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Thursday
Jan182018

Blueprints: "The Shape of Water"

On the last week before the Oscar nominations are announced, Jorge takes a look at another of the potential screenplay contenders. This week, he explores a fight, in which one person has to speak both sides of dialogue.

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a fairytale about the forbidden love between a mute woman and a captive fishman. But as much as the film is about their romance, it is also about the unique friendships and relationships made by those that society has pushed to its margins for being “different”. 

Let’s take a look at one of the most memorable scenes in the film, between Sally Hawkins’ hopeful and infatuated Elisa, and her closeted gay neighbor and best friend, Giles, played by Richard Jenkins. It’s a fight where Elisa not only begs him to help her save the creature, but also to be seen and understood...

The Shape of Water
Written by: Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor
[You can read the full script here. I will be talking about these pages.]

The main characters in The Shape of Water ware a mute woman, a black woman, a gay man, and a misunderstood creature; characters than in most movies would have been resigned to the sidelines as colorful ways to round the world. But here they take literal front stage.

One of the biggest challenges that the movie could have faced by having a mute woman as a protagonist was her losing agency or wholeness, since she is someone whose words have to constantly be interpreted and translated by others. The story makes sure that Elisa is well-rounded enough to stand her own ground without any words necessary.

However, this isn’t something that is completely evident in the pages of the script. Since she cannot talk, most of Elisa’s character is not brought out until Sally Hawkins’ performance, and what we see of her in the pages is usually through other characters.

 

***

 

In the fight scene between Elisa and Giles, we understand what she is saying only through his reactions, completion of sentences, and translation of signs. There isn’t much description about how she is saying what she is saying; only the words that she is signing and Giles is speaking back at her.

There is also very little to point out her physicality, or the mood and tone with which she is making these exclamations, something that would be vital in the final version of the film. We know her words and intentions by the way Giles is responding to them, with occasional descriptors like “pushes him”, “violently”, or in the very end, “she trembles in rage”.

 

But it is Sally Hawkins who brings this scene (and the whole movie) to life and reclaims Elisa’s agency and active role in the fight. It is not Giles interpreting her words anymore; it is her shouting her intentions and him trying to understand them. She fills her body with pleading, and rage, and frustration. She knows what she wants to say and she’s going to make sure it is said and heard. 

Richard Jenkins is also great at making a distinction between the words that are his and the ones that are Elisa’s, which in the script is only separated by quote. Giles has learned and mastered Elisa’s language, and knows when he ends and she begins. It’s a masterful demonstration of the way these two have gotten to know and understand each other. 

The script for The Shape of Water could only go so far as to developing Elisa as a character who can’t communicate with words. But the seeds are planted for Sally Hawkins to pick them up and turn them into the fully-fleshed, powerhouse performance she delivers. At the end of the day, her words are the least important thing of what she has to give.

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Reader Comments (11)

This is a great scene, but the script for this film is so problematic. For all it tries to do to foreground and ennoble its marginalized characters, Spencer's still remains a dubious stereotype only exacerbated by how clearly del Toro connects her to classical Hollywood mammy roles. The scene at the end where we see her at home fails to add any more dimension.

And it's too bad how predictable the whole thing ends up being, beat by beat, as it settles into a generic narrative arc. I enjoy the film on a crafts and acting level but the screenplay must be its weakest element.

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

I agree, Jonathan. I enjoyed the movie, but it just had too many shortcomings for me to fully embrace it. The main problem for me is that it strained all credibility in that Hawkins' character was able to just hang out over by the creature's tank for good stretches of time, no prob, even with all the heightened security around the building. Sure thing, I'm sure cleaning crews are allowed complete access to top secret areas all the time. It's a beautiful looking film, and all the performances (including Octavia Spencer in an admittedly limited role) are swell, I just wish Del Toro had sprinkled in just a little more commonsense logic into his fairy tale. It would have made for a more satisfying film.

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Nothing kills a fairy tale like common sense, Rob. Otherwise, the story would end on page 2 with blunt refusals to witches and wolves.

I think Del Toro did a good job at establishing the parameters of his fairy tale and then adhering to them.

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAustin

This is a great looking film but it fails to transcends the limitations of the sci-fi horror genre

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Austin: Exactly. I wouldn't say it transcends its genre to the extent that, oh, Pan's Labyrinth does (and that Pan's not going as far as it should have is most of the reason this is quickly turning into the "one to beat"), but its still darn good.

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

What a stunning work. The most emotionally satisfying time I had at the movies in 2017. This is his best film.

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Sorry Austin, but even fairy tales - esp those set in a relatively real world - need to have some storytelling logic. That was some lazy screenwriting there.

January 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRob

I'm not a big fan of the script, but this excerpt reminds me how much I love Richard Jenkins in this film. Of the likely nominees for best supporting actor, he's got my vote.

January 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

Unfuck this mess. Gold.

January 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCory Rivard

This movie expounded on the characters, and enlarged the narrative but mostly copied "The Space Between Us". It has been said there is no original thought, however the parallels are definitely apparent. The ending is identical.

March 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

This movie expounded on the characters, and enlarged the narrative but mostly copied "The Space Between Us". It has been said there is no original thought, however the parallels are definitely apparent. The ending is identical.

March 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

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