First Look: The Shape of Water

Mexican film director, screenwriter, producer and novelist Guillermo del Toro charmed the Venice Film Festival with a romantic gothic movie: The Shape of Water. The story is set in the early sixties with beautiful costumes, looks and vintage cars. The touch of noir is given by the element of espionage, as the narrative is set against the backdrop of the Cold War.

We are in a hidden high-security government laboratory in Baltimore where Elisa (the brilliant Sally Hawkins) is trapped in her mutism and routine. She spends her existence between her work as cleaning lady at the Occam Aerospace Research Centre and her home chores. Her only friends are her sassy colleague and loyal friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her goofy elderly neighbor who doesn’t get recognition as advertising illustrator, Giles (Richard Jenkins). Elisa’s life changes forever when she discovers a secret, a classified experiment that involves a mysterious creature played by former contortionist known for roles in the science fiction films, Doug Jones.

At Occam the approach towards this aquatic being are discordant: Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) who is also a Russian spy in disguise, wants to protect the creature, as opposed to the Head of Security Strickland (Michael Shannon), who intends to show no mercy towards the beast who compromised two of his fingers.

The entire mise-en-scène of The Shape of Water is utterly poetic and visionary as the charm of vintage blends with fairytale classicality. Everything is lulled by the enthralling soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat, the French film composer winner of the Academy Award for the music score to The Grand Budapest Hotel.

An old cinema, old black and white musicals with Shirley Temple, Louis Armstrong and Betty Grable contour the mute life of Elisa, who is fond of music and dance. The merman, with whom she romantically engages, resembles the piscine amphibious humanoid of Creature from the Black Lagoon the 1954 film directed by Jack Arnold. Whilst the unusual romance  between a woman and a non human retraces the Beauty and the Beast scheme, also to reinforce the idea that humanity is not a matter of looks but of compassion.

Guillermo del Toro’s film is incredibly compelling both for visuals and for the way the encounter between Elisa and the Gill-man suavely portrays the unification of two lonely beings. Both immersed (pun intended since we are dealing with the water world) in silence. They find a harmonious communication that requires no vocality, just as a soundless marine embrace. In the end they show us how nonverbal communication, touch, and tiny gestures compose the loudest of symphonies.