I think we can all agree that Guillermo del Toro is one of the strangest filmmakers currently working — so when I say that The Shape of Water may well be his oddest work to date, you know that it’s going to be weird. But even such an unequivocal statement doesn’t do the fundamental weirdness of this movie justice, and I’m not sure that any statement really could.
Playing along the lines of a Jean-Pierre Jeunet remake of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Shape of Water is a beautiful love story, both in terms of its sentiment and its visual aesthetic. The fact that its emotional core is rooted in the most improbable of romances only adds to the tapestry of the bizarre that del Toro has created. It’s like Amelie meets Beauty and the Beast set in Cold War-era Baltimore — which may not sound like the ideal premise for an awards-push prestige picture, but this is 2017, and I can definitely say that stranger things have happened. Splash it ain’t.
The story follows Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a cleaning woman at a government research facility leading a simple life of quiet desperation. A mute since childhood, Elisa’s only social outlets seem to be her work friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her neighbor Giles, a marginally employed illustrator and closeted homosexual (Richard Jenkins). Her days consist of simple routines — from boiling eggs to maturating in the bath, everything moves with a clockwork predictability — until Michael Shannon’s shadowy government agent Strickland shows up with a merman (Doug Jones) in tow. It’s safe to say that things only get stranger from there, and while the narrative may play out in much the way you’d expect, the impression del Toro’s film creates is almost unimaginably peculiar.
Del Toro lays the allegory on thick, with references to Greco-Roman mythology and biblical allusions aplenty — Elisa lives upstairs from a movie theater called the Orpheum, which happens to be playing Henry Koster’s The Story of Ruth; Giles references Tantalus while Strickland delivers a gut-churning rendition of the story of Sampson — but what the writer/director is really going for is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This is a story about change itself and what it means to be human in a world populated by people who barely warrant such a designation. But at its core, The Shape of Water is a love story and one that will move even those skeptical of their capacity to empathize with an aquatic Fortean anomaly.
Selling a story like this depends heavily on a competent cast, and this ensemble is top-notch — Shannon is at his slimy best, Spencer and Jenkins create impressive depth in relatively modest supporting roles — but Hawkins is absolutely outstanding, upstaging everyone on the screen with her capacity to convey emotional nuance without a sound. But this is del Toro’s show, and it bears the unmistakable fingerprints of a true auteur. His visual inventiveness is absolutely remarkable from start to finish, and his judicious utilization of special effects has never been better. If you told me a year ago that a romantic drama about a woman falling in love with a sort of fish thing would be one of the most emotionally moving pictures of the year — as well as one of my favorite — I would’ve asked what you’d been smoking. But here we are. Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language.
Now Playing at Carolina Cinemark and Fine Arts Theatre.