The Shape of Water
Friday 9 March 2018
To Sant Pere, the little town next door, to see the Oscar-winning The Shape of Water by Guillermo del Toro. That such a small town should have a cinema with good films is due to the brave project of a small group of film buffs who want to promote the experience of seeing films with other people, rather than hunched over a computer. They've converted the old church hall into a cinema, with good projection and sound (the latter a little deafening!), and proper seats ... bought cheap, I assume, from one of the many cinemas that have closed down. As I say, brave and optimistic,and the cinema has survived so far on an intelligent mix of popular and serious films.
Anyway, The Shape of Water... I won't bother with the mainstream review elements of plot, acting, overall impact and so on - what I want to mention is the stylistic approach of the film. Guillermo del Toro has mentioned in interviews that his fascination with cinema grew initially from his childhood love of comics. That is to say, not just the Marvel super-hero type, but the full range of what has come to be called 'graphic novels'. I think we can see this influence in the distinctive style of The Shape of Water. To take three elements...
Speech-bubble dialogue A key feature of the film is its crisp, concise dialogue. There are few long speeches at any point, and even important interchanges between characters are usually very succinct, economical, to-the-point. For example, how to make love to a merman is evoked through three interrogative pronouns (and some brilliant acting!). However, the language is often loaded and resonant - the story of Samson and Delila is evoked and retold by the Baddie in language which is pretty simple, but which resonates powerfully with the context. In short, this is the language of speech-bubbles, where you have to achieve maximum impact in a highly restricted space.
Frame design The visual imagery of the film is strongly influenced by comic-book graphics, I believe - the designs of shots often look like cartoon frames. There are many close-ups, in which the camera focuses on distinctive faces making distinctive expressions. Lighting is used forcefully not only to focus attention, but also to create stylised drama. Deep perspectives such as corridors create space as in a 2D drawing. Ultimately, the entire setting design is drawn from 50s and 60s images - for instance, the government laboratory in which much of the action takes place has a heavy-industry look which has more to do with graphic drama than with any laboratory in real life. I kept seeing the thick lines and colour blocks of skilful graphic artists exploiting the necessary techniques of mass-production printing, successfully, to vivid effect.
Period aethos The film is clearly set in the very early 60s, established through details and background plot. There are clunky black and white televisions, showing civil rights demos, and military helicopters, and brash light entertainment. Then there are the cars - the Baddie lusts after, and eventually acquires, a top of the range Cadillac as orgasmic proof of his success (but note what happens to that!). Meanwhile, our Baddie returns home to his stereotypically perfect wife + two kids in their emblematic American home straight out of comic-book iconography. Finally, the background plot involves aggressive US military and sinister Soviet spies in a standard Cold War struggle for dominance.
I do not for a moment want to suggest that the film is merely derivative or plagiarised. All of the elements I mention have been re-cycled, re-imagined, and integrated superbly into an entirely coherent vision. These elements add texture and complexity to the moving central story which touches on many profound issues and themes.
I could go on... but look: just go and see the film!