Amelie meets Dark City in this darkly whimsical fairy tale by Guillermo del Toro. Fairy tales are often equal parts sentimentality and tragedy and The Shape of Water weaves a long dance around these two elements.
Set in a 1960s Cold War, otherworldly Baltimore, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) works a lowly job as a cleaner in a subterranean government research facility. Her only friends are fellow cleaner Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and lonely neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins). Found in a river as a baby and raised in an orphanage, Elisa is mute, communicating with sign language and moving largely unnoticed through the world.
With great secrecy, an amphibious creature (Doug Jones) is brought in to the lab and held captive. Elisa begins a tentative communication with it, seeing a reflection of herself in it’s voicelessness and powerlessness. Larger forces are at play, though, and she becomes caught between the two men who want to control it; government thug Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and scientist Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlberg). These two men represent cinematic binaries: government and science; capitalism and socialism; narcissism and empathy.
Del Toro loves to reference and mix cinematic genre and there is a pervasive off-kilter familiarity to the film. There are elements of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Tim Burton, 50s monster sci-fi and even a touch of the stylistic self-consciousness of Wes Anderson. Del Toro sets the mood well with a dim, washed out colour palette and a world that seems irrevocably removed from nature. The creature cannot help but create havoc as it embodies all of nature’s feral, inexorable strength.
I’m conflicted about del Toro’s need to include a masturbation scene within the first few moments of the film. There is a definitely a sexual thread to this story and although it’s a fairytale, it’s not made for children. I question the purpose of this opening scene. Female masturbation seems to have become a motif for female desire in movies and here seems gratuitous – titillation and lazy characterisation by a male director.
Although generally engaging, for me the story sometimes dragged as it moved toward its inevitable climax. Sally Hawkins is always great, managing to portray a brittle fragility as well as indomitable tenacity. There isn’t too much moral ambiguity – Strickland is bad, Elisa and her friends are good. The creature in some ways is a disappointment, a catalyst for human drama without much story or agency of its own.
Have you seen this film? Did that opening scene bother you? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.