The Shape of Water – The Quirky, and Beautiful Love Story

What does it mean to be in love? Naturally, to each person, this means something a little different. But in general, love is finding someone without whom you are incomplete. My wonderful girlfriend, Laci, (who writes a terrific travel/recipe/fiction/book blog) is my other half for a reason; I wouldn’t be the same without her in my life.
Yes, love is such an amazing and vexing emotion. But, it’s one that is felt by people the world over, regardless of education, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, political beliefs, race, or by any other line with which we choose to divide ourselves. Anybody can have love come into and out of their lives.
For as long as there have been stories, there have been love stories, and there are only so many ways to tell them. Yet, millions of people every single year are enthralled when loves stories hit the big screen month after month. They’re such a huge part of our pop culture that often we don’t even recognize them by themselves.
Every now and then, though, one movie catches our eye. These are films like Titanic, which have a beautifully clichéd story, but are told exceptionally well.
But at the top of these eye-catching films are those that are so passionate, so wildly original, that we can’t help but be smitten by a love story all over again. This is the case for The Shape of Water, the Guillermo Del Toro-directed 90th, and most recent, winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture.

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Del Toro, who has made a name for himself with odd and eclectic, but very good movies, like Pan’s Labyrinth, hits it out of the park with this masterpiece. This story of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute custodian at a secret government facility is at once charming, heartbreaking, terrifying, and brutal. It’s a monster movie, yes, but it has a ton of heart.
The line between good and evil is somewhat blurred and you’re left asking yourself who the real monsters of the world are. This film had an amazing ability to ensnare by thoughts, forcing me into deep introspection, while at the same time, I couldn’t stop smiling.
Now, for the rest of the movie:

Plot
The Shape of Water is about Elisa, a mute on the outside of society. She has friends and a comfortable life and she seems to be especially in-tune with water.
Her life is turned on its head when she, at work in the lab, witnesses a new “asset” (Doug Jones) being brought into a giant tank. The creature, who has two breathing systems, webbed feet and scales, is chained to this tank. Guarding the creature (he’s never actually given a name) is the menacing Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).
Elisa is immediately taken by the creature, a “freak” that she’s able to identify with, and his “fish out of water” experience. She slowly begins to relate to the beast, who is, at the same time, being studied (tortured, really) by Strickland and the scientists he oversees.
What follows is an exploration of Elisa as she begins to fall for the fish man. She must overcome doubt from her friends, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins), a very pushy and vicious Strickland, the Soviets, and her own lack of a voice to be together with the creature.
Like I said before, The Shape of Water is a love story. It ripped my heart out during its lows and made me physically happy during its highs. It toys with our core emotions throughout with an insanely creative and beautifully told story. This was the first movie since Slumdog Millionaire (another great love story) that made me feel such a wide range of emotions. 1.

Writing/Dialogue
This film earned a nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the 90th Academy Awards. Vanessa Taylor and Del Toro wrote the screenplay.
Perhaps the most apparent feature of the film’s dialogue is how it goes in circular fashion, much like what I wrote about in The Godfather. The dialogue begins and ends with the same specific point. While this doesn’t get us anywhere in the story, it’s a brilliant way to flesh out a character’s thoughts and motivations.

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Second, Guillermo Del Toro makes a number of religious references throughout the movie. They’re even used to put a bow on Strickland’s slow, steady descent into mania. The use of such seemingly safe religious references, like the story of Samson and Delilah, can show how stories can be manipulated for both good and evil, depending on who’s doing the telling. 1.

Sound
Alexandre Desplat composed the score for The Shape of Water. He’s quickly become one of my favorite composers right up there with Hans Zimmer, John Williams, and James Horner.
For all that’s been written about The Shape of Water, glowing or otherwise, one thing can’t be changed: this is a very quirky film. It has an odd cast, and odd premise, and a director with an affinity for weird. So, why not have the score be weird, too?
Desplat is perfect for this role. He’s done other odd films; most notable among these is The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is one of my favorites and I highly recommend a watch and a listen. With subtle nuance like a single accordion, Desplat’s score hold the movie together perfectly. He even won the Oscar for Best Original Score. The Shape of Water was nominated for Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. 1.

Set Design
Taking place in late 1950s Baltimore, The Shape of Water pays homage to its era by not only immersing you in the world but also by giving us just enough of the stereotypical 1950s to make us glad we don’t live there. Themes like overt racism and homosexual discrimination run through the movie.
When it comes to the physical world, The Shape of Water is immaculately detailed and wonderful. The movie takes place mostly in the lab or in Elisa’s apartment. Both places are beautifully, and tastefully done.
But the set runs deeper than that. Naturally, there are many, many references to water throughout the movie, from the near constant wetness on the streets and buses, to rain and even bathtubs, there’s water everywhere. But the colors reflect water too. Many of the elements are either green, blue, or other cool colors that are indicative of water. When Elisa falls in love with the creature, she’s seen both in red and in front of red, the color of love. These devices are clever little tricks that play with our minds to get us to feel a particular emotion at a certain time, and I loved it. 1.

Cinematography
Dan Laustsen received an Oscar nomination for his work on The Shape of Water, a movie with beautiful composition and is a visual force that sets a high standard for the next batch of Oscar-worthy movies.

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In the most obvious way, The Shape of Water’s cinematography is evocative of the entire quirkiness of the movie by constantly moving. I don’t think there’s a single stationary shot in the entire thing. The camera is either attached to a dolly or a cart, or it’s strapped to someone’s chest through the use of Steadicam. The Steadicam, though, is really what separates The Shape of Water from other movies. A steadicam is a harness of sorts that a camera operator wears on his or her person and it holds the camera steady on an arm. This allows a camera to get up close and personal, and even to eye level, with a character, whereas a camera on a cart may not be able to. This adds a lot of action to what would otherwise be dull scenes. With the steadicam, each shot is a perfectly choreographed dance and it adds another layer to a deep movie.
From the lighting side, The Shape of Water excels. I’ve already mentioned the blue and green hues of the set, but from within my copious notes, I remarked that I feel like I’m in a fishbowl while watching this movie. And that’s the absolute truth. The whole goal of this movie is to make you feel like Elisa is a fish out of water. You’re in there with her, hoping to breakout and find the ocean. 1.

Acting
In total, three actors were nominated for Academy Awards: Sally Hawkins for playing Elisa, Octavia Spencer for her role as Zelda Delilah, and Richard Jenkins as Giles. Those three, and every single actor/actress give great performances. When it comes down to it, though, The Shape of Water is really about how two characters, Elisa and Strickland, outduel each other over their respective ideologies.
Sally Hawkins, the English-born actress plays a mute, yet charming and lively Elisa Esposito. She is our heroine in this movie and a damn strong female lead that Hollywood needs at this particular moment. Elisa is thrifty, insanely smart, and relentlessly passionate about those that she cares about. She also isn’t afraid to stare down a fight. I like her. She’s not afraid to bend the rules. Her arc is an interesting one: at the beginning of the movie, she’s not overly needy of any one particular thing like most characters would be. Rather, she’s content with life. She has a routine with Giles, her neighbor, and her friend Zelda. When she meets, and is enamored with the creature, she changes. She becomes more focused on her goal and it’s during this time that we really see her break out of her shell. If the creature didn’t show up to the lab, she could keep living her contented life forever. But because he’s there is when we really get to see the real Elisa.

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When it comes to playing her, though, Hawkins had to almost rebuild modern acting. So much of being an actor is voice control and maintain composure in your expressions. Hawkins didn’t need any voice control for The Shape of Water, being mute and all. Instead, she studied silent film actors and their expressions. Most silent films were shot at a time in which the camera was a long way from the actors and movies were presented in the same manner as a staged production, with actors coming in from various parts of the frame, but with a single static shot of actors and their environment. Therefore, actors had to be overly expressive, almost in a melodramatic and unrealistic way. That’s not to take anything away from those actors, that’s what they had at the time.
There’s nothing melodramatic about Hawkins’ performance, though. While she is overly expressive, it works here because Elisa can’t say anything in a world of spoken word. What other options does she have?
She lost the Best Actress award to Frances McDormand, who was certainly worthy, but I thought that Hawkins was a major, major player for the title.
Michael Shannon plays Richard Strickland, the head of security at the lab in which Elisa and Zelda work. From the start, Strickland is a bad man. More than doing some things that are a little odd, like wash his hands before he uses the restroom, he’s despicably prejudiced and sleazy. Then the creature bites Strickland’s two outside fingers off. He becomes very power-hungry after that, slipping slowly into madness as he’s pressured from all sides to take care of (and eventually find an escaped creature) the creature. He even gets the fingers sewn back on through surgery.

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His arc is similar to Elisa’s: he’s happy with his life now and could live on until he dies being perfectly happy. But once his fingers are bitten off, he becomes more focused. He’s not initially hell-bent on ruining everything in his path, but some well-placed pressure sends him over a cliff. All of the movie’s brutality runs through him and a trail of savagely beaten people are in his wake.
One thing I found interesting and something you might pay attention to while you’re watching it, is his fingers. The surgery doesn’t take and they slowly start to rot away. As his fingers turn to black, so does his soul. Shannon wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for his part and that’s a shame. This is one of his great performances. 1.

Directing
Guillermo Del Toro, the Mexican-born director, won his first ever Best Director Oscar for this film. He joins Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro G. Iñárritu as the only Mexican directors to win Best Director.
Del Toro is known for directing odd and eclectic, but still really good movies like Pan’s Labyrinth. Sure, his movies feature some monsters, but they all have heart and a hidden deeper meaning. The Shape of Water is certainly no different.
This particular movie begs the question: who is the monster? The creature is an actual monster, in the same way that Bigfoot is. He’s unusual and a little scary looking. But the creature has emotions just like we do, and, by the end, you’re rooting for him to get away.
No, the real monster is not the creature, but rather it’s Strickland and his boss, General Hoyt (Nick Searcy). All Elisa and the creature want are to be together in their own way. Yet, Strickland and the general, or the forces of a prejudiced government, are keen to make sure that doesn’t happen. They want to stand in the way of universal love, no matter the cost to those around them. This movie is about more than being in love with a fish man, but it’s a biting social commentary of America and how her citizens are treated by not only the government but by each other. Sure, Elisa and the creature have an odd relationship, but their success hinges on whether or not they can overcome narrow mindedness and prejudiced that dominate their respective lives.

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Sure, this movie is a fantastical fairy tale (and a darn beautiful one at that) with fish man sex, but that’s not the point. The point is to shine a mirror back on ourselves and force us to look past what we might think to be unnatural and see the beauty in each other and accept each other. Let me be clear, though, I nor Del Toro is embracing an acceptance of beastiality. This movie uses the creature as a stand-in for anything else that we might have prejudices about. Even Elisa herself is a two-way symbol of prejudice and oppression. She (and the creature) are either mute or cannot communicate with us. This is indicative of the silence and repression that people that have been systematically or historically prejudiced against can feel. Elisa’s also considered to be a freak who can’t speak. She’s an outsider. But only through our acceptance of her can we learn to love her.
For everything about this movie that is exceedingly pretty, and there’s plenty of that, The Shape of Water is really about overcoming biases from others and accepting humanity for what it is: having many, many faces. 1.

Bonus Points
I’m giving a bonus point to the sound, acting, and directing. I know I’ve given a lot of 10s of late, but I’ve been on a role.
Final Score: 10/10

Oscar Facts
The Shape of Water won the 90th Academy Award for Best Picture on March 4, 2018 at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. The movie beat out Call Me By Your Name, Get Out, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Darkest Hour, The Post, Lady Bird, Dunkirk, and Phantom Thread. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway presented the award, and it was accepted by Guillermo Del Toro and J. Miles Dale. In all, The Shape of Water nabbed 13 nominations, the most of the night. It was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing. The movie won four awards, the most of the ceremony: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Score and Best Production Design.
Other notable winners that night include Gary Oldman winning Best Actor for playing Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, Frances McDormand winning Best Actress for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Sam Rockwell winning Best Supporting Actor for his role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Allison Janney winning Best Supporting Actress for I, Tonya. For the second consecutive year, the ceremony was hosted by Jimmy Kimmel. With about 26.5 million viewers, the 90th Academy Awards were the least watched in the history of the program.

Final Notes
Now that we’re done with the diversion to The Shape of Water, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth from 1952 is next week. After that, it’s The Silence of the Lambs, The Life of Emile Zola, Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, Gone with the Wind, and How Green Was My Valley.

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