Recently, French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, flung an accusation at Mexican filmmaker, Guillermo del Toro. I know, I know, our Indian tongues can never get those names right, but if you have finally managed to get over that, let’s discuss why are two of the most-feted directors of contemporary cinema squabbling. Mr Jeunet, who gifted the world with the roshogolla-soaked treat called Amelie close to two decades ago, feels Mr del Toro borrows heavily from his films Delicatessen (1991) and Amelie (2001). Del Toro, of course, politely dismisses the accusation. Like a droplet of rain rolling down a bus window. He probably expects his audience to take a judgment call on that.
So let’s just dive into the experience.
Watching the first 20 minutes of The Shape of Water is like being shepherded to the dessert section of a wedding buffet and goaded to eat gulab jamun, tutti-fruity ice cream and sandesh at one go. It’s a strange mix of familiar gratification and back-of-the-mouth uneasiness. You will need a very sweet tooth to take it.
As we are introduced to Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor at a secret government laboratory, we are given a walking tour of the whimsical storehouse that is her attic apartment. Her egg-shaped timer, her daily-thought calendar, her parrot-shaped shoe brush and her grandly tragic gay neighbour, everything designed to perfection. This is a world where a chocolate factory goes up in flames and characters mouth lines like- “Can you smell that? Toasted cocoa, tragedy and delight together.”
A whistle-tune of a world that can, frankly, get to you after a point of time.
Hawkins, with her Bambi eyes and Audrey Tatou bob, is the embodiment of everything that is pure and nice in a conflicted world. She, like Amelie, has carried over the gorgeously vivid fantasy life of her troubled childhood into adult life. She still taps her feet to Leslie Caron songs, she still nurses dreams in her eyes and she seeks a father figure in her gay neighbour.
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One day at work, she stumbles upon the biggest secret of the secret laboratory — a humanoid amphibian with scaly skin and fluorescent crotch, who was captured in the jungles of South America. Consumed with inquisitiveness, she attempts to strike a friendship with the creature, by offering him a hard-boiled egg. Thus, Elisa finds her vocation: she will be the saviour of the creature who is being brutalised by a sadistic man (Michael Shannon). Helping her in this herculean task is a fellow-janitor (Octavia Spencer) and her neighbour (Richard Jenkins).
The most remarkable fantasy of this film about monsters is the private world of Elisa. As she wafts through the cobbled streets of Baltimore, USA, as she looks longingly at red stilettos at store display counters, we are given tantalizing glimpses of her inner world.
There is a sad old man considering a half-finished birthday cake sitting next to her at the bus stop. Blue and yellow balloons bob happily next to him. He could be a metaphor or he could just be a sad man in a bus stop.
From the safe distance of her bus seat, Elisa takes in the city hurtling past her.
There is accordion music and neon signs reflected on road-side puddles. And there sepia tint that soaks through most frames, this could be Paris of 70 years before.
Del Toro creates a sumptuous confection of a world for Elisa, but unlike Jean-Pierre Jeunet, he ensures that inappropriate realities of homophobia and racism are not magicked away. Her gay neighbour’s impossible pursuit of pie-joint jock leads to heartbreak. Octavia Spencer’s character is subjected to repeated instances of casual racism through the course of the film.
The biggest achievement of The Shape Of Water lies in its refusal to iron the wrinkles away.