Callum Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2017, Day 7

The Shape of WaterLu Over the WallApostasy, and Princess Cyd.

God, what did we do to deserve Guillermo del Toro?  I mean it, what did we as a collective humanity do to deserve a filmmaker like Guillermo del Toro?  del Toro is one of the most technically gifted directors working today, I don’t think anyone can dispute that, but it goes further than that.  It’s the way that he marries that technical ability to his absolute passion and earnest love for the worlds, characters, stories, and genres he chooses to tell that makes watching his films so wonderful.  It’s there in his early horror classics, Chronos and The Devil’s Backbone, it’s there in his off-kilter approach to comic book movies with Blade II and the perennially-underrated Hellboy movies (the latter of which were my first introductions to the world of comic book movies), and it’s absolutely there in his gothic genre homages Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak.  Hell, even though Pacific Rim was only “good” instead of “great,” you couldn’t blame that on a lack of tangible passion, and the shared glee in watching del Toro cash in every last scrap of industry cred he’d accrued up to that point to make the progressive, multi-cultural ode to the pleasures of the Anime and giant monster movies that he is infatuated with!

Sure, a lot of filmmakers are technically gifted, and a lot of filmmakers are capable of radiating the love they have for their work and the films and things they love, and a select few are capable of marrying the two together in a non-showy manner.  But del Toro is able to somehow marry the first two together in a way that loudly announces the specificity of his directorial presence, and yet still manages to sell the emotions and realness of the world and its characters in a manner that makes his best moments transcendent.  Auterist works that hit the emotions in two ways simultaneously without one compromising the other.  And what have the rest of us done to deserve this man?  Hmm?  We keep antagonising each other to the potential brink of nuclear war!  Serial sexual predators are allowed to run major Hollywood studios and get away with their abuse for decades!  New Transformers movies keep being made!  And, worst of all, we keep refusing to go and see del Toro’s films in the cinema, where they belong!

I’m being deliberately facetious with this, of course, but that question repeatedly raced through my mind during and in the aftermath of The Shape of Water (A-).  How on earth do we deserve a filmmaker like del Toro?  The Shape of Water is a beautiful masterwork, a deliriously romantic ode to ostracised and misunderstood souls that are able to find a genuine, meaningful connection in one another because of the very thing that otherwise makes them feel like they can never truly belong.  It’s also the most del Toro movie ever made, and I’m including Pacific Rim in that statement.  Every last one of those directorial tricks he’s made use of over his career, his affinity for female protagonists of hope and purity in the midst of worlds of chaos and hatred, his disdain of imperialism, his adoration for old movies, his complete over-earnest sincerity and romantic notions of love, his ability to realise hyper-stylised versions of classic period-specific aesthetics, his putting Doug Jones in elaborate creature costumes…

But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s rewind a bit.  The Shape of Water follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a lonely mute, her vocal cords were damaged when she was a baby and she still bears the scars, who lives above a largely-empty movie theatre in a small American town.  The only company she has comes in the form of Giles (Richard Jenkins), her homosexual advertiser-artist neighbour who has become a father-figure of sorts to her, and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a fellow janitor at the top-secret government research facility in which they both work.  Elisa, in place of having anything outside of her job and two friends, follows a strict daily routine – boiled eggs for snacks during her night shifts, drifting away to her imagination on the bus commute to work, masturbating in the bath as an outlet for her forever-unfulfilled sexual desires – and gravitates towards the romanticism of old Hollywood musicals as fuel for her hopes of one day finding an escape from all of this.

Said escape arrives at the facility in the form of an unknown sea creature, dubbed The Asset (Doug Jones) and accompanied by government man Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who found and captured the creature with the intent of turning it into some kind of advantage against the Soviets in the ever-pressing Cold War.  When the creature ends up taking two of Strickland’s fingers, Elisa and Zelda are called in to do clean-up, whereupon Elisa strikes up a bond between herself and the creature out of sight of everyone else.  He’s completely indifferent to her inability to speak, and Elisa feels like he understands her better than anyone else can due to his difficulty at communication.  She shows him kindness and treats him like a person, the two things that nobody else he has come into contact with has deigned to show him, with everybody else only seeing him as a monster or a weapon or a test dummy they can shoot up into space, and a bond slowly forms between them, one born out of innocence and compassion.

This occurs in the middle of early-60s Cold War America, where tensions were at an all-time high, and the concept of Patriarchal American Exceptionalism had never been more rampant.  Strickland is a man who fully embodies that idea, and takes great perverse pride in doing so.  One of his earliest sequences involves him explaining to Elisa and Zelda that “a man only washes his hands in the bathroom once, either before or after.  Doing so both times is a sign of weakness.”  And weakness is something that Strickland cannot stand; almost every action of his is driven by a pathological need to assert his superiority at every opportunity.  The brief glimpses of his home life that we see are a picture-perfect version of an American suburban family, yet he gains no satisfaction from it, not unless his is the only voice worth value and his is the only desire that is satisfied, even forcibly covering his wife’s mouth during sex because her opinion is meaningless to him.

He takes great pleasure in forcing others to do his bidding, at one point even stopping a distraught scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg who has far more to do than that descriptor indicates) from engaging in an argument with him because the guy didn’t knock on the door to Strickland’s office before entering.  He’s flattered into buying an expensive teal Cadillac, even though he hates the colour (thinking it to be green), because the salesman appeals to his ego by saying he looks “like a Man of The Future, and this car is for Men of The Future.”  And nothing, nothing, makes him angrier than the idea that he is incapable of having full control over everything at all times, believing that any one failure represents a larger indictment of himself as a Man overall.  In the same way that del Toro used The Captain in Pan’s Labyrinth as the personification of Spanish Fascism, so too is Strickland – and Shannon, who has played this kind of role before but never better than here, via a performance filled with vicious physicality and brittle pride – the personification of America’s ugliest aspects.  During the Cold War, yes, but also in ways that reflect on the country’s history as a whole, both prior to the Cold War and after it, even up to today.

But although Strickland’s presence forever hangs over the film, he never consumes it.  For this is the tale of Elisa and the creature, and the pure joy in finally finding an equal connection with somebody after having spent one’s whole life wondering if they could ever experience it… and then finding out just how deep that connection really goes.  Despite where things end up, however, that central relationship never stops being this achingly genuine beautiful thing, radiating love, and based around a mutual gentleness and tenderness.  You can place a lot of the credit for that on del Toro and Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay, which contains not a trace of irony and finds plenty of very welcome humour throughout, and you can also credit another fine Doug Jones performance, but the real star is Sally Hawkins.  Her performance is a sweet empathetic masterclass of total emotional sincerity, yet still combining all of that into a fully-realised character instead of an unbelievable Purity Sue.  When her heart breaks, yours breaks along with her, and when she finds the satisfaction she has been craving for so long, so too does the viewer.  Best Actress statues for the year should all come with her name pre-carved onto their plaques to save time.

Is The Shape of Water perfect?  No, not in the slightest.  It’s a Guillermo del Toro movie, which means that it’s definitely a bit too shaggy, a little overstuffed with ideas, and can get distracted by tangents that don’t go anywhere from time to time.  But quite frankly, The Shape of Water would not be a Guillermo del Toro movie without those imperfections; it’s the price one pays for a director who throws himself so completely into every project.  Besides, the results speak for themselves.  The Shape of Water is Guillermo del Toro’s best film in over a decade, and I say this as somebody who has really liked every film he’s done post-Pan’s Labyrinth, so that is praise I do not dispense lightly.  God, what did we do to deserve this man?

Despite the impression you may have gleamed from the length of that one piece of coverage, I did in fact see films other than The Shape of Water today.  None them came close to that, but all were enjoyable in their own ways.  Leading the charge was Lu Over the Wall (B-), a Japanese Anime and the latest from director Masaaki Yuasa.  Set in the small Japanese fishing village of Hiroshi Town, which has supposedly been cursed by mermaids for centuries, we mostly follow moody-teenager and aspiring musician Kai (Shôta Shimoda) who is roped into a band semi-against his will by classmates Kunio (Soma Saito) and Yūho (Minako Kotobuki).  During a practice session on the abandoned Mermaid Island, their music attracts the attention of the mermaid Lu (Kanon Tani), whom they become friends with and also rope into their band on account of her singing talents and inexplicable ability to make everybody in the vicinity break out into dance parties when she’s happy.  (Also, her fin turns into human legs whenever music starts playing, for some reason, and at night she can shift the water into all sorts of shapes and flying contraptions, and it’s really not best to think too hard about this.)

Lu, should you have been unable to tell from the tone of that summary, is an extremely unfocussed mess of a thing, and it seems that only part of that was intentional.  Yuasa’s style of animation has drawn great division amongst the Anime community at large for being deliberately free-form, flat, and off-model, and giving him the budget and scale of a feature film has only blown that up to cinematic proportions, not to mention the fact that the whole film was animated in Flash.  It’s definitely distinctive and adds to the zany comedy, but it’s also the only mess that actually works in the film.  Our protagonists change something like 7 times throughout the near-two-hour runtime; plots and subplots switch or get dropped on a dime; the film is thematically about environmentalism, until it’s suddenly about teenage depression, until it’s suddenly about the joy of music, until it’s suddenly about the disillusionment of the artist, until it’s suddenly about tourist exploitation, until it’s suddenly about the artificiality of the Pop Music world, until it’s suddenly about the impact of overfishing, until it’s suddenly about the unnecessary fear of the unknown…

What is Lu Over the Wall about?  In reality, it’s about all of these things at once, because Lu never manages to figure out what it’s about and so settles for just being everything.  That, combined with it being way too goddamn long – the film ends at least 4 times before it finally gets around to rolling the credits – is why Lu can not in any way be considered a good film.  But it is a really enjoyable and really fun one.  As a narrative, it’s garbage, but as an experience, it’s a surprisingly sweet and occasionally uproarious one with a fun sense of humour.  I mean, in what other film this year are you going to watch a giant shark in an ill-fitting business suit stand stock still in the middle of a street, in public, whilst no-one bats an eye, for upwards of 8 in-universe hours, because it can’t be exposed to a beam of direct sunlight about half a metre wide?

Apostasy (C+), meanwhile, is one of those films I can recognise is really good, but just left me too cold.  Partially drawn from first-time feature-director – the film was playing in the festival’s First Feature Competition – Dan Kokotajlo’s own personal experience as a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses for almost 12 years, we watch as a family of three women devoted to the group find their beliefs strongly tested in different ways.  Eldest daughter Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) has been at college, exposed to life and views outside of her village of fellow believers, and has just gotten pregnant from her boyfriend, an excommunicable offense in the eyes of the fellowship.  Youngest daughter Alex (Molly Wright) has been having doubts about the nature of the cataclysm that the fellowship preaches, which will reset the earth in Jehovah’s image and which has apparently been “soon” since the mid-70s, along with being critically anaemic due to The Truth’s decreeing of blood transfusions to be sinful and impure.  And mother Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) has to watch the fellowship slowly destroy her girls whilst she is forced to stand by and do nothing, as she would otherwise be “interfering” in their “path back to Jehovah.”

It’s a stark, menacing account of a cult that traffics in fear, blame, and constant shaming.  That asks its followers give themselves over totally to the fellowship, and rewards them only with passive-aggression and a constant psychological manipulation designed to break them down totally.  Where sin is everywhere, and forgiveness for any transgression, no matter how slight and no matter how devoted you were beforehand, is something that must be “earned” in a manner akin to psychological torture, dictated entirely by the whims of predatory men – always men, never ever women, this is a misogynistic power structure at its core.  The post-film Q&A revealed an audience made up of many former Jehovah’s Witnesses, all of whom were profoundly affected by the film, praising it for its accuracy, and some even claiming that what’s seen in the film barely scratches the surface.  Their opinions, I feel, matter far more than my own, so despite my ambivalence, you should absolutely watch Apostasy.  But for me, I just found the film too dry for my tastes, outside of Finneran’s shockingly complex and unsettling turn as Ivanna.  Fact is, I found watching it to be too much like watching a Channel 4 drama, so my mind would wander every now and again as a result.  Hopefully a rewatch, with the knowledge brought about by people sharing their own experiences during the Q&A, will let me see what everyone else does in it.

Finally for today, Princess Cyd (C), the latest from writer-director Stephen Cone, in which a teenaged girl (Jessie Pinnick) spends the Summer in Chicago with her novelist Aunt (Rebecca Spence).  She’s a sporty sex-obsessed free-spirit who spends her days running, sunbathing, and crushing on the cute lesbian barista (Malic White) at a coffee shop, with little interest in books; the Aunt’s a sexually-frustrated hermit who worries she has little in common with her niece and spends almost all of her days holed up in her office writing from a relatively limited perspective.  Will they maybe learn a little something about themselves as the Summer goes on, and discover they have more in common than at first glance?  Yes, of course, duh.  Seriously, if you have ever seen a coming-of-age Indie Dramedy before, you have definitely seen Princess Cyd already.

That’s not to say that it is bad or that it doesn’t do some things well – the cast are likeable, as too are the performances, the film’s frank approach to female sexuality is appreciated, and the lack of almost any conflict throughout all of the film’s 96 minutes is a different choice to make.  But it’s all been done before, often indulges in clichés – why yes, there is a hip Dream Pop/Indie Folk soundtrack, and copious shots in soft-focus super slo-mo, how’d you guess – and is just instantly forgettable the second the credits roll.  Plus, a pair of individual scenes that have no larger bearing on the plot and hint at a way darker film underneath the saccharine sweetness jar heavily with everything else, and stick in the throat whilst the rest of the film goes down smooth.  When it inevitably finds its home on Netflix, it’ll be worth wasting a Sunday evening with whilst you put off getting through your Watch List, but don’t be surprised when you forget it not even 10 minutes after it’s done.


Tomorrow: Vince Vaughn goes to prison in S. Craig Zahler’s follow-up to Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99.

Callum Petch will talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be.

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