Donatella Versace recently did an interview with Vogue as part of their popular YouTube series ’73 Questions With…’. She perfunctorily dismisses minimalism as a trend that should never return, describes her personal style as “very personal” and, when asked about the best film ever made, slurs: “The Shape of Water”. I went to see it last week and couldn’t believe that Donatella had sat through it too – it’s intense and ugly, weird and grotesque, stupid and hilarious. It’s literally about a cleaning lady who falls in love with a fish. There is nothing even slightly reflective of the plucked and glossy ideals of the Versace brand. In fact, the only faintly Donatella-esque thing I can think of about The Shape of Water are the stretched lips of the amphibian bloke. It’s not that I didn’t like this film, I really love fish, it’s just that I couldn’t get it out of my mind that this is Donatella’s favourite film. I don’t actually believe her, I don’t even believe that she’s seen it. But, anyway, I have, and here are my thoughts.
Guillermo del Toro instantly locates us in the rainy streets of 1960s Baltimore and Cold War anxiety is rife. Sally Hawkins plays a lonely, mute cleaner at a research facility coated with the muted greens and greys of a George Tooker painting. There is nothing extraordinary about her life – each morning she wakes up, boils her eggs and masturbates violently in the bath. This point is laboured a bit by del Toro in the constant montages – morning, eggs, bath; morning, eggs, bath; morning, eggs, bath. A lot of critics have praised her performance as a mute. Naturally, it’s a very demanding, physical role but I wasn’t as stunned as I thought I’d be and I far preferred her cleaner colleague played expertly by Octavia Spencer. Spencer is effortlessly funny and I would have liked to have seen her in a much larger role – the Oscar for the Best Supporting Actress has her name on it. Hawkins’s character sheepishly conducts her business at the facility under the wandering eye of Michael Shannon’s boss. It isn’t long before she meets the ‘asset’ housed at the facility – it’s an amphibious hunk of a manfish that Sally falls head over heels for and, before I knew it, I was watching their scaly bodies cavort in the shower. It put me right off my pick and mix.
For me, Michael Shannon’s turn as the hideously uncouth captain of the facility was, absurdly, one of the best parts of the film. His cruel acts of violence range from the faintly perverse (he washes his hands before urinating rather than after) to the downright revolting (dragging a man through a barn using the bullet holes in his face like the holes in a bowling ball), it was uproarious. The awful shame was that del Toro let such a grotesque character die in such a quotidian way – the amphibian man simply swipes his fingernail across Shannon’s neck as he falls to his knees in true GCSE Drama style.
The film is best at its grossest. I adored the abruptness with which the fish-man bites off the neighbour’s cat’s head – crunchy and hilarious. The squirt of fleshy juice as Shannon snaps off one of his mangy, decaying fingers – beautiful. These are the bits that you’re still thinking about days after seeing the film. If you come out feeling all romantic and wanting to find a fish-man of your own then you weren’t watching it properly. That wasn’t the point. Look at del Toro’s other films – they delight in their ability to horrify. Remember Crimson Peak? – The best bit was when Tom Hiddleston’s smug Etonian face was pierced by Jessica Chastain’s blunt knife. What about Pan’s Labyrinth? – The Spanish Civil War meant a man had to saw his own leg off! This is what del Toro films are all about – they are ridiculous, unrealistic gore fests. Don’t even try to convince me that The Shape of Water is a romance. It’s disgusting and hilarious. And I loved it.