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The Shape Of Water Review: The Problem With Inter-Species Romance

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Fairy tale or not, that's messed up

For what it’s worth, there are some truly spectacular moments in The Shape of Water, writer/director Guillermo del Toro’s new fantastical romance. The film, led with such heart by the criminally underrated Sally Hawkins, is more than just a visual feast--though the cinematography (by Dan Laustsen) is marvelous, with its gorgeous underwater scenes and a lovely ballroom dance interlude. At its best, it explores the urgency of love when everything else seems helpless.

But with all its grandeur and charm, the fact that this is a love story between a woman and a monster is too ridiculous to ignore. The creature is a tall amphibian-type kept in a super-secret lab that somehow manages to seduce Elisa (Hawkins), the otherwise normal cleaning woman who washes around its incubator each evening.

There is nothing wrong, per se, with inter-species relationships in film. E.T. is iconic, Her is a modern classic, and you can’t tell me that Christopher Robin and Winnie The Pooh didn’t love one another. But that’s the thing with The Shape of Water: It goes beyond your typical human-rescues-other narrative, where the often lonely character finds a fascinating creature to which she instantly clings.

Where it goes too far is when Elisa and her newly rescued creature, who she ends up stealing from the lab and preserving in her own bathtub, knock boots in her bathroom (which she flooded just right so she and her lover could have more room together). Elisa giggles about it with her friend/co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) like a schoolgirl whose cherry was just popped. It’s one thing to ask audiences to suspend belief for this fairy tale, and it’s a whole other thing to ask them to consider for one moment that an otherwise sane woman would be so desperate as to fall for a creature who can’t even survive on dry land--not when there are actual men in this town.

The Beauty and the Beast syndrome is irksome as well. Why does the woman always have to be the one to fall for a monster? Why can’t the man ever be the one smitten with a non-human that doesn’t look like Daryl Hannah in Splash?

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But if you can get past those strange romance elements, The Shape of Water does succeed at its gorgeous presentation of a Cold War-era American city, rife with seedy characters threatening to abduct the creature for their own gain. It’s also nice to see Spencer, though she mainly occupies the stereotypical “best girlfriend” position, venture into more genre films like this, where she’s not in the Deep South or navigating racial tensions (though, given the time period, she doesn’t escape it completely--and she is referred to as “the help” here too).

There’s a great scene in the film where the creature’s life is at stake and Zelda is at the mercy of maniacal Colonel Strickland (terrific Michael Shannon), who is blinded with rage over the missing “asset.” Still, it would have been nice to see Spencer in a more leading role.

That’s not to take away from Hawkins, though, whose natural grace and compassion is reflected in all her scenes. Playing a mute character, she has to embody all of Elisa’s dialogue in her face, which she does effortlessly. She shows off her ruthless side with just a simple smirk, which is most pronounced in the scenes she shares with Spencer and Richard Jenkins (who plays her landlord and friend Giles).

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Unfortunately, the film’s central themes, which explore loneliness and companionship, flounder around for the sake of the far more ridiculous love story. Each of the characters deals with his or her own sense of alienation: Elisa cherishes the company she keeps in order to create the sound of life around her, a harmony to which she is unable to contribute; Giles is an older gay gentleman who thinks he’s finally found his counterpart and has to cope with the loss of that hope as well; Zelda mops floors all day only to come home to a man who barely speaks to her; and Strickland seems more like a shell of a person who merely performs the actions of a human but doesn’t actually bother to have any emotion about them (except at work, where he is desperately alert about everything).

Even Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlberg)--who becomes an ally for Elisa--succumbs to an unfortunate fate with little resistance. But none of this is explored as much as it should have been.

Instead, The Shape of Water focuses on how Elisa’s solitude and yearning for love makes her so desperate that she falls into the arms of a creature who can’t even survive on dry land. No matter how much actor Doug Jones tries to sell the character, it really comes down to the fact that we’re supposed to believe that the creature and this woman were able to make a life together somehow and live happily ever after. Even for a del Toro fairy tale, that's just too unbelievable.

The GoodThe Bad
Sally Hawkins commands the screenMale-gazey woman-on-monster relationship
Michael Stuhlberg is greatOctavia Spencer is underused
Breathtaking cinematographyUnsatisfying ending
Core themes of loneliness

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