Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Dec 17, 2017 4:25 am 
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The call of the aquatic

Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water is a superbly crafted film. Its theme's touching ad heartwarming, if a little complacently so even in the view of its greatest fans. The message and emotions are delivered through a weird mix: interspecies romance, Cold War spy story, exposé of bigotry and cruelty to animals, musical, fantasy, and fairy tale. It is sometimes ugly but also subtle and beautiful to look at. The whole is made with conviction, and probably could only have been made by del Toro, an auteur with his own unique and thoroughgoing vision. At the same time it's different from his other movies and may have wider appeal. It has met with universal acclaim: many critics have raved and none has been harsh or dismissive.

And yet, I must personally confess that I just don't get it, never really connect emotionally; that I find this movie's cruel and evil character, played with his usual unrelenting intensity by Michael Shannon, too dominant and repellant and its subversive romance unmoving, its fantasy artificial and not quite having the magic it's meant to have, partly, no doubt, because the non-human object of the interspecies love story isn't given much of a personality.

The story concerns a top secret facility in Baltimore in the early Nineteen-Sixties. (The town is trashed by Shannon's evil character, and never defended.) The focus is on two cleaning ladies who work there, one black , named Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), the other, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a sweet, sensitive woman who hears but is mute. Zelda lives with a husband who rarely speaks. Elisa shares space above a movie palace with Giles (Richard Jenkins), a sad and lonely gay man who has lost his job as an advertising artist. At work, Zelda and Elisa are inseparable. Zelda understands Elisa's sign language, and protects her.

The main action begins when a strange humanoid aquatic monster (played in costume by Doug Jones) is brought to the facility by an unpleasant, cruel man, Richard Strickland (Shannon), who liberated it from the Amazon, where it was worshipped by natives as a god. But Strickland is the real monster, condescending and bigoted toward Zelda, for her race, and Elisa for her communicative disability.

Strickland's bigotry and cruelty are primarily focused on the aquatic creature, which he not only tortures with an electric cattle prod but wants to kill so it can be dissected, instead of keeping it alive and studying it. Elisa not only fearlessly makes friends with the frightening, sometimes ferocious monster - which bites off part of Strickland's left hand, which leads to disgusting consequences later - but falls in love with it, and contrives to save it, with help from Zelda - and importantly, to have sex with it. There's a kindly scientist, Dr. Hoffstetler (the suddenly ubiquitous Michael Stuhlbarg), who turns out to be a Russian spy.

The actors are very good, but in the genre mix the characters sometimes seem to be acting in their own separate bubbles. Eliza and her sad roommate are a tad too kindly and pitiful. Zelda is just a bit too warm and down to earth (though Spencer avoids cliche or any feel of duplicating earlier roles). The two women seem on their own in the facility, snooping around freely till they're caught by the mean Strickland. Dr. Hoffstetler dithers too much, a good guy among bad guys, since he wants to save the creature, an idea seen by his Russian handlers as a sign of weakness.

Strickland is a non-stop ogre, and unaccountably he has a Main Street mainstream family, with a curiously unreal loving little boy who kisses him on the cheek when he goes off to school. Strickland's simplistic boss is a dumb five star general. Del Toro is sparing in his use of the wonders of CGI, and the "Amphibian Man," as the credits call him, looks very much like a man in a monster suit - the better to make this clearly a fantasy. He is, Del Toro has pointed out himself, a reference to the old "Creature from the Black Lagoon," and this movie will be better appreciated by all those with an incestuous familiarity with pop movie fantasies like that. It also has a bit of singing and dancing to underline the fantasy element.

I was hoping I'd appreciate this, on its own terms, wonderful movie by seeing it as completely fantastic, but that simply didn't work. Unfortunately though its ugly moments, mostly involving bigotry and cruelty, racism, sexism, homophobia and condescension toward other species, are all too real for one to be lulled into the dream. But that there is beauty and magic here as well as ugliness is without question.

The Shape of Water, 123 mins, debuted at Venice, winning 4 awards, including the Golden Lion for Best Film and it has won many Golden Globes awards and its Oscar prospects are high. It opened (limited) in NYC 1 Dec. 2017. Limited release in other UIS cities 8 Dec. Wider release 16 Feb. 2018. Metacritic rating 86%.

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