The Shape of Water – More than human

Guillermo Del Toro’s new film The Shape of Water was  released in France in February of 2018. Classified as a fantasy drama film, it received the Best Director and the Best Original Score distinctions at the Golden Globe Awards, and won the Best Film and Best director Oscars. For most moviegoers, it is Guillermo Del Toro’s best movie since Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).

Baltimore, 1962. Cleaning-woman at a secret government laboratory in Baltimore, Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins) leads a lonely existence, isolated, in part, because she is mute. She can hear others but she can communicate with them only through sign language. Accustomed to days organised like sheet music, her encounter with a humanoid amphibian, kept in one of the labs that she cleans, will shake her everyday life.

Guillermo Del Toro, fascinated by the monsters since he was born ("The monsters are the holy patrons of our wonderful imperfections", he explained when receiving, in January, the Golden Globe for the best film), reinvests in the theme of the beauty and the beast, but adapts it to his purpose: here the beauty becomes beast to freely love her monster. It is then a real ode to difference, in the form of a tale.

The universe of Guillermo del Toro does not change. It is as attractive as ever, and the viewer must remain attentive to the smallest details to appreciate the harmony that emerges from the film and detect the warning signs of what is to come. As is his custom, Guillermo del Toro uses a voice-over, that of Giles (the neighbor and close friend of Elisa played by Richard Jenkins), to make the moviegoer enter the story and prepare him for the fantastic story to which he will be exposed.

The film draws attention firstly by the atmosphere it creates thanks to the subtle construction of the decor, which is very green, very wet (it rains regularly, the monster lives in the water, and there are regular close-ups on boiling water to cook eggs) and plunges us directly into the world of Elisa and the sea monster. Also, some scenes, very hard because they show blood, flesh and close-ups on faces in pain, interpellate by their graphic aesthetic but this specific aesthetic makes them almost sustainable.

The film brilliantly combines classic elements found in fantastical tales with historical events, creating an in-between space where the moviegoer is divided between a plausible story and the extraordinary. Indeed, the characters present reflect this dichotomy and are very stereotypical. The characters who help Elisa, herself in a position of weakness since mute, are each discriminated against for what they are: Giles is homosexual and is denied access to a restaurant, Zelda (played by Octavia Spencer) is a black woman cleaning lady who is denigrated by Colonel Strickland and finally Robert Hoffstetler is a soviet spy who is also sensitive to the sea monster. Opponents always appear in obscure scenes and embody human monstrosity: Colonel Richard Strickland (played by Michael Shannon) abuses his power by humiliating others, taking his phallic attribute wherever he goes: an electric baton. The creature is very impressive mixing human and aquatic attributes.

The film, however, has a precise spacio-temporal frame, which draws it out a bit of the tale. The action takes place in 1962, during the Cold War and in Baltimore. The context of the Cold War makes the issue of scientific knowledge even more salient. Both sides want to kill the aquatic monster. Americans wish to perform a vivisection and achieve a scientific breakthrough while the Soviets want to kill the creature to prevent their opponents from gaining access to knowledge.

The final purpose of the film remains clear and pessimistic in denouncing a contemporary society in which what is different is shown and denigrated. The human is the real monster of the story.

Ariane Cornerier

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