The Six Shapes of “The Shape Of Water”


I saw The Shape of Water and it is safe to say that I was quite taken with it. To the point of being in rapturous, ardent love with it. As such, you better believe I had some thoughts about the many shapes within the film itself…

* * *

The Shape of Sight

The hardest thing for me to talk about is aesthetics.

If only because, yes, in the end it all comes down to druthers and personal taste. But I know my own druthers and dagnammit, the artistry of Del Toro has always been defined by his remarkable, nigh uncanny sense for aesthetics. On one level, there’s the sheer audacity of the design itself. Otherworldly creatures, from terrifying skin sacks with eyes on their hands, to jaw-unhinging vampires, to a doe-eyed fish-man with a beating heart. But there’s even a sense of scale and impact to his use of CGI, not merely meant to be purtty pittchurs, but dripping in visceral weight and connectivity. But it’s in his sets, too, from his cavernous, steamy halls to the most intricate of personal apartments. All defined by nearly perfect shapes and contours that never once read as sterile or cold, but organic, lived-in, and wild.

And somehow, that design is all captured with a perfect sense of cinematic language. Del Toro’s never once struck me as someone interested in ornate Kubrickian perpendicularity with those dead-on centers. And you’ll never catch him falling for the stilted posturing of sterile frames that you could find in Blade Runner 2049 or the like. And good granola this is NOT a shot at the immaculate Roger Deakins, it’s just that there’s something far more sumptuous and romantic to Del Toro’s sense of framing. Not just in the way that he often opts for the traditional standard 1.85:1, but the way he has this ability to capture everyone perfectly in the depths of their space. As a result, his frames end up feeling felt, not composed.

Especially as the camera glides about with assured footing, never out of place, never wandering, never too investigative, but purely within the practical constraints of his subjects. We all call this motivated camera movement and it’s the same thing that makes Spielberg such an effortless master. And the lighting, my god the lighting, which is perhaps Del Toro’s best technical skill. For he’s a man never afraid to make those blacks look black and crash them into the warmth of silky yellows, the glowing sickly greens, the soothing blues, and the inspired reds and fluorescents of a a vivid fever dream. And with The Shape of Water, Del Toro has taken all these gifts and somehow crafted his most beautiful film yet!

*silence after long rant*

Uh, aesthetics, I’m saying I like his aesthetics.

And I don’t think there’s anything so wrong with that. There’s a kind of cinema-goer that simply has the same druthers and there’s a reason we all go so nuts over his work. You don’t have to like it or see it, but it doesn’t mean it’s not there. For it’s not tangible in the same way that Deakins or Kubricks or whoevers work is. But whenever I see a Del Toro film, I know I’m going to get to eat up this lovely aesthetic dinner that hits me right in my tum tum. And if I’m lucky, I’m going to get a little bit more…

The Shape of Sound

Just mere seconds into this film, the beautiful theme comes into ear and I found myself smiling like a toddler who is easily delighted by a new toy. Holy crap, This film is going to have a score! A real flesh and blood score! With actual character themes!

That may sound like an underwhelming reason to be enamored with the first few seconds of a movie, but we live in underwhelming times when it comes to scoring. I don’t put this at the feet of composers, mind you, but with studios and audiences. In the modern Marvelized-climate we seem to agree that anything to “distracting” is put on the back-burner (Ragnorok‘s score was good tho). Unless it’s the pulse-pounded ticking clock of a Zimmer score, of course. And don’t get me started on the largely atmospheric four note alterations of those who aren’t fit to hold Cliff Martinez’s synthesizer case. But The Shape of Water has a remarkable score by Alexandre Desplat, a prolific composer whose also one of our most underrated (his Wes Anderson work in particular). And he’s filled this one with a distinctly-french sumptuousness that wouldn’t be out of place in Ratoutouille or Amelie, while harkening back to the pulp of Hermann and Hitchcock. As such, It’s probably my favorite score of the year, hands down.

But the thing I love about Del Toro is how aware he is of sound in general. Not just in it’s willingness to evoke strange and other-worldly noises from a creature, but it’s visceral impact with kinetic filmmaking. There’s no endless noise or gun-fire. There’s quiet bubbling, tapping of feet, communication in clangs, diegetic music and so much more. And when we do have gunshots? They’re loud, singular, and shocking instead of repetitive and meaningless. It’s a total soundscape that uniquely understands the “quality of edge” and so much more… Ha. At this point, I could go on and on. But at the end of the day, so much of this stuff is simply technical. And the technical things are nice, but they are not what make a resonant film, nor what speaks to us deep down…

The Shape of Story

“How the fuck did this get made?”

I found myself asking this constantly while watching the The Shape of Water. The sheer audacity and R-Rated bravery of making a film this tonally genre-bending takes the faith of a lot of studio people who honestly just had to believe in the fucker. Right? I very rarely find myself caring about budgets, but Del Toro ability to get bang for his buck always makes me freaking curious (FWIW, the budget is 19.5 million… It looks like it’s 120 million). But all the real credit perhaps goes to co-writer Vanessa Taylor, who really seems to have brought out all the best in Del Toro’s sensibilities resulting in an impossible film. Afterwards I joked to a friend, “oh, yeah just a simple pitch: it’s Amelie meets Creature from the Black Lagoon meets Oceans 11 meets Cinema Paradiso meets Sex and Lucia.” Just a simple mash-up! You know, the kind of movie with busby berkley musical numbers and freshly-decapitated cats. But it all truly works thanks to the fact that all these different inclinations come from the fundamental story work.

Keep in mind, I am not a Del Toro apologist. I clearly love his style, but will happily admit that the biggest missteps of his career come on the story level. There’s a sliding scale of course, Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone are pretty much masterpieces, but he’s always had this odd sense of rhythm. He’ll forgo momentum for the sake of, well, a moment. He’ll get lost in a detail. He’ll be fully content to string scene after scene together that are full of “demonstration” without any real conflict being played. I honestly even think we’ve had a bit of an oversight when it comes to his ear for english language dialogue. But more often than not, he knows how to nail the story moments that matter the most. And it all sticks together through the sheer audacity of his cinematic ability, deep empathy for all his characters, and his clear love for the material he selects. But yes, there’s no denying his work is at it’s best when the script is at it’s best.

Luckily, The Shape of Water is probably his best.

Not just in the way it moves with clear therefore / buts and well-articulated drama in nearly every scene, but in how it handles the earning the most important moments, specially with regard to teh audience’s experience. To wit, there’s a moment that comes about 1/3 of the way into the film where she makes a plea to her best friend, Richard Jenkins (and holy shit, how good is he and everyone else in this film?), where she needs his help in getting the creature to escape. It is of course insane to him, but she wants to convince him. Now, I have a pretty good sense for what moments have to come when and immediately I had a sense of dread with this moment, “Oh no, I think. It’s too early! They haven’t built up their relationships enough! They’re assuming our empathy for the two of them!” And then…

Sally Hawkins gives the most perfect and emotive “speech” imaginable. One where she lets us into her soul, let’s us into the things we have not seen. And let us understand why this “creature” means so damn much to her. And it’s right then that I realized why Jenkins is our humble narrator, and that’s because it’s how we’ve been viewing this story in a way. But it’s all too dangerous and impossible. He says no and breaks her heart, then goes off to deal with his own needs, his own wants, his own life. But when that comes crashing down, he returns to her. She is all that is in his life. And he says that he does not understand, but if it’s important to her, then it’s important to him. And it is the most clear understanding of not only where the audience is, but how we see them, and what empathy really means beyond that. And of course, the moment Jenkins meets this creature he comes to understand and see him as she does. And it is in these safe, trusted hands that we see the love blossom between Sally and this “creature.” It is here we are let into her deepest frailties and stregnth. It is here we are grasped by the touching, expansive musical number that only exists within her heart of hearts.

I cried constantly on this journey. And I was not crying because I empathized with mere texture, or clever filmmaking… I cried because I understood the story that was unfolding in our two hearts, as one.

The Shape of Sex

The film makes an incredibly important decision right up front.

And it is that we see Sally Hawkins, naked in her tub, masturbating. I was struck immediately by a few things. The first is that wow, it’s certainly sexual, even alluring, but there’s nothing distinctly pornographic about the way it is treated. Because it largely seems for her. It is just plain, true, and normal. But it turns out it’s the single most important thematic decision in the film. Because while a lot of people like to joke “this fish fucks!” (and I mean, yeah, he fucks), it is after something much more profound. Because the creature is not awakening some repressed urge in her. No, she’s been sexual, whole, and multi-faceted from the very beginning. The point, and the whole point, is that now she simply has someone to share it with who sees her as an equal. Not someone repressed. Not someone in need of a man. Not a charity case. Heck, I was even amazed that the film took the trope of men wanting “the little mermaid” perfect silent girl and understood exactly how to invert it, especially given Shannon’s creepy desire for that silence (I honestly think Del Toro and Taylor hate the trope as much as I do).

The end result of all of this is probably sex positive mainstream film i can think of in recent years? Sure, you got your Magic Mike XXLs and the like, but this is 1. downright extraordinary and 2. desperately needed. As I recently lamented in a column, I can’t tell you how much sex feels like it’s been washed out of popular movie-going all together, forget healthy sex. And when it does show up it’s all either the tsk tsk brooding of something like Shame, or the weird sensibility of edgelord provocateurs, or simply milquetoast fantasizing of regressive norms… So where are the consenting adults just really happy to be getting it on?

Turns out, they’re in this movie. And yeah, one of them is a fish-man.

But it’s, like, a metaphor, y’all.

The Shape of Sin

I also love how much this movie had no intention of glossing over the sins of the 50s. From the ardent racism of even the good characters, to the oppressive homophobia, to the blatant, suffocating sexism. Heck, it even has room for the complicated reflexivism of cold-war politics and the Russians. But what’s more is that it has no qualms about making it known how little has changed with tehse “isms,”especially with Jenkins biting “born too early or too late” comment. But the film’s most brilliant commentary comes in the form of a glaring takedown of toxic masculinity.

It’s a weird thing to say that I am not a “Michael Shannon guy,” but I’m not the same way a lot of others seem to be. This is not a knock on Shannon or anyone who loves him. I just happen to think he’s an actor who has one particular setting and he does that setting remarkably well, especially when he has material suited for it. And sometimes it’s just not that suited and I feel like I’m getting the wrong thing. But holy heck, is this suited to him, resulting in my favorite Shannon performance of all time. For it is one that finds endless dexterity in his ugly, virulent intensity. He’s a character who is smarmy to the bone, but only in that casual way where he’d never even think about it. He’s similarly obsessed with power, control, and dominance, but only in the way where he’d never think about it either. There is only his will to do his duty, always being strong and virile. To never disappoint the general or else he is nothing  (and even he wants out of this crooked system). But in reality, he is literally rotting. And ugly man of oozing puss and posture, who will cover his wife’s mouth with his bleeding hand, and show that he has not a single courageous bone in his body. It’s Trumpism. And t’s everything masculinity in 2017 most fears about itself.

And it’s dead on the fucking money.

The Shape of Soul

I’ve often made the argument that “movies have souls.”

And it’s true. Movies, in the end, are made by people and they are about people. So they always end up just feeling like people. Meaning they have personalities and thoughts and vivid wants and needs all to their own. I think we absorb this when we watch movies more than anything else. Sure, I could talk a lot about the technical filmmaking of Dunkirk, but in the end I have the most affinity for it because it’s what finally got me to clearly see an aching and repressed humanity within Nolan. Same goes for the remarkable humane touches of Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird, which is full of empathy for every single human who steps into frame, even the miraculous dingbats… So why do I like Del Toro?

Because I feel his soul in every frame.

I really do. He’s a deeply passionate person and don’t just see it in his unfiltered interviews, I see it in his work and thematic approach. He’s a man who loves sincere progressive thought as much as he loves monsters and making mistakes. As such, I have empathy and reverence for it. And I especially see it in the humanity of what is he is ultimately trying to say in this film. And look, I get it. I’ve already seen jaded folks talk about the film with the cynical view, projecting the idea of “Oh yeah, it’s a filmmaker imagining some perfect not existent person who would fuck a monster!” Like it’s all a piped-up self-fulfilling fairy tale if they ever heard one!

Well, let’s talk about monsters.

Because those would be the words of someone whose never allowed themselves to feel like a monster. Who never realized they are probably a monster. Who never had people make them feel like a monster. People who do not see their deep, inexorable scars and like to pretend they are not there. People who never realized that with the right circumstances, it’s quite easy to edge oneself into a place where they feel toxic, a being deserving of being tarred and feathered. Someone deserving of nothing. Someone sho really deserves to drown at the bottom of an ocean, if only to simply be away from the world that rejects them, and free. And if you’ve had that feeling, suddenly it all doesn’t feel so much like a monstrous fairy tale, but a continued, waking dream that always comes just before a dreaded alarm clock.

So for all the beautiful points made in this stunningly beautiful film, there is the one that most reveals it’s soul. And it is this: when you are underwater, perhaps there is nothing to truly fear. Perhaps it is not a death sentence. And perhaps you are not alone. Because when you have truly remarkable people in your life, they will look at your scars, and help you realize that maybe, just maybe…

They can be gills.


11 thoughts on “The Six Shapes of “The Shape Of Water”

  1. “the stilted posturing of sterile frames that you could find in Blade Runner 2049”

    Are there any particular scenes you’d point to in Blade Runner 2049 that were let down by their framing?

    1. Oh it’s not a matter of “let down.” They’re immaculate. They just have a certain emotional effect that is different from other choices. But I’ll talk about this more when I finally get to this essay.

  2. Damn, Hulk – congratulations on this piece. I always applaud your writing for its ability to be at once thoughtful and emotional, but here I was enamoured by your ability to capture the elusive nature of aesthetics in so many words:

    “For he’s a man never afraid to make those blacks look black and crash them into the warmth of silky yellows,
    the glowing sickly greens, the soothing blues, and the inspired reds and fluorescents of a vivid fever dream.”

    I know how hard it is to write a “simple” one-sentence passage about the visuals and actually infusing it with meaning and emotion – so it’s always a joy to see someone do it flawlessly in a review. Same goes for the daunting task of writing about the musical score you also do so well.

    It’s such a shame that “The Shape” will be released in Poland only in about two months. I feel that even while actively avoiding information about the details of the plot I could not stop myself from reading your take on it. Guess it goes to say about how hard it is to stop yourself from reading your pieces.

    PS. Do you plan on writing about “Three Billboards”? I personally loved it, but I would like to know what do you feel about it since it’s pretty divisive across the board.

  3. This piece very elegantly puts into words how I feel about GDT when he’s at his very best (“Devil’s” and “Pan’s” I agree are him at his very best). I loved so many things about this movie (everything you mentioned and more) but there was a moment of disconnect that kept me from falling completely into it – and it’s the bit you mentioned:

    “I had a sense of dread with this moment, “Oh no, I think. It’s too early! They haven’t built up their relationships enough! They’re assuming our empathy for the two of them!” And then… Sally Hawkins gives the most perfect and emotive “speech” imaginable. One where she lets us into her soul, let’s us into the things we have not seen. And let us understand why this “creature” means so damn much to her.”

    I see the point you are making with Jenkin’s character and I’m curious to see if it plays differently for me when I watch it again this weekend, but on first viewing, I really didn’t feel like the movie had earned her “speech” (which was amazing – one of the best scenes in the movie). I understood that a connection was forming between her and the monster and I bought that she would want to save such a unique and tortured creature from being slaughtered, but her reasons beyond that momentarily took the movie off the rails for me. My first fleeting thought was that maybe the “print” in my theater was missing a monster/Sally scene. Thinking back on it, it’s not a missing scene – it’s a moment that’s missing – a look, a touch – an additional note of emotional connection from both of their POVS – an initial planting of that seed of love we see blossom later after the monster is freed.

    It’s a nitpick. I think this is an amazing movie – just for me a slight notch below “Pan’s” and “Devil’s” (which means it’s several hundred notches above most movies that are out there at any given time).

  4. This film finally made it to my town, and I’m so glad I got to see it on the big screen. Although we definitely empathize with this creature when we see it put into harm and see the moments of connection with Elisa, we never get a full picture as a creature capable of loving a human being. Or at least there is doubt as we see it munching on a cat and hurting people. We only have to accept Elisa’s word for it. We have to believe it is real when we see her imploring Giles for his help, or the way she is smiling at work, or that incredible scene before they are destined to part where we leave the reality of the film entirely, and see the beautiful feelings that Elisa holds for this creature. The only way we get to see the full humanity of this creature is by someone else familiar with having to struggle to get others to see her inner self.

  5. What a beautiful review on this beautiful film. I was wondering exactly why I was so moved by this movie, especially with the end and when Elisa pleads with Giles on having him help her, and the black and white Fred Astaire inspired musical number- I was caught by surprise that I had to fight back the tears! But I find myself looking back on scenes from the movie I enjoyed the most and even the part where she fills up the bathroom with water keeps making me tear up, combined with that gorgeous music that plays. This movie even has a happy ending (I don’t believe that it was imagined by Giles that she survived like some viewers seem to think) but yet I feel a tinge of emptiness that I couldn’t figure out why that is. Unless it is just because of the same phenomenon with any movie you’re fully engrossed in, when it ends sometimes it leaves you with emptiness. I might not have put it the right way, but I admire how you masterfully worded all the aspects that make this film a masterpiece.

  6. *Man, that ‘gills’ closing = Me, the eary-eyed avid reader (not that there weren’t any other moistening preambles). Congrats again, and for what it’s worth: you sir, are our very own ‘Del Toro in film studies and review’, always and only texts filled with your own paraphrased soul. All this from a Guadajara-based 37-going-on-38 reader who follows your articles and essays since 2013 (‘way’ back when Badass Digest, and immediately backtracked as many of your previous/earlier writings as I could; btw: any chance this latest platform in blog form could ever include it all? And I mean ALL. Mea culpa, I’m such a completist!) Kind regards, Emerald Behemoth!

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