The Shape of Water review: richly atmospheric aqua erotica

In an old episode of The Simpsons titled A Fish Called Selma, the actor Troy McClure arranged a sham marriage to divert media attention from rumours of an unsavoury sexual preference: a fetish for fish. If McCLure were an actual person one might expect him to feel finally vindicated, and somewhat aroused by director Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, an erotic love story between a mute cleaner and her alien fish boyfriend.

I was hoping the filmmaker would hat-tip The Simpsons by reworking a bit of dialogue involving Springfield gangster Fat Tony, who explains that he never said McClure was dead: “What I said is that he sleeps with the fishes.” So does Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), in an environment that disproves a claim made in another show popular in the 90s – Seinfeld – when an incensed Elaine cries out after watching The English Patient: “Sex in a tub, that doesn’t work!”

With The Shape of Water, now being touted as an Oscars hopeful, the Mexican filmmaker is not taking the piss. Nor is his richly shot romantic period drama – set in Baltimore in the 1960s – framed as a forbidden love story. It is a genuine, poker-faced tale of interspecies attraction, the gill-equipped specimen one half of a ‘love is love’ equation with obvious albeit flexible allegorical implications, the most barefaced involving messages around nonheteronormative relationships.

Actor Michael Shannon snarls and stomps, cattle prodder in hand as the awful supporting character Strickland, head of security at the place where Elisa works and Amphibian Man (a CGI-slathered Doug Jones) – the creature from the Black Lagoon, rewritten as a pining sweetie – is experimented upon. Amphibian Man does not care that Elisa can’t speak, given their shared status as suffering outsiders. This was self-evident before the script (co-written by Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor) articulates it directly through dialogue, as if we were hitherto incapable of understanding.

The lack of faith in audiences to read obvious messages rises to the surface again when Elisa’s doubtful best friend, gay single man Giles (Richard Jenkins) notes that her slimy beau isn’t human. Elisa lectures him through sign language: “If we don’t help, neither are we,” marking the first time I wanted to tell somebody speaking with their hands to put a sock in it. The production design is green, green, green, that colour so ubiquitous (furniture, clothes, walls, cars, pieces of pie…) it is fingered in conversation multiple times. The emphasis on green by turn emphasises red, an opposite colour, making blood look more striking than usual.

It often rains in The Shape of Water, imparting a clear message: the same stuff that lingers on the bottom of earth falls from above it, everything between defined by the impurities of humankind. Del Toro prefers outré cartoon to nuanced drama, thus the return through Strickland of the nefarious shit-eating Captain from Pan’s Labyrinth – a villainous cardboard cut-out, then as now.

The director continues an inverted through the looking glass output, perhaps not in the Lewis Carroll manner he would appreciate. His supposedly complex films (Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak, The Shape of Water) are juvenile fantasies, and his juvenile fantasies (Pacific Rim, Hellboy, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army) have inner complexity. In any case Del Toro is, at heart, a maker of schlock with too much respect for formalism to surrender to his wild side – a producer of half-baked concepts with overcooked aesthetic.

That continues with The Shape of Water, which is enjoyable in a daffy way. Del Toro’s penchant for otherworldly images invites poetic interpretation, but in essence amount to little more than a joke store wig or a monkey suit. But the leanness of The Shape of Water’s storyline (at times it almost resembles a chamber piece) and the richness of the execution morph into a film that is nothing if not focused. It will be remembered as the one about the woman having sex in the tub with the fish.

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