The Shape of Water Review
In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works, lonely Elisa (Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky) is trapped in a life of isolation. Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures) discover a secret classified experiment.
Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) might be one of the most important directors currently in activity. He could be considered part of a very select club of male directors (Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg, for example) who have managed to conciliate auteur cinema and entertainment. Directors whose filmography and inimitable style are enough to send shivers down (some) film fans’ spine. Directors who manage to bring together the passion for old fashioned cinema (monsters, practical effects, simple, but not simplistic, stories) while adopting new technologies and pushing the boundaries with audience and studios. Furthermore, he is an aesthete who gives as much importance to the story he’s telling as in the justification of his mise-en-scène.
Up until now, del Toro’s filmography can roughly be divided into his personal films (in Spanish language) and his “commercial” films (usually in the English language). What del Toro has managed to achieve over the years is to make these two types of films - if not always perfect - at least always extremely exciting. In this context, the release of his new "baby" could be perceived as some sort of event as it has the potential of being his first personal film in the English language. Even if the intentions, and the execution, are extremely commendable, and the critical reception the film has already received around the world and from various festival and award ceremonies, already make it an undisputed success for del Toro, it might also be the first real faux pas in the director’s amazing cinematographic career.
On paper, every aspect of The Shape of Water appears perfect: the fable-like premise that del Toro is so affectionate of, the 60s America setting infused with Cold War paranoia, the secret research facility, the mystery around the “creature”. And not only on paper; when seeing the film, it is impressive to see how many details of the original story, which are usually suggested by filmmakers and end up inadvertently rejected by frightened studio executives, have managed to survive in the finished film. For instance, the actual romance between Elisa and the creature, the nudity or the open description of Elisa’s attitude towards sex.
In short, a Fantasy/Adventure dream for every Cinema lover and a real declaration of love from del Toro to most of the cinematic genres that inspired his body of work: monster movies, Film Noir, musical comedies of Hollywood’s Golden Age or Romantic tales. Furthermore, as expected, del Toro’s mise-en-scène is sumptuous, and perfectly enhanced by Dan Lautsen’s (Crimson Peak) splendid cinematography, and the creature embodied by Doug Jones (Pan's Labyrinth) is absolutely gorgeous.
Unfortunately, despite all the good intentions and the ambition of the project, del Toro’s film misses his target: achieving a form of poetic lyricism that embraces the whole film and perfectly conciliates substance and form. So what is the exact problem with this film? Why doesn’t it work as well as del Toro’s other works?
The Shape of Water is poetic indeed, but not quite enough to go straight to the heart and make you forget everything else. However, it was maybe the main expectation of this fable, especially when considering the lack of strength, and limited stakes, of the screenplay written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor (Divergent). When looking closely at this aspect, the film doesn’t propose anything purely dramatic outside of a naïve story embellished by some transgressive elements. Is this the reason why the film becomes progressively boring as the story of Elisa unfolds - or perhaps it is the characters themselves and the way they are written and performed.
Indeed this lack of dramatic density could have been potentially compensated by well-developed characters. However, even if the cast chosen by del Toro is uniformly excellent, regrettably, despite producing excellent performances, the main characters of The Shape of Water remain desperately clichéd to the point of preventing any sense of real empathy, or even antipathy: the lonely, mute heroine dreaming of fairy tales, the proud black colleague who supports the heroine, the funny gay best friend (Richard Jenkins, The Visitor), the desperately bad, and borderline crazy, military man (Michael Shannon, Take Shelter).
When all is said, it could the bond between the two main characters, which is created so quickly that, for me, doesn’t manage to bear the requisite emotional weight or strength the end of the film desperately needs. Despite the fact that del Toro has more than proven that he can end his films in emotional apotheosis by creating, or simply illustrating, very touching romance between different species in seemingly antithetical films such as Hellboy (between Hellboy and Liz) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (between Abe and Nuala) or even in Blade II (between Blade and Nyssa). Indeed the Amelie-type score composed by French composer Alexandre Desplat - usually a wonderfully imaginative composer - doesn't really help the film acquire its own personality either.
The Shape of Water is very far from being a bad film (even an average one to be fair) but it cannot compete with masterpieces such as Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone or even more assumed entertainment movies such as Hellboy and its sequel. There is no doubt that del Toro’s film will bring back some shiny statuettes from the upcoming Oscar ceremony and will, therefore, become a reference for audience and studios alike in future cinematic trends. And if this doesn't totally seem deserved, looking back at del Toro's impressive body of work, at least it constitutes well-deserved recognition (long overdue) for such an amazing director. Let’s hope that del Toro will manage to regain that lustre with one of his numerous future projects.