The Oscars made their arrival last weekend. For all that the entertainment press in the UK sporadically make their regular cry of ‘The British are Coming’ that never actually seems to be the case. However, looking at the winners of the Best Director category over the last few years, it would perhaps to be fair to make the claim that ‘The Mexicans are Coming’, with Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu – twice – and now Guillermo del Toro having all got the nod recently. It’s pretty much impossible to talk about the Oscars these days, without at least cursorily addressing the diversity issues that have been raised about it. Which in turn reminded me that I’d intended to have another go round at the 12 films project and an unexpected Oscar winner would be a good place to start.
Having been a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s films since I first saw Pan’s Labyrinth over a decade ago, I was both surprised and delighted to find both The Shape of Water and its director nominated for so many Oscars this year. (Just because I happen to think that del Toro is one of the best and most interesting directors working today, that doesn’t mean I expect the Academy to agree with me!) Having now seen the film itself, I’m no less baffled but even more delighted. It’s so rare to see genre films do well at the Oscars, especially ones as unapologetically strange and political as this one.
The Shape of Water is a delightfully strange and beautiful film, a cold war fairy tale with all the whimsy and darkness that ought to go along with that. Fundamentally, it’s a story about love – both romantic and platonic – and hope. It’s a film that wears its influences on its sleeve, embodying both the optimism and creeping insecurities – not to mention explicitly displaying the casual bigotry of the times – of both the films and wider society of the US in the early 1960s. In particular both the diner and the car show room, embody the duality of those Atomic age B-movies and the time they were made, with the shiny futuristic surfaces and the bubbling undercurrents of tension flowing just below it.
(Arguably, you know you’ve spent too much time in the horror and science fiction genres, when you hear Theme from a Summer Place and understand instantly its dual role in both comforting and quietly creeping out the audience.)
There’s something a little Amelie-esque about the theme that Alexandre Desplat has given to Elisa, but more widely the score and the soundscape in general arguably owe more to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s earlier work with Marc Caro, Delicatessen. There’s both a tenderness and a nightmarishness to both films, a sense of something pure and good struggling to survive in the face of terribly mundane evil.
It’s a film to warm your heart and remind you that, even in these troubled times; people are still capable of great kindness and bravery. So while it may have been an unexpected to choice for the Oscar, it was not, I think, an undeserved one.