The Shape of Water

I love the Oscars, because I love movies. But I’m also fully aware that the awards show is a thoroughly self-indulgent, self-congratulatory enterprise. The films that win Best Picture are an eclectic bunch, but quite often heap praise on the the movie industry itself. Of the past seven Best Picture winners, the Academy has awarded one movie directly about movies (The Artist), one about a theater production (Birdman), and one about a fake movie production (Argo). The King’s Speech could also be considered a film about performance. And, for a few minutes, we all thought La La Land was a winner, too. If you want your film to win Best Picture, it’s a good bet to make it about the movies.

The Shape of Water, the frontrunner for Best Picture about the romance between a woman and an anthropomorphic fish, falls into this tradition. It’s a movie made for cinephiles, rife with references and shots of characters watching or recreating past films. Late in The Shape of Water, there’s a scene where the main character imagines herself in a black and white movie. If a film gained consciousness and then directed another film, it might look like The Shape of Water.

And that’s the problem: The Shape of Water pays so much adherence to the magic of cinema that it removes the audience from the story at hand. I loved La La Land because it captured the spirit of classic Hollywood musicals; it didn’t have to give us shots of Ryan Gosling studying Fred Astaire. Between the sweeping score, random tap-dancing, and shots of characters watching classic Hollywood films, The Shape of Water is a hodge-podge of references. All thrown together, they’re distracting.

The film tries hard to insist it’s About Something Important beyond this love for cinema, but doesn’t really focus on any one idea. There are scattered moments about homophobia, the Civil Rights Movement, the ‘50s American nuclear family, ableism, and the power of unconditional love. These parts never really come together in a coherent way. The film’s setting further weakens any impact these ideas might have. Calling out homophobia is nice, but when it’s set in a fantasy version of the 1950s, it feels pretty distant.

This fantasy perspective isn’t conducive to character depth, either. We don’t come to learn much about anyone here, because the film is so showy and theatrical that the characters serve more as set props than fleshed out individuals. The performances are good, but the roles aren’t given much room to breathe. Octavia Spencer could do what she’s given here in her sleep.

The Shape of Water isn’t really about the actors, though, so much as the filmmaking itself. It’s the kind of gaudy spectacle that makes you praise the cinematography without really knowing what that means; it’s a movie built to win all the Oscars categories you don’t care about. Director Guillermo Del Toro brings a visual style to The Shape of Water that might best be described as Amélie without sunlight, and it’s often beautiful. But there’s also an artificiality to the film that prevents it from being fully engaging.

That’s not to say that The Shape of Water doesn’t have its moments. The escape scene midway through the movie was thrilling. But the moments that do work never quite click into place. Perhaps it’s because The Shape of Water plays more as a movie for the movies than as a work of art on its own terms. Given the Academy’s tendencies, I think that will be enough for the film to take home the top honor on March 4. But it wasn’t enough to win me over.

2.5 stars