What is the shape of water, anyway? Liquid, right? No, wait, “liquid” isn’t a shape, it’s a quality, like “flighty” or “rambunctious” or “wildly imaginative,” isn’t it?
Or is liquid a sound, like that of rushing waters or the slurping of jello or the gurgly slip-slap of lovers deep in the rhythms of coitus mellifluous?
The beautiful sound and sight and feel of liquid’s most essential and satisfying form is everywhere in Guillermo del Toro’s current, compulsively watchable movie, “The Shape of Water.” del Toro both wrote and directed it in the kind of creative project control that gets all artists giddy with anticipation and all critics sharpening their knives to pierce the artist’s overreach.
What emerges from his fertile imagination sometimes feels as liquid and ungraspable as the water that seems to slosh everywhere but onto the theater seat one is sitting in, while it hews at other times to archetypal thematic devices as solid and hoary as a marble monument.
It’s all here as del Toro’s water—in bathtubs, bays, holding tanks, whole apartments, and falling relentlessly from the skies—finds its own multiple levels in this fable of good vs. evil, beauty and the beast, innocence vs. rapaciousness, Christ and those who would vivisect him. The first half-hour is a pastiche of fast-moving jumps that gives its audience little to hold onto, just like the water, yes, the water, that flows from one scene to the next, its context liquid and shapeless, its course surprising, its ultimate destination unknown.
And just when you get visions of a manic modernist sensibility that will not bestow any favors on your linear thought that tries to make sense of what you’re seeing and how it ties into what you just saw a moment before, the whole tale settles into the kind of convention-and-tension filled narrative arc that has you wondering: Is this more homage to “King Kong” or “Beauty and the Beast?” “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” or the far older story of Christ condemned by know-and-feel-nothings while his resurrection awaits another turn in the plot, attended all along by his faithful and kind Mary Magdalene?
The answer is all of these, of course. del Toro is a noted film and culture historian besotted with the long meandering rivers of his craft. In this singularly interesting movie that takes “interesting” far beyond any conventional usage of that term, he honors what has flowed through him while also serving a muse that conjures phantasmagoric imagery at nearly every turn.
Sly comedy intrudes throughout, helping to buffer occasional gruesome and queasy-making scenes while also adding distance to the movie’s own self-importance. The film’s tail will not be caught, its plot not dropped into any handy pigeonhole.
Big fable and drama and love story, dribs and drabs of comedy and musical, major dollops of morality tale. Villains and heroes and sex, the raw beastliness of humans and the refined innocence of beasts; this parental advisory says you’d better go elsewhere for a one-trick movie pony.
Life is too fantastic for any of that reductionist nonsense, the human imagination too vivid, the geography of desire too varied. The surprise lurking under every cover that we try to fold neatly and primly to the point of suffocation will spring out ever and again, drenching us every time we think we know what to expect and how it will play.
Wet and confused and shivering, we have a choice to make about how to respond. Everything in “The Shape of Water” suggests: If you’ve gone and gotten yourself wet for whatever reason, but especially for the cause of goodness and righteousness and love, head for the bay and call it a swim. The shape of its water awaits you.
Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. See more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Water droplet by Tim Geers https://www.flickr.com/photos/timypenburg/
Water over stairs by Lynn Gardner https://www.flickr.com/photos/grandgrrl/