The Shape of Water (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Shape of Water (2017)

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Elisa dreams of a watery paradise, a place she's free with her desire and far from the bureaucratic drudgery of her working life.  Her chance to live this dream comes from an unimaginable source, blocked by government conspiracy, and limited by the dimmed hopes of her loved ones.  Guillermo del Toro directs The Shape of Water, with the screenplay written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, and stars Sally Hawkins.

The Shape of Water filled me with such effervescent delight that language ceased to matter the first hour or so after the credits began to roll. My skin erupted in goosebumps, recalling the rush of adrenaline after emerging from the ocean's waves threatening to drag me under and the sight of my wife on our wedding day. Melancholy is my default state, but not without optimism, and The Shape of Water created a world so wholly romantic that the sullen feeling slipped away and I let myself feel rejuvenated in its healing tide. What a rare beauty this film is.

Guillermo del Toro's films shoot not for the stars but for the folds of our imagination - the often forgotten bits of ourselves we leave in attics. Sometimes they stumble as in the visually lush gothic romance Crimson Peak leaning too heavily into the gothic for the romance to spark. In truth, del Toro fumbles a fair bit in The Shape of Water as well.  But when the story is this sparkling, the results this evocative, the slight stumbles in del Toro's vision come across as one part of a man's creative sojourn reaching the pinnacle of heart and craft.  This is del Toro's masterwork, ugly spots and all.

Running gags keep The Shape of Water moving at a tight clip, like the daily battle at the timecard puncher.

Listen to the gravelly tone of Richard Jenkins, one of my favorite performers, as he sets the stage for the fantasy about to unfold.  He has the affectation of Peter Falk in the timeless The Princess Bride with just enough cynicism to give his pondering an edge while warm enough to invite us in to the fantasy. Then del Toro's camera begins to drift, weaving in and out of the flooded house we come to see, but the water hasn't ruined the home in the way we expect (an old homeowners axiom, if you find water where you don't want it to be chances are it's many places you don't want it to be.) It's preserved the beauty, the careful decoration, and the warbling of the music sets the stage for the immaculate Sally Hawkins to appear as an aquatic angel.

Del Toro assembled a perfect cast for The Shape of Water and Hawkins, as Elisa, is the first among equals. She gives of herself so freely in this film that she's letting us in on a wonderful secret.  The little grin on her face as she masturbates in the tub is sharing part of that secret, she is at home and erotically free in water with her smile a way of inviting us in with an unspoken, "You have your desires, this is part of mine."  Hawkins dominates The Shape of Water because of her confident body language, operating in total sincerity with her surroundings with each strong gesture or tender show of affection toward the water creature (Doug Jones) who captures her imagination as well as her libido.  The women-centered healthy erotic charge likely comes from the assistance of co-screenwriter Vanessa Taylor, who helps keep the shenanigans focused on Elisa's wants and fears instead of pondering about the creature.

Ah, but even before the hint of supernatural comes into play with the creature, del Toro has done a phenomenal job creating a world absorbed with water. Those in love with untouched wood might fret a bit at the plethora of water-soaked furniture, but the saturated designs highlight the intricate patterns wood can produce.  The walls follow suit, with one absolute stunner of a shot reflecting water so forcefully onto the wall it looks like an aquatic escape.  It has the feel of playful invitation, with even the drab linoleum of Elisa's locker room shining that special way when hard surfaces get wet.  This was the first world I've seen in a long time that made me want to be a kid again, discovering the simple pleasure of an improvised slide when I realized my body plus water plus tile floors meant I could skid along.

That brings to mind the touch of playfulness del Toro brings to even his most harrowing productions. Villain Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon - almost cartoonishly evil, using the crack of candy to keep his character grounded) gets an introduction worthy of Dracula with his long dark coat whipping into frame as del Toro brings the camera low. "Cleanliness is godliness" is Richard's guiding principle, sometimes expressed hilariously as both he and his wife are aroused by washing hands, other times terrifying as when his principle is so close to breaking he's barking, "Sit down," at already immobile targets. Even throwaway segments are memorable, my favorite involves menacing shadows for a spy meet-up that pull back to show two cold men who thought it a good idea to connect under the city's loudest turbine.

Del Toro and cinematographer Dan Laustsen are unbound by visual convention, pulling from Polish erotic dramas as well as classic horror films.

I love The Shape of Water in spite of its imperfections, but they're present and need discussion.  There's a tendency in fiction to associate disability of any kind with monstrous features.  Del Toro triples down on this to a disappointing degree, not only associating Elisa's mute character with the sea creature but also roping in Zelda's (Octavia Spencer, slyly underplaying every one-liner she's provided) black skin and Giles' (Jenkins) repressed homosexuality. It's hard not to notice, as a pair of awkward scenes linking the Civil Rights struggle and the United States' homophobia to the monster get onscreen appearances long enough to register how bad an idea it is.  Del Toro's never been a politically gifted filmmaker, and the clumsy analogue between this erotic man fish fable to still present struggles is a potential film-breaking misstep if viewed solely in a political lens.

The Shape of Water is a film so gorgeous it deserves analysis of its warts as well as its wonders. I pray (and there's something I never thought I'd write) that it works its magic on you as well as it did me. Visions this stirring are so rare and realized that it would be a disservice to only praise the good while handwaving away the bad.  But the goosebumps on my arms, returning even as I write these words, are my testament to its beauty - as are now my words.  The Shape of Water is why I write or go to movies in the first place, it is an imperfect original in a world of poor copy.

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The Shape of Water (2017)

Directed by Guillermo del Toro.
Screenplay written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor.
Starring Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, and Octavia Spencer.

Posted by Andrew

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