I was prepared not to be a big fan of The Shape of Water. It looked twee and self-indulgent, and several people whose tastes I trust were lukewarm on it at best. The Hellboy movies didn’t do much for me, nor did Pacific Rim – but worse, I’d never really warmed to Guillermo del Toro’s biggest critical darling, Pan’s Labyrinth. I liked Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, and I have a clandestine soft spot for Blade 2‘s comic book operatics, but more often than not I’ve liked del Toro’s endearing enthusiasm and the aesthetics of his films more than the films themselves.
Imagine my surprise when I really enjoyed The Shape of Water.
The thing is: The Shape of Water is twee. It is self-indulgent. It’s sentimental, the plot is predictable and, as written, its characters are paper-thin and formulaic. The handful of moments when the fairy tale tries to say something about stiflingly conservative, racist, homophobic ’50s society are almost insultingly simplistic in a world where bigotry has regained power to a frightening extent.
Yet, as obvious as the film’s attempts to play the sentimentality card are – they worked for me. It took a while for me to succumb to The Shape of Water‘s charms, but once they kicked in, the film had me. I found myself reminded of early Tim Burton and the darkly romantic heart and genuine sweetness his films used to have. There’s more than a touch of Edward Scissorhands to del Toro’s latest – Edward Fishfingers, if you will, though with more masturbation and (possibly) inter-species sex.
Obviously del Toro’s latest is great to look at. Practically all of the director’s films would make for great coffee-table books. The Shape of Water is no different, and the production design is great, though it’s also reminiscent of other films and filmmakers (in addition to Burton, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro come to mind) – but if it was just the aesthetics of the film, I don’t think it would’ve managed to work its spell on me. What turned it from a cute but shallow curio into something more for me is its cast of actors who commit to filling their cartoonish characters with life and soul. If it wasn’t for Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg and Richard Jenkins – and Doug Jones, a physically expressive actor who’s too easy to underestimate, since he usually acts under a thick layer of prosthetics – The Shape of Water would join the rank of the coffee-table movies, but I found myself caring about these characters and forgetting that there wasn’t much substance to any of them.
Should The Shape of Water have won the Academy Award for Best Picture? Frankly, I’m not much interested in that particular debate. The Oscars usually don’t reflect my personal tastes, but more than that, I don’t really understand how entirely different films can be compared on such a one-dimensional scale – and indeed why they should be. I don’t know what it would mean to say that The Shape of Water is a better or worse film than Get Out, Phantom Thread or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I would agree that it’s not a particularly deep, relevant or timely film. It doesn’t say much about the ’50s or the present day, it doesn’t much challenge intellectually, emotionally or morally. But then, neither does a good dessert, and sometimes I really appreciate a good dessert. Perhaps The Shape of Water shouldn’t have been voted the Best Picture of 2017 – but I’ll happily call it, if not the best, then definitely one of the best meringues I’ve had at the cinema in a long time, and I will always argue that there should be a place for a good meringue in all forms of art. Even if there’s a faint whiff of fish about it.