A woman falls in love with an amphibian monster that resembles the Creature from the Black Lagoon in Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, a gorgeously shot and staged but relentlessly artificial film that leads all others in 2018 Academy Award nominations, and might just take home Best Picture. (Update: The Shape of Water has won Best Picture, Director, Score and Production Design.)
The woman is Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a lonely, mute cleaner at a secretive military complex who silently communicates with co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and narrator-neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins).
And the Amphibian Man, locked inside a large tank at a secret military facility, is played by Doug Jones. He (nearly) bites a pair of fingers off of Strickland (Michael Shannon), the G-man who tortures him with a cattle prod, but later makes goo-goo fish eyes at Elisa through his tank.
Elisa and Amphibian Man form a bond that turns romantic, for some reason, and soon she breaks him out of his prison and they’re having underwater sex in a flooded bathroom… somehow. Meanwhile, Shannon’s foaming-at-the-mouth bad guy goes psycho and sets out to put an end to all this fish love nonsense.
In almost every technical aspect, The Shape of Water is an absolutely first-rate production: Hawkins and (especially) Jones make for a wonderful (and sympathetic) pair of silent leads, the cinematography (by Dan Laustsen) is breathtaking, the era-authentic music (Alexandre Desplat) wonderfully evocative, the sets and costumes all combine to perfectly recreate this world.
But it’s an artificial world, one that I found completely inaccessible. At no point in this story did anything make sense to me; beyond the obvious complications of the woman-fish romance, which is confoundingly transposed into a sexual realm, few of the story mechanics have any kind of internal logic.
Why is this cleaning woman left alone with a violent sea monster? Why is the government torturing him? What is Strickland’s motivation for any of his villainous behavior? What’s the deal with the subplot involving a character played by Michael Stuhlbarg?
I found another subplot, involving Jenkins’ character, more affecting than the central storyline, though it felt like a leftover idea from Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven.
Like Mother!, another 2017 release that was mostly praised, I think the only way to justify the narrative of The Shape of Water is to accept it as pure metaphor: for the old Beauty and the Beast tale. But if countless takes on that, from King Kong to the Creature from the Black Lagoon to multiple Disney adaptations, can tell coherent stories that work on their own terms, why can’t this one?
Part of the problem may be that The Shape of Water is not a wholly original conception. It bears striking similarities to films like 1954’s Creature, 1984’s Splash, and the 2015 Dutch short The Space Between Us, director Jean-Paul Jeunet has accused Del Toro of cribbing from his Delicatessen (though, especially with Desplat’s score, the film feels closer to Amélie), and the estate of writer Paul Zindel is suing the production for basing its story off of his 1969 play Let Me Hear You Whisper, which is about a shy cleaning woman who helps an intelligent dolphin escape a government testing facility.
The veracity of those claims has no effect on the overall quality of The Shape of Water, but might give some insight into its genesis. Like Tarantino, Del Toro has used a wide range of existing material to influence his story; unlike the films of Tarantino, his story has become a patchwork rather than something that feels like it arises naturally. Scenes follow each other so that this may take on the form of a three-act narrative, not because what happens in one influences the next.
Still, The Shape of Water is a rare combination of horror and romance and 1950s science fiction tropes that, despite the numerous movies it has borrowed from, does feel like something unique, especially in the realm of the Oscars. If you don’t mind its story construction, you might just fall in love with it.