There’s something fishy about woman-meets-gillman romance fantasy The Shape of Water, says MacDara Conroy
That’s some very canny marketing, I must say, releasing Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water on Valentine’s Day for the Irish and British markets and capitalising on its positioning for awards season — long since its original US release in early December — as a tale of star-crossed romance. It’s a neat distraction from the notion that what we have here is much more a fairytale fantasy than any conventional love story; its primary characters are, after all, a mute woman and a humanoid frog who is definitely not the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The live-action Beauty and the Beast may have made box office bank from a similar angle, but there’s something fishy about a story that, let’s face it, advocates for bestiality.
It’s not the only thing that smells rotten about what’s being feted as del Toro’s finest work since his breakthrough Pan’s Labyrinth. Last month, as the Guardian reported, the estate of US playwright Paul Zindel alleged that the plot is largely derived from his play Let Me Hear You Whisper, about a janitor who bonds with a dolphin in a research lab; the similarities are uncanny.
Del Toro has since been accused of lifting scenes wholesale from Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s cult classic Delicatessen and mainstream hit Amelie. Regardless of the merits of such claims, Jeunet’s influence is undoubtedly all over the look and feel of The Shape of Water, from the distressed, green-hued production design to the soundtrack (the accordion strains of its opening moments immediately evoke Yann Tiersen’s indelible score for Amelie). It’s a stretch to describe it as mere homage.
Even Sally Hawkins in the lead reflects Audrey Tautou’s cheery naivety, though that’s become such a stock character in the intervening years (and Hawkins herself played a send-up of such individuals in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky). It’s much to Hawkins’ credit that she shines through these issues in the role of mute, orphaned Elisa, a cleaner at a government lab in a hyper-stylised alternative-universe 1960s that’s recently taken delivery of an amphibious creature from South America (played by who else but Doug Jones).
After the inevitable meet cute between Elisa and the gillman, the former finds herself at odds with Strickland (Michael Shannon), a barely hinged G-man driven by firebrand religious fervour to torture the creature in his keep. But Strickland’s violence only prompts the previously unassuming Elisa to take brave steps to save her submersible sweetheart, enlisting the help of cleaning colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer), sympathetic scientist Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) and pie-fixated neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) along the way.
It’s the people that lift The Shape of Water from the depths of its visual gimmickry and storytelling debt. Shannon is outstanding as a villain with palpable malevolence as his obsession grows, while Hawkins is the light to that darkness, a genuine character amid the heightened environment that provides an in for audiences maybe unaccustomed to del Toro’s fantastical schtick. That’s very much in spite of his attempts to more roundly humanise Elisa that verge on exploitation; the depiction of her daily ritual, which includes masturbating in the bath to an egg timer, sets up for a gratuitous nude scene much later on that doubles down on that ill-judged bestiality angle.
On a related note, there’s a mangled metaphor in here about eggs and sexuality that I shan’t dwell upon.
The Shape of Water opens nationwide on Wednesday February 14th, with a special showing at Dublin’s Stella Theatre on Tuesday February 13th