The Shape of Water

shapewterWell, for those who always fancast Guillermo del Toro as the director of a Creature from the Black Lagoon remake, we now have The Shape of Water, del Toro’s new beauty-and-the-beast romantic fable pairing a mute woman (Sally Hawkins) with a being known in the credits as Amphibian Man (performed by Doug Jones). Del Toro loves monsters, and that comes through loud and clear. What also comes through is the laziness of the screenplay (by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor). At what point do archetypes become clichés? When they strike us as clichés, I think, and The Shape of Water has enough of them to classify it not as a pure fairy tale but as a mid-budget film that had to be simplified — or dumbed down, if we’re not being generous — in order to be made at all.

Del Toro, for me, will always be among the angels creatively. He’s more or less the only major filmmaker who puts his all into movies that could have been covered by Famous Monsters of Filmland, and he looks for wider and deeper meaning in his elemental stories. His work is probably equally informed by James Whale and Joseph Campbell, by Lovecraft and Bettelheim. Like Clive Barker, del Toro works more seriously with old-school Universal Monsters-style horror than the filmmakers at Universal ever did. So what happens to him sometimes? I think that when working in his native Spanish, del Toro feels more free to flesh out more complex characters. In America, del Toro loses confidence on some level, and he falls back on well-worn tropes.

Here, for instance, the mute woman, Elisa, is lonely and pure of heart. She has no quirks that would intrude on audience identification with her. She’s just looking for love, and so is the cliché next door, her friendly closeted gay artist neighbor (Richard Jenkins nevertheless invests his role with gravitas and regret, and walks away with the film). And so is Amphibian Man, who has been captured and is being contained at the same facility where Elisa works as a cleaning lady. On the other hand, being in a relationship is no guarantee of happiness, either: Elisa’s friend and co-worker (Octavia Spencer) barely tolerates her husband, and the villain of the piece (Michael Shannon), a military man who captured the creature, has the stereotypical cloying nuclear family at home (the movie is set during the Cold War). Only Elisa and the creature’s love is pure, real.

We’re probably not meant to probe this proposal — interspecies love is more authentic than love between humans — too literally. Del Toro intends the romance as a metaphor for how so many people exist at the wrong place and time to find their soulmates, but the universe occasionally gets it right. All well and good, but the problem with predictable characters is that they act predictably and make the movie predictable too. Nothing the brute military man does surprises us, and del Toro piles uglifying indignities on him — the guy throws his wife harsh fucks during which he commands her to be silent; he has two poorly reattached fingers that are starting to stink and blacken with rot. The creature has more dimensions than this human monster, and we get two scenes with the villain buying and driving a new car apparently just to set up its trashing later. It represents the materialism he should transcend, I guess. Not only is he a violent sociopath, he has False Values.

Part of me is always glad that a movie like The Shape of Water can still be made and that a filmmaker like del Toro can continue to work. The movie is a feat of visual imagination, but underneath its sophisticated imagery is a banal and too-plotty skeleton, with a Russian-spy subplot that serves mainly to make the movie longer. If we squint, we can make the Cold War element conform to a larger human theme of feeling alone and mistrustful, or basically feeling like a monster. For del Toro, it always goes back to being a monster, fleeing from the villagers, being smitten with women who shriek at you, dying in an inferno or in a hail of bullets. The thematic masochism is intrinsic to del Toro’s art — miserably picking the scab of one’s self-esteem. But the architecture here is too cardboard, despite a high level of craft among the cast, to make us feel the pain, too.

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