Lacking the sense of fun and creative character design that made his past films somewhat bearable, Guillermo del Toro’s latest feature, The Shape of Water (viewed at Toronto International Film Festival 2017) has almost nothing within it of interest. Opening with a voice-over describing “the princess without voice”, the film sets itself up in the realm of the fairytale. But rather than engaging with the genre in a meaningful way, del Toro’s film is boring, broad, and unoriginal, without any magic or charm.
The Shape of Water follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a woman who cannot speak. She lives alone and follows a routine of boiling eggs, masturbating (in gloriously male gaze-style shots of her in her bathtub, breasts floating just above the water), and scrubbing her shoes before going to work as a janitor. Her only friends are her gay neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), a frazzled commercial artist who dotes on his many cats, loves old Hollywood starlets, and harbours a crush for a much younger Brando-style waiter, and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a sassy mother-hen coworker who only ever speaks about her dead-beat husband and has no significant role in the film.
Elisa is joined to her homophobic and racist stereotype companions by very little, other than their shared minority status. Added to their group of shallowly oppressed people is the fish-man (Doug Jones).
Elisa and Zelda clean in a government lab which is keeping an Amazonian fish creature. Assigned to clean the fish-man’s area, Elisa forms a bond with him, ultimately attempting to save him from the government’s decision to have him vivisected. Again, with underdeveloped relations, it’s hard to see why Elisa loves the monster, who looks like The Creature from the Black Lagoon with abs and blue detailing — that is until she expresses her allegiance to him as he, a fish-man and non-human, does not know how “incomplete” she is in her disability.
Giving space to minority characters who are shallowly conceived and handled, flattening their experiences into a singular shared oppression, and aligning them with a monstrous fish, the social element of The Shape of Water comes off as uninformed political correctness, which is more detrimental to its cause than it is progressive. Set against the film’s heroes is Michael Shannon’s Colonel Strickland, a Christian, suburban, chauvinist, a cartoonish villain who undermines the idea of real oppression of any kind in his uninspired caricature of “evil white guy”.
Unfortunately, the condescendingly reductive-at-best politics are the most interesting part of del Toro’s latest feature. The director’s characteristic engagement in genre is moistly dull as the wet and sickly green tones of his film. The romantic plot is forced and unearned (no amount of clichéd fantasy musical sequences or Serge Gainsbourg cover songs can change that), while the thrill of the fish-man’s escape is far too slight to fight against the exhausting drain of the over-long and underdeveloped plot.
Further, the fish-man’s design is uninspired, and moments of lightness and humour are too few and far between, creating a sense that de Toro is taking his film far too seriously. Presenting us with Elisa’s repeated masturbation scenes, it’s difficult not to make the connection: The Shape of Water is a masturbatory film, a work for del Toro to explore his interests in genre and narrative, creating something only he will enjoy.