The new Guillermo Del Toro movie ‘The Shape of Water’ is a fairy tale but it is so much more, the famous director plays with our myths and intertwines then with today’s most crucial questions and stakes.
Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), the wide-eyed heroin of his film, is a mute and lonely girl who works as a cleaning lady in a secret government laboratory. She is an orphan found near a river, with mysterious scars on her neck and she looks like a sort of Amelie Poulain in ‘60s America, living alone with only two close friends, Zelda, an African American janitor who works with her (she is played by Octavia Spencer, who after her role as a NASA Mathematician in ‘Hidden Figures’ is back in the lab with in a very different position), and Giles, an aging gay artist who is her next door neighbor and tries to sells the illustrations he makes all day long.
One day, Elisa discovers that the government is secretly keeping a very special amphibian in the lab, and she soon establishes a real communication with the creature, she brings him hard-boiled eggs and teaches him sign language. She makes a real connection with him through music, she makes him listen to Glenn Miller and ‘the Great Benny Goodman’, and if one side of the movie is an interspecies Beauty and the Beast story, the film is more than ‘Amelie Poulain’ meets ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’.
The government plans to dissect the man-amphibian and use it for advance in space research – the story is happening during the cold war and the US are engaged into the space race against Russia. When Elisa becomes aware of the horrific plan, she comes up with her own strategy (with the help of her two friends and an unexpected Russian scientist) to steal the creature from the lab and free him back to the sea.
The beauty of the movie is indescribable, first the cinematography is beautiful, with a vintage green palette, and a golden light shinning in the middle of the darkness, as bright as Elisa’s cute smile, when she comes back to work after her first bath with the creature.
Water is obviously everywhere, on the windows of the bus she rides every day, in her bathtub where she masturbates every morning to forget her loneliness before going to work, in her entire apartment, as she once decides to entirely fill up her bathroom, in order to give the creature more space during one of their intimate moments. Water is finally pouring from the sky, when rain arrives and it’s time to say goodbye to the gill man.
Of course, the monster is not the one you think, the monster is the oppressive government, mostly embodied by obnoxious Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the man in charge of the research team, who munches pills and candies all movie-long. His name (Strickland, which resonates in today’s America) tells it all, he is the embodiment of the American accomplishment, with a docile wife and two kids in the suburbs and a brand new Cadillac. Whilst he constantly expresses his disdain for the working class, ‘the shit cleaners’ and ‘the piss wipers’, he walks around with two rotting gangrenous fingers for the most part of the film – the creature has bitten off two of his fingers at the beginning of the movie and they were unsuccessfully reattached. However, this arrogant stinker gets fooled by the people he disdains the most, and his prejudices are so high that he never thinks the kidnapping could have been organized by a cleaning lady. One of the best ‘dialogue’ of the movie is the F-U-C-K that Elisa hand-signs to him, leaving him clueless. In this sense, the movie works like Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Inglorious Basterds’, a revenge of the classes, with a mute cleaning woman, a black woman and a gay guy giving the finger to the oppressive authority and its senseless desire of destruction. It’s also a way to rewrite a classic with a deeper and more personal point of view: Del Toro wanted to remake ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’ but failed to convince the studio executives. But It is especially a tale for our times, with a persecuted creature, who also has amazing healing powers, coming from an Amazon river, and preyed by a hateful and imperious government for its own selfish goals. The movie also works as a homage to old cinema, Guillermo Del Toro remakes the old horror movie of his childhood while his heroine lives above a theater and the TV of her neighbor perpetually shows old musicals and dance numbers.
Just as it is criminal to dissect the creature of his movie, it’s a bit dangerous to dissect Del Toro’s movie, because it dissolves the magic, and this is a movie that first functions at a magical level, it’s a fairy tale after all, the tale of a princess without a voice, but it’s a heartfelt love story which brings up the important questions of trust, courage, and compassion toward other species. ‘It’s not even human!’ says Giles when he is first reticent to help Elisa free the creature. ‘If we don’t do anything, neither are we’, she answers in sign language.
The movie makes great use of music, this is how Elisa first communicates with the creature, and the soundtrack features a great orchestral score by Academy Award winner Alexandre Desplat’s (The Grand Budapest Hotel, The King’s Speech, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Godzilla), mixed with some old classics from Glenn Miller & His Orchestra (‘I Know Why (And So Do You)’), Carmen Miranda’s ‘Chica Chica Boom Chic’, Caterina Valente, Silvio Francesco’s ‘Babalu’, Andy Williams’ ‘A Summer Place’, while a love scene makes the best use of Serge Gaingbourg’s ‘La Javanaise’ (sung by Madeleine Peyroux) I have ever seen.
‘The Shape of Water’ is a film with stunning aesthetics and a cultural consciousness, it’s a tale about otherness and compassion, it’s a new twist on an old fairy tale, but this time the beauty never wants her beast to become a prince charming.
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