Guillermo del Toro’s new feature “The Shape of Water”, which premiered last night at Venice, is a wonderful new take on the monster film. While it is enjoyable for most audiences and presents itself mostly as a mainstream film, it isn’t afraid to include many, many scenes that could easily belong to an art-house film.
The film tells the story of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute young woman who falls in love with an amphibious monster, who is being used as part of an experiment at the top-secret government facility where she works as a cleaner. Teaching him sign language and feeding him, she soon builds a strong bond with it, but their relationship is not going to be easy, as the creature’s life is in danger.
Hawkins’ performance is flawless and grips the audience from start to finish. Her character is a mix between the eponymous protagonist of “Amélie” and Helen from “Wetlands”: innocent, playful and naïve but with a fearless sexuality and a remarkable lack of squeamishness.
Not any less impressive are the performances of Richard Jenkins (Giles), Michael Shannon (Strickland), and Octavia Spencer (Zelda). The four main actors make the film believable, offering extremely well-structured characters with multi-faceted personalities.
Another strikingly successful aspect of the film lies in its visuals: every frame helps to convey the image of a dark, rainy Baltimore, which is in complete contrast with Strickland’s pastel-coloured home, which represents the “face of America”.
In fact, Guillermo del Toro shows America as seen by foreigners and outsiders: the land of the “free” is in reality a land of oppression, the legendary American dream is reserved to a handful of privileged people, and the traditional heteronormative family is nothing but a façade that hides one’s true identity and feelings. What seems to be a loving father is in reality a heartless villain whose only worry is maintaining his job and his professional reputation, and honest people are at the very bottom of the social ladder.
In fact, the main theme of the film is probably that of the fight of the outcast against the heteronormative, rich and successful white man. And unlike most monster films, the “Others” are the good guys, while the “normal” guy is an extremely dangerous threat.
The film shows that love and tolerance win, but also hints that there will always be someone with disrespectful opinions about the “Others”. Although it is set during the Cold War, the racism and homophobia displayed by some of the film’s characters can still be found nowadays. Nonetheless, spoiler alert, the good guys win, symbolising that after all there is still hope.
“The Shape of Water” is a wonderful film, which successfully blends elements of mainstream and auteur cinema. It’s moving, touching, full of meaning, thought-provoking, and it may be the best film about the romance between a human and a monster since Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands”. With stunning visuals, a wonderful soundtrack, and outstanding performances, “The Shape of Water” has the potential to be successful both at the box office and at film festivals, and will hopefully be recognised by the Academy as well.