Tuesday, December 26, 2017

At the Heart of “The Shape of Water”

The Los Angeles Times review of The Shape of Water compared this mesmerizing new film to Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast as well as an important childhood influence for writer-director Guillermo del Toro, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Del Toro, best known for the equally phantasmagoric Pan’s Labyrinth, is an expert on finding the reality in a fantasy world. Perhaps his comfort in combining the grotesque with the mystical comes from his Mexican Catholic upbringing: his native land is a place where the Day of the Dead is celebrated and skeletons romp through the fine arts in all their manifestations. 

Curiously, The Shape of Water made me think of an equally watery but far sunnier film, Ron Howard’s Splash. This 1984 romantic comedy, which made a star out of Tom Hanks, introduces a mermaid (Daryl Hannah) who comes ashore in Manhattan in search of a special young man who’s terrified of water. After various escapades, some of them involving a mad scientist, the movie builds to an undersea conclusion that’s charming and optimistic. In The Shape of Water, though, sunlit New York City is replaced by a grim and dreary Baltimore, where scientists and military types are conspiring in a  retro-futuristic lab to study a captive being cryptically called “the asset.”     

The era, crucial to The Shape of Water, is the late 1950s, a time when Americans were panicky about the success of the Soviet space program. The Cold War tensions underlying the film provide its external drama: there are creepy government operatives (Michael Shannon is the chief one) calling the shots, and equally creepy Russki spies lurking about. But del Toro, whose eye for picturesque visuals is uncanny, also gives us the flip-side (what a terrifically retro word!) of the late 1950s. Shannon’s character lives in a cheery suburban home with wife and kiddies straight out of Dick and Jane. Late in the film he treats himself to a glossy “teal” Cadillac with tail fins out to there. TV sets are ubiquitous, featuring scenes from Dobie Gillis and ads for JELL-O. Percy Faith’s lush rendition of “Theme from A Summer Place” is a highlight of the soundtrack.

Against all this candy-colored domesticity, del Toro sets the lives of several 1950s misfits. There’s Zelda (Octavia Spencer), one of a fleet of cleaning ladies who clean up the muck and the pee of their betters. As a black woman, she’s used to being rendered invisible. There’s Giles (a highly sympathetic Richard Jenkins), an artist who feels himself being shoved aside for reasons both professional and personal. And, crucially, there’s Elisa, who is Zelda’s co-worker and Giles’ neighbor in a strange and beautiful old building above a dying movie palace. As unforgettably played by Sally Hawkins, Elisa’s an orphan who’s been rendered mute by some mysterious childhood mishap. Though she can’t speak, she can hear and understand all that goes on around her. Precise and self-contained, she’s also at base a dreamy and creative soul. She and Giles bond over old romantic movies, tap-dancing, and pie. Her personal soundtrack is dominated by Alice Faye soulfully warbling “You’ll never know how much I love you.” When her heart is captured, she gives herself completely.

Finally there’s “the asset,” the supernatural creature whose presence propels all the action. Between him and Elisa there’s instant communion, with no need for speech. He’s strange, disturbing, and gorgeous, just right for a mysterious fairy tale in which all the participants seem totally real.  

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