Arts and Entertainment

Del Toro Defining “The Shape of Water”

Director Guillermo del Toro’s latest film is fantastically whimsical, emotional, and perfectly dramatic.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Alex Lin

If someone had said a couple of months ago that a film about a woman being seduced by a half-human, half-fish creature would win Best Picture (and three other Oscars), one would have thought it impossible. But having seen "The Shape of Water," it’s become clear that the movie's success is perfectly justified, despite its bizarre premise.

Directed by Guillermo del Toro, the film is set in 1960s Baltimore, centered around the affairs of a government research agency that has managed to acquire a strange amphibian humanoid (Doug Jones), which is referred to by employees as "The Asset." Aesthetically pleasing green-hued backdrops, a romantic French-influenced soundtrack, and sweeping cinematography bring to life the story of protagonist Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute sanitation worker employed by the lab, and her developing relationship with its new experiment.

From the start, the movie yields its oddities. Elisa is a single woman who lives in her routines and is a quiet companion for her shy neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins). As such, almost immediately after meeting the Asset, Elisa is drawn to him, and the two bond over music and sign language in their mutual absence of voice. Elisa even dances for her companion in a rare moment of celebration. The continuing storyline becomes increasingly eccentric as Elisa and the Asset fall deeply in love.

However, the characters are only half of the story. Del Toro provides his usual passion for the fantastical genre while also emphasizing heavy themes like compassion and bigotry. Elisa’s loneliness is overcome by her love for her new marine companion, and she goes to great lengths to help him despite the dangers that the lab’s government agent, Strickland (Michael Shannon), poses. The antithesis of Elisa and the villain of the story, Strickland’s dark presence fills the room, and it’s clear that he expects his standards to be met. Unlike Elisa, Strickland carries out his dirty work crudely and acts violently toward his inferiors and those he dislikes.

No matter how random the elements of the plot seem to be, however, somehow del Toro manages to layer them all into a believable story. In the case of “The Shape of Water,” audiences can easily understand why Elisa is so enticed by the Asset, and the pair falling in love doesn’t come as much of a surprise.

While all this may evoke a skeptical response, one thing viewers are sure to agree on is the movie's enticing color palette and unique visuals. Elisa’s apartment and workplace are a sea green, while the Asset himself is shades of green and blue. Adding to this is the constant presence of water, as well as the hints of turquoise and aquamarine colors that appear anywhere from Strickland’s Cadillac to the curious green pies that Giles enjoys eating. To properly balance it out, Strickland, a bully at heart, proves to be as monstrous as he claims the amphibian man to be, and is often surrounded by dark, brooding hues that invade all the spaces he occupies. Landmarks, from the boisterous theater next to Elisa’s home to even Elisa’s bathroom, which becomes a recurring location in the film, are made to stand out and signal places of importance.

Given its strange circumstances, much of the film’s success is dependent on its actors. Fortunately, each cast member manages to step up to the plate. In an intense but wordless monologue, Elisa tries to persuade Giles into helping her care for the Asset. The scene shows Elisa frantically signing while Giles repeats her words. Through it, viewers get a sense of urgency and emotional pain from Elisa that needn’t be explained in a dialogue. Hawkins’s performance is also coy and demure, a demeanor that pairs nicely with Octavia Spencer’s take on Zelda, Elisa’s work companion who relates anecdotes and tries to keep Elisa out of trouble. Their friendship radiates strong-willed optimism, which is surprisingly not diminished by Strickland’s vice-like authority, a role that is gruesomely stretched by Michael Shannon.

If the film had been the product of any other director, crew, or cast, it likely would have gone in a completely opposite direction in terms of reception. Though undeniably odd in plot and cast, the movie is at once endearing and powerful, an effect which is due in part to its accompanying score by composer Alexandre Desplat, who won his second Oscar with his work in this film. His charming melodies contrast the movie’s harsher elements and also provide recurring themes that are tied to various characters. If written for a purely romantic movie, the film’s soundtrack would seem overly sappy and cliché, yet in tandem with a plot like that of “The Shape of Water,” it only adds to the film’s appeal.

Cinematographically, the movie succeeds yet again. Though outlandish, Elisa and the amphibian man’s underwater love scenes are visually stunning and eerily calm. Elisa’s television set also makes frequent appearances, usually broadcasting black-and-white Carmen Miranda-esque dance numbers, reminding audiences of simpler times. Contrastingly, cinematographer Dan Laustsen uses extreme closeups to further accentuate Strickland’s sadistic attitude and behavior, and he alternates with wide shots to depict isolation, fear, and finality.

When described in words, “The Shape of Water” seems unusual at the least, but however doubtful viewers may be when going into the film, any ambiguity is sure to be cleared up within the movie’s two-hour runtime. To put it bluntly, “The Shape of Water” is something you have to see to believe.