• Ben Erickson

The Shape of Water



For those of you waiting the whole of January for a review that never came, my apologies. This review was postponed due to other commitments, but I am thankful to be able to share it with you now. The Shape of Water, directed by Guillermo del Toro, is a fairy-tale romance set in the midst of the Red Scare, in very much the same vein as Pan's Labyrinth. It is the first film on which del Toro has worked with composer Alexandre Desplat, and has been ranked as a serious Oscar contender, with thirteen nominations to lead the way. The score has already merited a Golden Globe and stands as a likely contender at the upcoming Oscars ceremony. Before diving into the music, I would be remiss not to comment on Desplat's remark at the Golden Globes this past month. I could not help but feel his speech, gracious and humble as it was, was spoiled by a tasteless remark given in the moments leading up to it. As Desplat received and examined the award he uttered, "different colour from the previous one". For those film music devotees who are familiar with the personalities of the industry we may look at this as the careless remark of but a single composer. But for the big wide world of people who tune in to these events of popularity and stardom only once or twice a year, this may be the only chance a film composer has to make an impression. In this sense, the composer represents not only themselves, but a considerable company of artists across the globe. It is certainly possible that I am drawing attention to something that had gone unnoticed and making a bigger problem of it than had existed before but, for better or for worse, these are the people we see and look up to as role models of the profession, and etiquette at celebrations such as the Golden Globes matters. Of course now that I have gone and stirred the pot I can say that the music is delightful. Desplat has conceived a peculiar and altogether unconventional score compared to those he has previously written. This difference arises namely from the unique set of instruments used in the orchestra. The roster consists of accordion, harp, glass harmonic, twelve flutes in place of a typical woodwind section, a piano, and whistling. Combined these instruments manifest into the composer's musical conception of water. The timbres, often set in triple meter and employing thin textures, lend themselves to a floating, bubbling sensation that very much mimic the natural progress water takes, seeking the path of least resistance. Different attempts by various composers have been made to imitate water in film, and all have been successful in their own right. Two cases that come to mind are "Flow Like Water" from James Newton Howard's score for The Last Airbender, continuously flowing and renewing itself in the strings as the track title suggests to a stirring and deeply fulfilling climax, and "Ghosts" from Thomas Newman's score for Road to Perdition, using a gentle piano to imitate the sound of falling rain. Desplat wrote a very enchanting theme for the film, perfectly pleasant and simple in its purpose of inviting the viewer to a world of fantasy. "The Shape of Water" opens with harp arpeggios and a mellow glass harmonic to establish an iridescent atmosphere before the melody enters, whistled by the composer himself. The accordion, adding a flavour you might expect to hear in a French café, is more aligned with the style of the Argentine tango which reflects on the South American origins of the creature. As the theme develops throughout the film it takes on, more and more, the feeling of a waltz, lightly suspended above the orchestra. After all, what better way to float on water than with a waltz? While the A section of the theme (presented below) remains in a stable tonality the theme has a B section that presses further harmonically, departing from its tonal roots into uncertain territory. By virtue of its insecure and almost hesitant trajectory it offers a timid understanding of the developing relationship between Elisa and the creature. "Elisa's Theme" is equally enchanting, eliciting the romance the character experiences throughout the film, as if living in a state of constant reverie. Set in D minor, the melody is often performed as a whistled tune, even taken up by Elisa herself in one instance of the film. It was an adept choice by the composer, not only to use a whistle, but to take it upon himself to perform the melodies. Given neither of the main characters can communicate vocally it comes as entirely natural that one or both might assume a form of musical communication, allowing the music to speak for them. The music certainly leaves an impression of unspoken communication in its wake concerning the feelings these two have for one another, and confirms Elisa's theme as the centrepiece of the score. Not only does the whistling effect create a direct relationship between Elisa and the score, but the whistling, much like the humming in Pan's Labyrinth, fulfills the age old fairy-tale trope of a "princess" communicating musically with her surroundings, successfully immersing the score within the mythology of the story. Similar to the main theme, Elisa's theme has a B section, but it is seldom used in the film, written more with musical form in mind than narrative design.

There are several smaller motifs that play throughout the film, such as the motif used for the creature. Comprised of three notes, the motif moves up a semitone before swiftly descending a minor third, performed multiple times in sight of the creature to denote its dangerous, unknown, and potentially hostile origins ("The Creature"/"Fingers"/"Egg"/"That Isn't Good", "The Escape", etc.). A harsh goat trill from the flute section can also be heard repeatedly throughout the film, similar in sound to the cry of the creature and having the same communicative impact as the whistle. Following this the score is largely texture based, relying heavily on strings, piano, and percussion when the aforementioned atypical instruments are not in use. This is where the score begins to flounder. While entirely beautiful and usually suitable, the textures Desplat uses, whether they appear in the form of an intensifying, dissonant string sketch, a tender, glossy piano, or blows from the timpani, are mundane and add little narrative value to the film. Though there are many complications film composers face in the Hollywood industry, I attribute this to a fixed level of laziness on part of the composer. I have said it before, but film composers cannot be complacent in the quality of composition they apply to underscoring. Underscoring presents many opportunities for a composer to comment, however briefly or delicately, on an evolving situation within the narrative. These opportunities, often squandered, nevertheless can become transformative moments in cinema when treated with consideration and respect. Some highlights of the score include the cues "Watching Ruth" and "Without You", for their efforts to achieve a higher emotional stake. Even so, like much of Desplat's former work the score comes off as emotionally stale. There is a recognizable amount of emotional satisfaction given, but perhaps more in a British sense; dignified and positive, yet experienced apart from what has actually occurred. It was for exactly this reason that I found his score for The Imitation Game to be conversely so effective. Even the cue "Overflow of Love", which you would expect to highly dramatize the music heard up to this point, is little more than a reprise of Elisa's theme. "Rainy Day" displays a little more life, rising to an impressive dynamic before quickly decaying. Still, the very idea that this creature is a God should conjure something more than a stereotypically "mighty" chord progression. Another afterthought may have been the use of Russian folk music somewhere along the way given the journey taken by the good Doctor Hoffstetler. Alas, the score is built of lovely melodies, but it is does not enthrall the viewer by any stretch of the imagination. Desplat's music shows impassioned promise without ever delivering a truly passionate achievement. However, though The Shape of Water would not be my first choice to take the Oscar, I still welcome it ahead of Dunkirk. #AlexandreDesplat


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