The acclaim of The Shape of Water: Shaped by the Kuleshov Effect and Del Toro’s reputation
Reputation is a hell of a thing. It is often the difference between “good” and “genius”, at least in the eyes of fans and critics alike. The power of reputation can be felt in various forms throughout our culture, but when it comes to art, and films in particular, the psychological phenomenon caused by reputation is further intensified by a film phenomenon – the Kuleshov Effect. Those two combined can almost turn us into the equivalent of the artsy douche who supposedly discovers the meaning of life while staring into a plain, black canvas at a posh art exhibition.
The Kuleshov Effect
The Kuleshov effect was discovered by Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov around a whole century ago and still remains one of the most essential filmmaking techniques. He edited a short film which consisted of the very same close-up on an actor’s expressionless face, alternating with three different shots: a plate of soup, a girl in a coffin, and a woman on a divan.
It turned out that the audience believed that the close-up of the actor was different every time, highlighting a different reaction to the sight the actor had “seen.” After the plate of soup, the crowd thought the actor looked hungry, after the dead girl, people felt his grief, and after the woman on the divan, they believed he exuded desire.
The effect might be more powerful than one might realize. The participants in the experiment didn’t just see traces of emotion. According to Russian filmmaker Vsevolod Pudovkin who claimed he was the co-creator of the experiment, the audience “raved about the acting… the heavy pensiveness of his mood over the forgotten soup, were touched and moved by the deep sorrow with which he looked on the dead child, and noted the lust with which he observed the woman. But we knew that in all three cases the face was exactly the same.”
How many times have you watched a film you felt was really intense, haunting, or complex without having a clue what the story was about.
We’ve all been in those seats. How many times have you watched a film you felt was really intense, haunting, or complex without having a clue what the story was about. But you usually think it’s because you didn’t get it, not because there just wasn’t that much to get, especially if the film was made by a renowned filmmaker.
And that isn’t necessarily bad. A film can be a fun, immersive experience without having a very specific meaning behind it. Take David Lynch, for example. I personally love his films, I’ve watched some of them 2-3 times, but still have pretty much no idea what they are about. Maybe that’s just me, or maybe that’s their intention – to be like a surrealistic painting on a film.
However, when a coherent film that tells a supposedly deep and unique story that just isn’t that deep or unique, the filmmaker’s reputation and this film/psychological phenomenon can turn critics and viewers into biased judges.
The Shape of Water
Let me just start off by saying I’m a fan of Guillermo Del Toro, and I absolutely love Pan’s Labyrinth. This doesn’t go to say that I hated The Shape of Water, but it might be because hate is a strong word, and the film didn’t really make me feel any kind of strong emotions.
The Shape of Water was very appealing visually, as anyone can expect from such a visionary filmmaker like Del Toro, but altogether, the film was OK, borderline mediocre, nowhere near the realm of an Academy Award for Best Picture.
The whole narrative is superficial, and it probably couldn’t be any other way when the actual characters are devoid of almost any depth.
It was basically a story we’ve seen a thousand times – the unlikely love between a beast and a human that is, in fact, extremely likely from even before their first scene together. The spark of the two lovers’ is meant to be endearingly innocent, but it just feels nonexistent, followed by a romance that unfolds as quickly as a storm yet it doesn’t make your head spin. The whole narrative is superficial, and it probably couldn’t be any other way when the actual characters are devoid of almost any depth.
Funnily enough, there were quite a few critics who looked beyond the film’s visionary appeal and Del Toro’s reputation:
“If we can’t believe in the characters, how are we supposed to care?”
“The story goes exactly where you think it will. It’s an utterly lovely, complacent movie, too comfortable with itself to generate real dramatic tension.”
“The Shape of Water has been made with a level of craftsmanship that should be the envy of most filmmakers, but the impudent, unruly streak that so often gives del Toro’s films their pulse has been airbrushed away.”
Everyone is entitled to their own film preferences and opinions, and nobody could say who’s right and who’s wrong. All we can do is keep the Kuleshov Effect in mind, try to take the filmmaker’s reputation out of it, and watch a film as it is. And if you do happen to love it without understanding its grand meaning after all (the way I love David Lynch’s films), then who cares?