On The Shape of Water (2017)

When we talk about how we watch movies, something I hadn’t given much thought to before – and which really should have been obvious – is how much it matters who we are watching the movies with. After I wrote this blog, I saw this great article about how personal experience so clearly can influence how we receive a film: here.

For my example, I take Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winner, The Shape of Water. I was so looking forward to seeing this movie, and so was my son. Our admiration for the movies of GdT had grown together. We’d discovered him via his comic-book movies – Blade 2 and Hellboy 1 and 2 – and had then spread out to see everything he’d ever made. Loving every last damn one of these movies (although I’m still not 100% on Pacific Rim, but I need to watch the non-3D version to be certain one way or another).

And, we both agreed (entirely non-controversially) that Pan’s Labyrinth is his masterpiece.

So we headed into The Shape of Water with hopes sky-high.

And I came out…well, maybe a little disappointed. Mostly I didn’t buy into the central romance, but other things didn’t fit. The characters seemed off, some scenes jarred. It was just…fine…and I was frustrated because this was an Oscar-nominated movie, from one of my all-time favorite directors, and I couldn’t quite see what the fuss was about.

Why didn’t he get the Oscar for Pan’s Labyrinth, dammit? But that’s another point entirely.

And so, days pass, and my beautiful and sainted wife was told by all of her friends that she had to see The Shape of Water. They had cried, swooned, and fallen in love. She wanted some of that. And I wanted to give the movie a second viewing. My wise, perceptive life partner suggested that it matters that I’d seen a love story with my son – my viewing buddy for movies like Bone Tomahawk – rather than with her good self – a viewer whose idea of a good movie does not tend to involve graphic violence and lengthy scares.

I could, on reflection, see how that would make a difference.

Watching the movie a second time, this time holding the hand of the most magical person I know, the movie was indeed remarkably different, while also of course being entirely the same. No movie is perfect, but great del Toro’s movies succeed in imagination, design, creativity, and heart. This one has all of those in abundance. I’m relieved to be able to say (if only to myself..and my two loyal readers…) that The Shape of Water shares those wonderful traits. It looks glorious, the characters that live in his masterfully constructed world are all fascinating, if not always noble.

And sure, I still can’t quite make the love between the lead character and the monster something to entirely get behind. But that mattered less this time around. I loved it. I can see the fairy tale aspects and the references to “The Little Mermaid”, eggs as fertility symbols, and probably so much more mythology, legend, folklore, and movie lore. It’s visually gorgeous, with depth and intelligence, and compassion.

And now, I’m pleased as I could possibly be that it did so well at the Oscars – and not just because GdT is a filmmaker and a storyteller that I have admired for a long long time, but because this one film deserves it. 2017 was an unusually strong year for studio movies; I especially loved Blade Runner 2047, Dunkirk but The Shape of Water deserves to be up there too.

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