Evaluating a film based upon the awards it has won or is expected to win is, by its very nature, a dubious endeavor. The tastes of a particular organization or festival (especially one whose jury is reconfigured every year) are fickle and often unreliable in selecting the very best films in competition. But the case of Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water presents a curious case. As the winner of the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival and an unabashedly romantic fantasy, it represents a sharp break with the winners of the past few years. The previous recipient of the prestigious award was a typically protracted, ascetic effort from Lav Diaz, and in general the tastes of the festival juries have tended towards the more extreme ends of the arthouse.
The Shape of Water, by contrast, lies as close to the mainstream as a film dedicated to an interspecies romance can. Set in early Cold War-era Baltimore, it follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a woman who works the cleaning night shift at a governmental research facility. Rendered mute as a child, her existence is simple but fulfilling, with companionship found in her fellow janitor Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her neighbor Giles (Richard Spencer), a closeted advertising artist. Into this cozy existence comes two distinctly separate, equally emblematic forces: an amphibian creature (Doug Jones) revered in the South American jungle as a god, with whom Elisa quickly develops a longing rapport and attraction born out of common loneliness, and Strickland (Michael Shannon), the authoritarian agent who discovered him.
Such a set-up is relatively barebones, and del Toro, who also co-penned the screenplay, seems to be well aware of that, as his film is bookended by narration from Giles that likens the narrative to a fairy tale. Unfortunately, the details needed to fill this two-hour feature film are, if not insufficient, then at odds with the fantasy that the film wishes to enrapture the viewer in. Chief among these is the setting, when the vestiges of Fifties suburbia were still deeply entrenched. Occasionally, this pays dividends, as in the lovely designs of the run-down urban apartment building that Elisa and Giles inhabit.
But too often the setting feels like an intrusion, most notably in the ill-conceived character of Strickland, a misogynist and racist pseudo-fascist whose sole purpose is to intimidate Elisa and to serve as the dividing block between her and the creature. In a word, The Shape of Water, especially in its third act, boils down to a literal battle between 1950s America (as personified in Strickland) and a ragtag group of outsiders. Such a dichotomy works in fairy tales, but it can’t help but feel a little awkwardly placed when surrounded by the grounded paranoia of the Cold War – there is even a significant subplot involving Soviet spycraft.
This isn’t to suggest that The Shape of Water is an unsuccessful film, as it moves with a certain litheness (a credit to del Toro’s controlled yet swooning direction) and manages to tease out the eventual romance rather effectively. But its moments are often too fleeting: a risible Busby Berkeley-esque musical number doesn’t even last a minute, a scene between Giles and a waiter registers more as a cheap way to signal the oppression of American society than a genuine broken connection. To return to the Golden Lion, perhaps this is the reason this film was so prominently awarded: it is a film that both struggles with itself and presents a veneer of gracefulness, that presents total fantasy and grim reality in equal measure. That, in itself, is just a little bit daring.