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SHAPE OF WATER - Creature Black Lagoon gets lucky (Read 829 times)
Dec 15th, 2017 at 5:25pm

L.A. Connection   Offline
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One of the most hauntingly erotic scenes of 50s cinema is the suggestive underwater pas de deux between Julie Adams and Ricou Browning (as the Gill Man) in CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. Director Gillermo del Toro's THE SHAPE OF WATER was obviously inspired by that image when he conceived of his Adult Fairy Tale. And, adult it is, minutes in Sally Hawkins (Elisa) strips full frontal naked and masturbates in a bathtub. Message: Leave the kiddies at home.
Elisa works at a mysterious government facility where a creature from the Amazon has been taken. Credited as Amphibian Man (Doug Jones in a superb full body costume with some CGI touches), the creature is under the watchful eye of stern Richard (Michael Shannon), while also being experimented on by Dr. "Bob" Hoffstetler  (Michael Stuhlbarg). Elisa is mute, and her only friends appear to be a co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and a lonely man in her building, Giles (Richard Jenkins). Elisa bonds with the Amphibian Man (think a distaff mermaid fantasy). When it becomes obvious to Elisa (and Dr. Hoffstetler) that the government has bad intentions for the monster, a conspiracy is hatched to save the beast.
In outline form, this all works very nicely. And, the Beauty and the Beast story-line is lyrically performed. Unfortunately, del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor layer on a lot of layers - and, not all for the better. The movie is set in the early-60s in order to play off of Cold War tensions with the Russians. It gives the movie some obvious villains, and, setting it long ago adds to Elisa's fairy tale fate.

But, Shannon's Richard isn't just a tough security supervisor, but, a sexual deviant, bigot and a psychopath. Sure, in 1962 there was racism but, what does it really add to the movie to have a lunch counter scene (at one point Zelda is even referred to as "The Help" (I'm not kidding))? They toss in sexual prejudice and physical disabilities discrimination for good measure. Yes, the point is that Elisa, Zelda, "Bob" and Giles are outsiders, and therefore they are the only ones that can "understand" the monster.  It's not so much the symbolism but the inelegance and heavy-handedness of how it's presented that is at issue here. Most crucially, it detracts from the core story.

Hawkins is a wonderful actress. The mute may be a bit of a cliche in these kinds of stories, but she gives it a soulfulness that is entrancing. Jenkins and Spencer are reliably sturdy, but, Stuhlbarg (also fine in the current CALL ME BY YOUR NAME) is quite exceptional presenting the duality of his role as "Bob". Shannon is one of our most commanding actors, but his part isn't written (or directed) with much finesse. He dominates the picture, rather than supports it. As noted, the makeup is excellent, and the other effects are subtle but effective. Alexander Splat's music is sweet, but, sometimes it doesn't gel with the harshness of the scenes it's played against. Dan Austen's photography is excellent.

THE SHAPE OF WATER is decent, but flawed. I have no particular issue with an R-Rated fantasy, but, here it doesn't seem necessary - or relevant. We've all seen more wholesome Beauty & The Beast/Mermaid stories before (astute genre viewers will also see homages to King Kong and other films).  And, the essential base of the story with Elisa IS quite sweet. But, other than the frank nudity, all the other R-Rated elements are side points (cursing, gore and a gratuitous sex scene with Richard that only is there to highlight one particular fetish). Movies like UNDER THE SKIN and Almodovar's THE SKIN I LIVE IN were steeped in mature themes and imagery that were integral to their core, but, in SHAPE they seem extraneous. Hawkins and Amphibian Man make for a charming daydream, too bad its too often woken by interruptions.
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