Not Your Average Creature Feature: The Shape of Water (A Review)

Last Saturday I decided I was fed up with the rainy weather and my persistent cold and went to the cinema for some much-needed distraction. I picked a watery film to suit my watery nose and went for The Shape of Water. Conveniently, the film had just won an Oscar, and this was my chance to see what all the fuss was about.

First, a word of caution. This may not be your kind of film. If you did not like any of Guillermo Del Toro’s previous films, particularly Pan’s Labyrinth, don’t go. If you don’t like science fiction, or fantasy, or magical realism, don’t go. If the blurb – cleaner falls in love with a mysterious mermaid-like creature she meets at the top secret research facility where she works – makes your heart sink, go see a different film. If you do like all of those things, however, you’re in for a treat.

I’m a sucker for films that look good. My favourites include Blade Runner, Natural Born Killers and Sin City, not just for their acting or storylines, but because they all feature unusual visual styles that set them apart from other films. Being a book lover, I need more than a good story to like a film. Sound and vision add a dimension I can’t get from a novel. The Shape of Water does not disappoint in this respect.

The film is set in 1960s Baltimore and it shows. From furniture to Cadillacs and outfits, every detail reflects the design of the era. Combined with its science fiction theme and watery colour scheme, it makes for a striking visual experience that vaguely reminded me of Blade Runner, but also of La Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain. The connection with the latter is amplified by the film’s lush, fairytale-like soundtrack and its big-eyed protagonist. All in all, I would have enjoyed the film even if the story would have been rubbish.

That story, it needs to be said, is much darker than its romance plot suggests. This should be no surprise to seasoned Del Toro fans but it’s worth pointing out nonetheless. This is no updated version of The Little Mermaid. Without giving too much away, I can say the film features fairly explicit depictions of masturbation, barely consensual sex, gruesome violence and partially eaten pets. Do not take your little nephew under any circumstances.

Of course I’ve heard of the plagiarism accusations. I’m not familiar with Zindel’s play or Nollkaemper’s film, so I’m unable to comment on whether there’s some truth in this, but I would like to point out that the story as such is not original in the first place. The romance plot in itself is, of course, as old as Methuselah. Stories about the bond between creatures and humans have been around for almost as long: ET, King Kong and Alf the Alien are notable examples.

But The Shape of Water is not really about the creature, at least not for me. What made this film stand out for me was how the creature is used to highlight the prejudices and relationships that shape the society it is forcibly dragged into. The Shape of Water features characters with disabilities, gay and black characters, without becoming preachy or making it A Thing. In a sense, main character Elisa and her friends are all “creatures”, not because they really are monsters, but because they are treated as such by their society, embodied by super villain Richard Strickland.

The Shape of Water offers the meaning behind its metaphor easily, and perhaps other films have covered its subject in more detail and with more elegance. That said, I found the film much more enjoyable than I expected, particularly because it never becomes overtly saccharine. I do have one request, though, in case the makers are planning a sequel. Given that we’re treated to extensive shots of Elisa’s naked body, can we get some more detail on her partner’s crown jewels too please?

Image Pixabay.com via Pexels

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