The Shape of Water is a film I’ve struggled with a little since first viewing. I normally judge a film by how much it made me smile, not necessarily through finding it funny, but through how much the art reminded me of why I watch films, why I love cinema. During The Shape of Water, I experienced these smiles an awful lot, but since that experience, I haven’t thought back on the film as much as I imagined I would.
Of course, this isn’t the best opening argument to why I’m placing the film as my 7th favourite of the year … but bear with me.
There seems to have been something of a backlash against The Shape of Water recently (perhaps 2017’s La La Land?), its narrative is full of gaping holes and coincidences, and its central story has been told in many similar ways before by many different people. All of this in consideration, yet still that smile remains; I think what makes the film so special is its own love for storytelling and filmmaking, which, in particular, brushed off onto me. Guillermo del Toro tells a fairytale story of ‘Eliza’, a mute woman who works as a late night cleaner at a secret government facility during the Cold War, falling in love with a sea creature who is half man and half fish … the ‘creature from the black lagoon’ if you will. The two connect through their shared inability to verbally communicate; their separation and disenchantment from the outside world brings them together. The story is nothing new, but is sweetly done, and is formed within a cinematic world where imagination and creativity run wild, and where the impossible seems easily reachable.
Yet, its del Toro’s attitude towards the world of the film I appreciate more than anything; one scene specifically sums up my fondness for the film. As Eliza and her next door neighbour Giles watch TV early in the film, Eliza suddenly switches the channel to a local news station broadcasting images from what appear to be American race riots of the time, “change that awful news, I do not wanna see that” remarks Giles. Eliza promptly switches over to a Hollywood musical during a musical number. Giles smiles, “ahh, to be young and beautiful,” he states while viewing the fantasy images of cinema. Here is the key; The Shape of Water works on me in much the same way as the musical for Giles. I know that there is chaos in the world, injustices happening all over the planet, even as you read these words right now. Yet while viewing the film, I smiled, I forgot about all of this, and for a few hours, I focused on a mute woman’s relationship with a fish man. … It seems pretty ridiculous, and I’m not at all saying that we should always ignore more important things, but The Shape of Water does best what all great films should do, it invites into its mythical world, where for just a short period of time, anything seems possible.
The film’s central performance from Sally Hawkins is also something to mention. The comparisons with her character and Chaplin’s ‘Little Tramp’ may seem too obvious to make owing to the cinematic trait of a removed voice, but its an important one, since much of Hawkins’s performance relies on the subtleties of her face and body. This is just another of cinema’s mysteries, it allows us to view language in its most primal form … not only as words with signified meanings, but as a shared communication from one source to another that could exist within a look, a movement, a touch, or even the absence of all three.