At one unexpected moment in Guillermo del Toro’s virtuosic new film, the characters break into a song. The lights dim, the colors drain to black and white and Sally Hawkins’ otherwise mute Elisa takes Doug Jones’ unnamed creature by the hand, and the two begin hoofing old Hollywood style in a “Top Hat” reminiscent musical number set to the old standard “You’ll Never Know (Just How Much I Love You).” It’s just one more magical moment in a film full of them, another reminder that not only is “The Shape of Water” one of del Toro’s most stunningly successful works, it’s also a powerful vision of a creative master feeling totally, joyously free.
Set in ever-rainy Baltimore of 1962, the film is one part love story, one part Cold War thriller and one part exploration of American culture – and that’s before we even mention the monster. Well, a monster to some anyway. Hawkins’ Elisa, who works the overnight shift cleaning a top security government base, looks at the sea creature being kept there and sees a kindred spirit. Mute and orphaned since birth, Elisa knows what its like to be overlooked, misunderstood, and unable speak out. They connect.
If the film had a single message, it wouldn’t be “looks can be deceiving” so much as “people (and potential South American sea gods) are exactly what they claim, but most are simply too obstinate to see.” Elisa’s higher ups might view her as an unspeaking wilting lily, but she never acts the part, living silent but always strong. She takes care of painter neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins, also offering bookend narration) and is unabashed about taking care of her own carnal needs. She freely speaks her mind (in sign language, subtitled), mostly with Giles and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). And when she feels something for the equally non-verbal creature, she goes for it.
“The Shape of Water” never develops on one single front. While Elisa smuggles jazz records and hard-boiled eggs for her bestial new beau, the Cold War still rages. Russian double agents (Michael Stuhlbarg, for one) and sadistic American army men (Michael Shannon, for another) butt heads over what to do with the creature. Both want to employ it for their own space age goals, but either party is happy to destroy so it so to rob the side of an advantage, so the film becomes a kind of heist movie for a spell, as Elisa and her cohorts scheme to get the creature to safety while competing military types plot its demise. And we’re not even halfway through.
As in “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone,” del Toro mines the film’s hyper-specific setting for larger allegorical purposes. Though Kennedy and Khrushchev rattle on in the background, the film is more interested in the specific cultural climate. It touches on segregation, on the fantasies of advertising, on relationship power dynamics and most prominently, on Giles’ life as a gay man years before Stonewall (this is the truly the first creature-feature romance that comfortably sit alongside a season of “Mad Men”). And it does so in a miraculously organic way by making the story an exploration of outcasts.
In del Toro’s stylish 1960s, everyone sort of is. The mute, the “monster,” the gay man, hell, even the Russian spy, they’re all set opposite The Man. By placing the central love tale within a familiar context of recent civil rights struggles, the film is also able to remove potential audience ick-factor, considering where the interspecies relationship goes. But then, the film even defangs its proxy for The Man (Shannon, with another devilish crazed villain turn) by exploring the cultural pathologies that got him there.
For the all the social insights and cultural asides, the film never feels digressive. For all the veering from one genre to another, neither does it feel rough. Del Toro’s tight directorial control sees to that. He uses a rigid but always roving camera — constantly tracking or pulling-in or gently re-framing, not staying still for an instant — to create the sensation of literally floating through the film, while Dan Laustsen’s ethereal cinematography finds a thousands shades of green, once more amplifying the dreamlike fairytale atmosphere.
The actors come through as well. All give wonderfully humane, lived in performances – kind of a small miracle for a film this stylized. But you must give special credit to Hawkins and Jones for employing two entirely different kinds of silent acting (save the musical interlude, I suppose). Hawkins is all eyes and hands, while Jones is all pantomime and movement. Both pull of what was no doubt a serious technical challenge, but you wouldn’t know it from seeing them onscreen. They make it look lighter than air.
“The Shape of Water” premiered the Venice Film Festival. It will hit theaters on December 8.