With the highest number of Academy Awards nominations in 2018, the Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” is leading the Oscar race this year. The film has 13 Oscar nominations in the categories of best picture, best director, best actress, best supporting actor and actress and other significant technical fields, and has successfully stepped into the elite club of 13, where the highest limit is 14 nominations, touched by only 3 films so far in the history of Hollywood. Guillermo del Toro himself scored 3 nominations for best picture, director and original screenplay for the film. Though Del Toro started his career long back in the year of 1985, his first breakthrough was the year of 1993 with the feature film called ‘Cronos’, which received many critical appreciations along with 5 awards under Ariel Awards which is the Mexican Academy of Film Awards. His first appearance in the Academy Awards was in 2007 with the foreign language film called ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’. ‘The Shape of Water’ is now the latest addition to it.
With a cold war backdrop in 1960s, ‘The Shape of Water’ revolves around the mute protagonist Elisa Esposito’s life. It is the event of the protagonist’s stumbling across an unknown aquatic being that essentially progresses the storyline of the film. The aquatic creature has been brought in a confidential US government facility for experimentation in order to gain advantage over the Soviet during the Cold War, where the protagonist works as a janitor. For such alien character and storyline, the film falls in the genre of fantasy and drama films, yet it is a ravishing romance with a retro set of the 60s.
Del Toro’s brilliance not only lies in projecting vivid eye-catching visuals but also creating a fantastical fairytale narrative, partly woven with non-verbal communication of the protagonist. Though it is very challenging to communicate through a mute protagonist, Del Toro’s storytelling nails it as it opts for subtitle and reciprocated vocal in order to let us know about the mute’s words. What is even more extraordinary is that the film not only entertains us by being a magnificent fairytale but also juxtaposes the racial tension during the 1960s without obstructing the flow of the narrative. This also evokes the urge to restore faith in humanity at the time of intolerance in the world.
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Still from ‘Shape of Water’ Collected
With an amazing performance, Sally Hawkins, who played the main character Elisa in the film, has secured her nomination in the Academy Awards 2018. The film opens with Elisa dealing with her daily routined life – making half-boiled eggs for lunch, taking shower, watching television, talking with her friend Giles through sign language and coming late at work while her colleague Zelda punches for her to show she is on time at work. Elisa is efficient, yet very lonely having only two friends - Zelda and Giles to talk to in sign language. As she is unable to speak, she lacks in making new friends. Eventually, while cleaning a top secret government facility, she meets the aquatic man – or rather, the ‘monster’ of her dreams caged in a water tank in the laboratory. Under layers of hand-painted latex body suit, the character is played by Doug Jones, who carries no name in the film. It is well known that Del Toro is a notable monster/cyborg visionary but this is the first time in which he projected one which makes love to a woman. So, this was quite a bit risky for Toro as he says “Every other film I’ve done, even the big ones, has a sense of loss about them. A film about love, empathy, sex, and politics…it’s a risk for me.”
After some days of Elisa’s discovery of the Aquatic Man in his caged water tank, Elisa begins to flirt with him. She brings half-boiled eggs for him and that humane aquatic creature with his sexy rugged swimmer’s body looks vividly and avidly at Elisa with his gold-speckled extensive eyes as his body dance in a reptilian way.
In depicting the amphibian character, Del Toro was inspired by Japanese drawings of fish rather than biology as he remarks, “He needed to have a kissable face…he’s not an animal, he’s an elemental river God.” Toro adds, “The real miracle of the Amphibian man is the way Sally looks at him. Her eyes vibrate with emotion. All the characters in the film who have the ability to speak have communication problems, but our two non-verbal characters communicate flawlessly.”
This brings us to one of the most striking theme that the film delivers which is signed by Elisa, “When he looks at me, the way he looks at me, he never knows I’m incomplete.” The film perhaps relocates the best definition of love, that is, the gaze of completeness from the counterpart.
Shot on the Arri Alexa camera with a total production expense of 19.5 million US dollar, the film carries vibrant cinematic cues and colours, through which the characters are further revealed. The character Strickland, who has a thirst for dominance, has his home so brightly lit that it feels oppressive whereas Elisa’s apartment has a cyanic hue, reflecting her longing to be in the underwater.
Once Elisa and the amphibian man consummate their love, she begins to wear red, which represents “the cinema and love” for Del Toro. The film craftily shows us that the real monster lives in a human body, which is Strickland—a wilfully ignorant isolationist. When Elisa brings the creature home, hiding him in her bathtub, a raging Strickland goes to brutal lengths to get him back. Del Toro also cleverly portrays a balance in the evilness between the Russian and Unites States intelligence through his subplots.
Though 'The Shape of Water' has largely enjoyed a controversy-free campaign in the award season, just a few months before the Academy Award ceremony, Pulitzer-winning playwright Paul Zindel strikes Del Toro who co-authored it with Vanessa Taylor with the accusation of playwright plagiarism from a 1969 play by Zindel. David Zindel, son of Paul Zindel, remarks that "The Shape of Water” is obviously derived from the play “Let Me Hear You Whisper."
The similarities are indeed striking: Zindel's story deals with a lady who works as a cleaner in a biology lab where she becomes infatuated with the dolphin used for research in the lab. As she gets to know that the scientists are going to dissect the dolphin, she performs a rescue mission. Apart from the muteness of the protagonist, the plot carries pretty much the same storyline.
Yet all the newly sparked controversies, Del Toro is still audience favourite in the Oscar race. Even if the film does not win in the category of screenplay in the Academy Awards due to the controversy, 'The Shape of Water' will surely come up with multiple awards on 4th of March.