Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” debuted at Venice a few days ago, and has now landed here in the mountains of Telluride. And just in time, too. As much as I love being here, and as fantastically ran as the festival always is, this year has felt seemingly off. There have been quite a few films that are “liked,” but none that I felt would be championing long after leaving for home. That all changes now.
The Mexican auteur’s fable is an ethereal allegory that takes place during the early 1960s Cold War-era America. Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa, a mute and timid janitor secluded in a hidden, top-security government facility. She lives a simple life, anchored by her starving artist neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her chattering co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Elisa’s mundane life is flipped upside down when she and Zelda stumble upon a covert, classified operation – the most sensitive experiment ever to be housed in their facility – and suddenly the ordinary becomes the extraordinary.
At the head of the lab are two key figures – gruff head of security Strickland (played with the serial creepiness we’ve grown to expect from the great Michael Shannon) and the more hospitable Dr. Hoffstetler (played by Michael Stuhlbarg). Strickland despises the creature – referred to as The Asset (played by the incomparable Doug Jones) – and wants to dissect it so that they can see how it is able to breathe in and out of the water, and then use that knowledge to help the United States beat the Russians into space. Hoffstetler on the other hand, wants to keep the creature alive, though he may have a more secret agenda that keeps him in the game.
As the reclusive Elisa begins to connect with the creature, an innocent friendship begins to blossom, and soon the two find that love can transcend their differences. When the military steps in to agree with Strickland’s desires, Elisa and her two pals must devise a way to rescue her new love from imminent danger.
del Toro invites us into a world that only he could imagine, weaving a charmingly odd fairy-tale that was inspired by one of his childhood passions, Jack Arnold’s 1954 horror-classic “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” del Toro lamented the fact that the creature didn’t end up with Kay (Julie Adams), the woman in the vintage film, and made it his passion project to unite beauty with beast this go around. The film cost the man a large sum to make, and from the Q&A following the film, you could see the passion for bringing it to the big screen. When time ran out for the Q&A, del Toro graciously told the crowd to meet him on the patio steps to continue the discussion. It was quite an experience to take in his charisma and knowledge – the man is a literal genius with a Groucho-Marx-esque sense of humor.
“The Shape of Water” is a delightfully unconventional gem of a film, the best seen so far at the 44th Telluride Film Festival. Hawkins is a heartbreaking pleasure to witness – especially during a scene in which she explains to the creature what he means to her. Additionally, how he sees her for who she is, making her incompleteness, now, feel complete. Meanwhile, Jenkins and Spencer provide incredibly strong and continuous comic relief. The set design is vivid and lush – from the large laboratory containment center to the narrow corridors of Elisa’s and Giles’ apartment hallway – with wonderful color palettes for each of the characters and locales. Alexandre Desplat‘s score reflects the magic and romance of the film, as we all know he is so often capable of doing.
“The Shape of Water” is a generous and giving love story. Guillermo del Toro’s film is about the gloom of loneliness and the importance of finding those who make our empty spaces feel full.
Felicitaciones, Mr. del Toro.
“The Shape of Water” is distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures and opens in theaters on December 8.