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TELLURIDE FILM REVIEW: Brilliant Del Toro Concocts Fantastical Love Poem in THE SHAPE OF WATER

TELLURIDE FILM REVIEW: Brilliant Del Toro Concocts Fantastical Love Poem in THE SHAPE OF WATER

Guillermo del Toro told a packed screening hall at the Telluride Film Festival that to him, monsters were a religion and that, as a boy, he dreamt of an alternative ending to The Creature in the Black Lagoon, one in which the monster and the girl lived happily ever after. These two truisms should be understood to put in proper context the daring achievement that the visionary director reached for in his latest film, the fantasy romance The Shape of Water.

The film will not be for everyone, given its Pan’s Labyrinth adult style core. You may even suspend your disbelief for creatures in Pan’s because they are presented as wild concoctions of a lonely child’s imaginations. In Shape, however, although the central creature also relates to a lonely girl (a mute woman to be precise), the creature is the very real salvation, not the invention, of her innermost thoughts and feelings.

The mute woman, Elisa, is played with subtle dexterity, with aplomb with needed, and with moving ingenuity by that brilliant actress Sally Hawkins, now officially overdue an Academy Award. She sleeps by day and, after waking and feeding her aging and middling neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), she works as a cleaning lady at a top secret government facility somewhere near Baltimore. Partnered most of the time with the caring and sassy Zelda (Octavia Spencer), Elisa gets by on the strength of her resourcefulness and her inner beauty, but mostly isolated from the outside world that sees her as a nuisance and, indeed, a freak of nature.

One fine day, a mysterious arrival upends her otherwise tranquil existence, a somewhat gruesome creature under observation in the facility by army doctor Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), and by military attaché Strickland (Michael Shannon, in another remarkable performance as a tyrant). The creature itself—called “The Asset” in the film—is pure Del Toro. It is scaly, somewhat frightening, and kind of sickly human looking. He cannot speak, but learns to communicate at points through sign language with the unspeaking Elisa. The creature is perhaps most aptly described like a man-fish, amphibian breathing abilities and all.

Connected to the creature by their mutual isolation and the cruel treatment at the hands of the degenerate Strickland, Elisa quickly takes an affinity for the amphibian-seeming thing, who ends up living in one of the tanks she cleans. But just exactly where that will take her remains to be seen.

The film develops in some ways like a mirror copy of Pan’s Labyrinth, perhaps its most obvious weakness. In some ways, it is an improved version of that film. Shannon is brilliant in his portrayal as the evil member of the military (before, it was a Spanish Civil War officer), and engages in acts of self-mutilation that are as cringe-worthy as they were in 2006. And Hawkins is nothing sort of a revelation, while never uttering a word, as the central figure, her Elisa much more complex and certainly more heartbreaking than even little Ofelia was in the prior movie.

In others, The Shape of Water seems like a smaller-scale version of that project. I do not refer to the cinematography (Crimson Peak photographer Dan Laustsen does exquisite work), the once again moving score, this time by master Alexander Desplat, or any of the other production values, all of which at the very least match the movie that netted three Oscars in those categories. It really is in the story itself in which Shape does not seem to compare. Whereas in Pan’s the machinations of Ofelia’s imagination and the tests she was put through were clearly symbolic and allegoric, there is not much of that in The Shape of Water. It is—purposefully so, as per the director—a straight up, no holds barred love story.

Still, the brain, I suggest, naturally gravitates towards finding symbolism when asked to accept that the leading man is essentially a fish. It takes a bit of luster away when you realize that all of the 1950s TV and film archival footage that constantly plays in Giles’ television, all of the 1950s music that Elisa plays for the creature are meant as direct statements of love for those periods rather than something more nuanced.

To be fair, I was likely looking in the wrong places. In the end, the love story is a classic beauty and the beast fairy tale, with a bit more daringness around the edge. It is the story of two outcasts, two lonely rejects, finding and loving each other. Indeed, there are more than two in the film, but the two at the center are the focus of attention. It is the downtrodden, he posits, the ones no one pays attention to, that can be the true protagonists.

And Del Toro, with his meticulous script, has lots to say not just about outsiders and lepers, he clearly has his finger on the political pulse of the country back then and today. Tinges of racism, sexism, classism and homophobia all make their way into the story in clever ways, reminding us that the America that was “great” in 1950s had that ugly tonal quality overlaying it.

Overlaying all of this is the one central motif of The Shape of Water, that essential component of life itself, that ever so important molecule without which the Asset could not breath but which is crucial to our own human existence as well. Water invades the film indeed, from heavy rains to flooded bathrooms and even cleaned toilets. Water fills the screening almost literally from beginning to end, as if the entire thing was floating in a state of dreamlike suspended animation. Water, with its malleable form and its shape to engulf, in the beautiful masterstroke of the film, is a straightforward allegory for a love so profound that it can make two separate beings into one.

Grade: A-

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About The Author

J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam, a voting member of the New York Film Critics Online, has been a movie lover since he saw the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in theaters at a tender age, and has been a devoted student of American film history every since. His favorite films range from Back to the Future to West Side Story, depending on the time of day, and has a mildly unhealthy obsessions with the Academy Awards. Any similarity with the slightly unstable writer in the seminal 1944 film 'The Lost Weekend' is pure coincidence

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