shaped alarm.
In Guillermo del Toro’s oeuvre, the mythological frequently penetrates the real, shattering its smugness, and often impregnating it with meaning that is forever bursting against the seams of the possible. We are presented with a rich palette of colours, forms and shapes, even motifs. The cinematic canvas is illuminated in a noir lighting and the real is made surreal through an expressionist take as we see blood, emotions surge and spill. The music of Alexandre Desplat is eerily evocative and sensuous, often melancholic, deeply introspective, as soaring and dexterous as del Toro’s narrative, and completely merging with it. Human and superhuman fuse in this timeless fairytale in an avalanche of water, their feelings submerging any need for verbal expression. Water is the medium of fusion, of the dissolution of boundaries, identities, genres. The shape of water is an illusion as it simply acquires the shape of the vessel. In our short-sightedness, we often believe the shape of water to be the shape of vessel that it occupies, the shape of feelings to be the form of social relationship that it inhabits. Water let loose, overflows the tub, submerges the habitat, drips through the roof of the narrative and celebrates the manifestation of myth in life. It is no wonder then that when the transformative passion of our protagonists is disrupted by the bruised ego of a triumphalist, they take leave of the terra firma and seek sanctuary in water. In a way, the humanoid is the submerged, vulnerable, unexpressed part of Elisa that needs to be rescued and expressed. It, in turn, redeems her.