Of all the movies that are premiering here at the 74th Venice International Film Festival, this is the one I was most excited about. Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer, and Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water is a fantasy romance set during the Cold War.
An other wordly fairy tale, set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1962. In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works, lonely mute Elisa (Hawkins) is trapped in a life of isolation. Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda (Spencer) discover a secret classified experiment: a creature who lives in water.
Like most of del Toro’s films, this is very much a romantic fairy tale disguised as a fantasy thriller. The story is an ode to love without boundaries, especially relevant for the era it is set in, with every character rejected by society for one reason or another: Elisa’s disability renders conversations with her impossible, Zelda’s color and race is discriminatory of the time, and Giles’ (Elisa’s neighbor, played brilliantly by Richard Jenkins) homosexuality destroys any hope for human contact with people of his gender. That is why the romance that slowly starts growing between Elisa and the creature is so great: when they are together, they have no other way to communicate than through sign language, thus making her muteness not an obstacle in their relationship.
The performances by the entire cast are amazing: Doug Jones truly embodies the creature in all of its movements; Hawkins is incredibly cute and likable right from the getgo; Spencer works great both as Elisa’s friend and as comic relief that had the entire audience laughing hysterically whenever she was on screen; Michael Shannon plays a more subdued villian (no screaming out of his lungs like in Man of Steel), bringing a lot of tension and menace throughout the entire film; Michael Stuhlbarg is great as a man torn between his duty and his beliefs. Everyone is truly on top of their game.
The undeniable star of the film has to be del Toro’s crew: the makeup and special effects used to bring the creature to life are a thing of beatuy, with nuanced movements and features that you hardly ever see done practically in movies anymore; the cinematography by Dan Loustsen is breathtaking, with marvellous use of blue colors; the music by Alexandre Desplat is very poetic, making me tear up a little bit as soon as the movie started; the art design and art direction are immaculate, bringing the audience in the 60s and creating many little details in each location to make them feel lived in.
I am in awe of this movie, loving every single moment of it: each frame is full of care and attention, each performance is wonderfully directed… It is a love letter to movies of the past, homaging black-and-white musicals and dance numbers, as well as classic creature feautres (The Creature of the Black Lagoon instantly comes to mind), fairy tales, and epics.
Overall, The Shape of Water is del Toro’s best American feature: it has many of the themes present in other movies of his, telling the story in a very delicate and romantic way that I find it impossible that some people actually disliked it. As soon as the credits started rolling, me and others sitting near me started silently wiping the tears, looking into each others’ eyes, knowing that what we just witnessed was a thing of true beauty.
Visual Effects: 9
Violence & Gore: 8.5
Sex & Nudity: 7.5
Drugs & Profanity: 6
Intensity & Horror: 7