' ' Cinema Romantico: The Shape of Water

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Shape of Water

Though “The Shape of Water” begins with a sequence intended to elicit the sensation of being a dream by cutting from some shimmering underwater-scape that nevertheless seems to exist indoors, to its main character, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), asleep and then rousted awake, in the end, after it’s all said and done, this might actually more likely connote reality intruding on fantasy, which is one of the movie’s main features. “The Shape of Water” is set in 1962, at the height of the Cold War, but also of an America still waiting to emerge from its Eisenhower-induced coma, and if director Guillermo del Toro dares to imagine what the future might hold, he knows in the there and then some of his characters do not necessarily belong. The subsequent movie becomes about a certain sort of attempt to break free, almost as if the cruelness of the reality presented is too much for them to take, and that becomes more the movie’s fantasy than its Amphibian Man.

The Amphibian Man (Doug Jones), unwillingly plucked from South American jungles where he was worshipped as a god, is something like del Toro’s less vengeful variation of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, imprisoned in a grimy, slimy tank in some top secret Baltimore government lab for nefarious purposes to which the humanist Dr. Hoffstelter (Michael Stuhlbarg) objects. That we never exactly get to know The Amphibian Man seems inevitable absent any asinine flashback but also a little disappointing, never quite bringing us as close to him as he becomes to the lab’s janitor, Elisa. Because if movie beasts normally fall for women in their grasp, like King Kong and Ann Darrow, here the roles are reversed, with Elisa falling for The Amphibian Man. That Elisa is also mute gives Hawkins a chance to stretch her acting legs, sure, and she complies, turning trembles of the mouth or flickers of the eyes into grand statements of romantic purpose. But it also levels the playing field between Elisa and the creature, and their relationship blossoms almost subliminally, through music and behavior, evoked by del Toro with a distinct fairytale vibe even if the spirit of the relationship nevertheless comes across simply carnal, not the only bout of dissonance in “The Shape of Water.”

If this is a monster movie, however, and it is, the monster is not The Amphibian Man, even if the American and Soviets see him that way, but Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). He’s rotten from the inside-out, emblemized in the blackened, rotted fingers re-attached to his hand after an off screen encounter with the creature. And while Shannon, as Shannon will, lets his fearsome furnace burn hot, his character’s life is filled out with little touches connecting his evil to society’s ills. The bright, almost blinding, beiges and yellows of his postwar home deliberately contrast with the otherwise omnipresent green, which is not merely an obvious allusion to environmentalism but explicitly referenced as the color of the future, one which feels a long way off to its band of misfit main characters. Indeed, at the diner Elisa frequents with her next-door neighbor and friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), the key lime pie he favors practically glimmers like so much pie in the sky.

Giles, played with a kind of warmhearted sorrow by Jenkins, is both stuck in the past and out of the future, a closeted gay man whose commercial artistry is being blotted out by photographs. Elisa’s co-worker, meanwhile, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is a black woman told in a thinly veiled threat by Strickland that the Lord undoubtedly looks less like her and more like him. Even Dr. Hoffstetler is more than meets the eye, revealed as a Soviet spy, suggesting that, yes, those commie bastards have beating hearts. Together, they scheme to free The Amphibian Man, and if Elisa is doing it for love, she is also doing it out of good old fashioned decency, as are the others, which strikes back at Strickland and his brethren, his commanding officer (Nick Searcy) barking that America only exports and sells decency, it doesn’t use it. Del Toro seems to regard that as an epitaph for America, one that he is pointedly traveling back in time to tear down.

To tear it down, however, del Toro overdoes it, virtually ennobling his characters despite their occasional pangs of sadness, more or less rendering them as flawless opposites of their antagonists. This stands in contrast to the movie’s frank portrayals of violence and sex, the latter best glimpsed in an early scene where Elisa necessarily pleasures herself. It’s a delightfully candid tone-setter, and one that makes you wish del Toro peeked behind a few more closed doors of the era to see the way it really was rather than keeping certain doors closed to maintain his fanciful air. Why in one scene he literally has Giles close the door on Elisa and The Amphibian Man when they are about to go all the way. It’s as if del Toro does not want to completely invade the safe space he creates for his characters, considering them better off without this mean old world, which is sort of what the conclusion, not to be revealed, suggests, and so he goes about prescribing a resolution without quite letting them earn it on their own.

No comments: