Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water wins Golden Lion at 74th Venice Film Festival

Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer measure The Shape of Water

By Moira Sullivan

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Wateris not one of his best films but it is a story that includes many of his themes. Tyranny over nature , inventions and technology that represent the future of man, and mutants that defy these standards. The Shape of Water is a time capsule of the American/Russian cold war government laboratory much like the setting of Hellboy(2004) and Hellboy: The Golden Army(2008). The sadistic, predatory and racist head of operations at the facility, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) has control of a mutant that he captured in South America, resembling The Creature from the Black Lagoon(1954). He is called “Amphibian Man” (Doug Jones) and is not able to speak nor is as benevolent as Abe Sapien in both Hellboys (played also by Doug Jones) and is known to attack when pushed too far. The Russian scientist Dimitri is the only official at the plant looking out for Amphibian man. Later one of the cleaning ladies (Sally Hawkins) at the plant takes an interest.

Del Toro has written and directed several interesting films besides the two Hellboys:  Pan Labyrinth (2006) and the unique television production The Strain. The largess of the budget for The Shape of Water went to set design,  which consists of a laboratory and an apartment over a movie theater and parts of the town that surround the government complex.

Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaning woman and the victim of an unknown criminal assault that left her scarred. She works together with Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spenser) at the government lab.  Elisa lives alone and has an interesting gay neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) who is a commercial artist out of regular work.  In their adjoining apartments, she looks out for him while Zelda looks out for her. Zelda’s commitment to Elisa is at times stronger than to her lazy ungrateful husband and definitely her racist boss.

Amphibian Man is kept in one of the laboratory tanks and Elisa seeks him out with eggs and music. The interiors of the lab are exceptionally created as well as Elisa and Giles’ apartment, a diner with a homophobic and racist owner, and Richard’s home with his dutiful high heeled wife. All environments are filled with artefacts from the 1960’s – finned Cadillacs, trinkets and bric a brac, clothing and furniture. Television programs and film excerpts are displayed on TV consoles:  a variety of musicals, newsreel footage of police brutality against blacks, Henry Koster’s The Story of Ruth, Shirley Temple, Mr Ed the talking horse and speeches by JFK. At Venice, the film received the Golden Lion for best film, and its visual effects, mise en scène and stunning cinematography have been praised ever since. 

Amphibian Man is worshipped in the Amazons just as The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Both humanoids are of interest to science and more importantly form an attachment to a woman. In The Shape of Water, the romance accompanied to French love songs eventally consumes the narrative. Elisa is adamant about getting to know Amphibian man who does not see her imperfection,  whereas the perfect Julie Adams as Kay Lawrence in The Creature from the Black Lagoon was horrified at the prospect of the match. The scientists in The Shape of Water are antagonistic whereas in The Creature from the Black Lagoon, they are cautious but intrigued. Eventually the creature is in the care of the military who control him with brute force, and the employees of the lab with racist, misogynist and xenophobic language. Strickland knows how to harass Eliza and her past as a survivor and makes references to Samson and Delilah to humiliate Zelda.

The weakness of The Shape of Water is its narrative evolution past the magic of discovery of this new environment, this time period, and the characters that live during this time. All defer to the Creature and Elisa and their passion directs the film towards its end . The magic of the story gives way to romance and dance numbers from Golden age Hollywood movies eclipsing the misogyny , homosexuality, race relations, the brutality of the military industrial complex, the space race, class differences, and the vapid consumerism. Brushing this all aside for romance is not unique, since there is nothing new about Amphibian Man other than a woman who is willing to follow him. However in such a dark period of history,  romantic love is a potent force, and as intoxicating as the dreams of Hollywood.

© 2017 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 09/09/17
Movie Magazine International