“If I spoke about it – if I did – what would I tell you? I wonder. Would I tell you about the time? It happened a long time ago, it seems. In the last days of a fair prince’s reign. Or would I tell you about the place? A small city near the coast, but far from everything else. Or, I don’t know… Would I tell you about her? The princess without voice. Or perhaps I would just warn you, about the truth of these facts. And the tale of love and loss. And the monster, who tried to destroy it all.”
And thus begins Guillermo del Toro’s whimsical fairytale, The Shape of Water. What can I say about this transportive film. Guillermo del Toro has once again let us glimpse into his beautiful world, his wonderful monsters. As stated in Toro’s recent acceptance speech for best director, he has worked for 25 years handcrafting many “strange little tales made of motion, color, light and shadow.”
The Shape of Water plays wonderfully with those aforementioned aspects of his creative point of view. What makes this film so novel in the lineup of Best Picture nominees is that it truly transports you into another world, as all good fairytales should do. The digital effects, sound editing and lighting work together seamlessly to create this world. The film seems to take place out of time entirely, but the setting is based on the United States in 1960s, Baltimore to be exact. The production designers though, create an alternate world that draws cultural references but still remains story book in nature. The tints of blue, teal, and green used throughout the movie with pops of red cement this notion. The level of quirkiness and thematic colors reminds me of film like Amélie and the work of Barry Sonnenfield in Pushing Daises (one of my favorite television shows, gone too soon). This film has that aesthitic and dna, a world is built by distinct colors and shapes. Different hues have meaning, tints matter and color has purpose. This attention to detail makes The Shape of Water dance.
Appearances and ability are not obvious in this film, much like the real world. A man working at “Dixie Dougs” slinging pies is actually from Ottawa, but don’t make the mistake of thinking he is beyond his southern neighbor’s prejudice. A mute woman is not dumb, and should not be underestimated. A beautiful soul can be hidden behind an ugly or surprising exterior, and a decent man may be the most hideous monster of them all.
The Shape of Water constantly plays on the surface of what we expect, and flips that expectation. This is an unconventional love story to say the least. It is dark, sensual, and at the same time it represents a sense of innocence of that darkness in the world. This can be seen through the wonderfully expressive, soulful, master class in face acting performance from Sally Hawkins as the mute Elisa. Elisa works with her oft-complaining but ultimately loving friend Zelda (a warm and strong Octavia Spencer nominated for supporting actress). Her other familiar is the reclusive, closeted Giles (Richard Jenkins nominated for supporting actor). Their misfit nature in that time period of 1960 is intentional, as is Michael Shannon’s Richard Strickland, a menacing white and aggressively masculine “mans man” villain caricature. Elisa is surrounded by those that are seemingly outside the normal, so why wouldn’t she be intrigued by the strange creature, inspired by the Creature from the Black Lagoon , known as “the Asset.”
Her fascination leads to a friendship, and a sense of understanding. Finally she is able to communicate with someone on a deeper level. That soulfulness from both Hawkins and the man behind the suit, Doug Jones, breathes life and magic into the film. In one especially, touching scene Elisa attempts to articulate the depth of her feelings, desperately signing ” When he looks at me, the way he looks at me… He does not know, what I lack… Or – how – I am incomplete. He sees me, for what I – am, as I am. He’s happy – to see me. Every time. Every day. Now, I can either save him… or let him die.”
That acceptance, beyond appearance or ability is the entire point of this film. That depth, and wealth of emotion and love make The Shape of Water one of the most transcendent film experiences this season, and what makes it my pick for Best Picture on Sunday.