Del Toro is at his most whimsical in Shape of Water. He mixes in startling violence to make the film’s inherent romanticism pop even more. Alexandre Desplat’s lilting score, designed to mirror the Hayes Code Hollywood that Elisa and Giles love so much, is in direct opposition to much of the Strickland-related exploits in the film, as are Del Toro’s fanciful fades and pans and dissolves that give Shape of Water a timeless quality even as a seamless fish creature blinks and gurgles his way through the plot. The presence of the classic, red-curtained theater beneath Elisa’s apartment tips his hand, though Del Toro has long made riffs on fairy tales and their more modern equivalent, comic books. The Shape of Water is the latest example, a kind of steampunk Beauty and the Beast that takes Elisa’s infatuation with the creature seriously, even when there probably should’ve been more of a question from her friends about what exactly is happening.
Those friends, Zelda and Giles, are the source of The Shape of Water’s biggest struggles. Octavia Spencer has done about all she can do as the sassy and supportive maid friend. She plays the role well, and Del Toro’s and Vanessa Taylor’s script sees fit to give her own independent scenes, but why can’t she fall in love with a fish creature instead of support a lead character who does? Giles is worse, the first time I’ve found a Richard Jenkins portrayal actively annoying. His standard arc takes him from a passive observer to an active participant, but between his wholly unnecessary and stilted voiceover narration and the copious amount of sweaty pathos Jenkins plays the character with, Giles is stuck between being a source of sympathy and comic foil and neither works. The side character in an inoffensive corner of the film, Michael Stuhlbarg’s deep cover Soviet spy, is the most fun, but ends up being inconsequential to the plot or the theme of the film.
That theme is most elucidated in Shannon’s portrayal of Strickland. The master thespian isn’t stretching himself by playing his standard character of an unstable, easily provoked maniac, and Del Toro uses the archetype as a stand-in for repressive conformity and the veneer of decency covering up brute force. The character is both stuck in his particular era and eerily smacks of the present day. The anything-goes anti-Communism that leads to Strangelovian oneupsmanship is a classic trait of the time, but Strickland’s derision of service workers like Elisa and Zelda feels more contemporary. He doesn’t have any guiding ethos beyond the appearance of success and normalcy, so he’s got a wife who does whatever he says and two children he shows no warmth to and marching orders that he blindly carries out because failure would mean turning the fancy new car back into the dealer and becoming less successful in the eyes of whoever he thinks is watching. Del Toro and Taylor use aggressive, blunt metaphors for Strickland, none moreso than a pair of rotting fingers reattached to his body, but rejected by his immune system. A more notable one is his hand-washing bathroom technique, in which he washes his hands before using the toilet and not after. For him, the world is dirty, while he, and everything he creates and is responsible for, is clean and pure.
Contrary to Strickland’s assertions around hygiene, the only pure thing in The Shape of Water is Elisa’s relationship with the creature. Jones’ practical performance, touched up with CG, instills a regalness and power into the creature, but under all that makeup, he can only do so much beyond creating a figure of awe and admiration, which he does. It’s up to Hawkins to do the heavy lifting, and she’s up to the task. Her delicate mischievousness during the early courtship stages turns into real ardor, all apparent through her face and her increasingly forceful sign language, punctuated by slapping hands and the occasional guttural noise. She’s portrayed from the first frames as a sensual person, shown going through her daily routine which includes masturbating in the tub (the difference in cinematic connotation between a man’s masturbatory morning routine and a woman’s is significant and someone should write an article about it on the AV Club or equivalent), and Hawkins conveys all the roiling desire that leads her to distraction in the rest of her world. This might lead her into eyebrow-raising liaisons, but her friends don’t say anything because nothing’s really at stake. The creature’s into it, and if propriety is exemplified by Strickland, who would want it?
The Shape of Water is a strange Best Picture that’s out of the usual mold, and while it’s nowhere near the best film of 2017, it is a delightful and appealing film from one of cinema’s most imaginative entertainers. Its charms are easy to let wash over the viewer, from set design as intricate as anything from Del Toro’s fantastical Hellboy film to the several rousing victories, large and small, that the characters achieve. Some tightening up on the supporting cast would’ve been appreciated, and a late shift to the magical instead of the zoological robs the film of stakes. The Shape of Water needed to solidify its more liquid aspects to achieve greatness, but as light fare with aspirations of seriousness, it’s certainly got its charms. Also, a woman fucks an amphibian. B