“Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find You all around me.” Guillermo del Toro’s loving ode to the history of cinema and fairy tales, and outsiders, “The Shape of Water,” (2017) ends on this lovely short poem whose single line has resonated with me ever since I watched the film. It is a line that captures the reason why, we as an audience, are attracted to some of the film characters that are completely alien to us. But, how can any character, human or monster, be completely different to us? The emotion of feeling different is essentially universal. It is a feeling not just restricted to race, color, or gender. It is situational, and filmmakers use the universality of this emotion to construct stories about outsiders – some who you can “perceive the shape of” and some who you cannot. From the many great films, I watched in February, the ones that stuck with me the most speak about (or to) characters who are outsiders in their respective worlds. But, the degree to which I understand them and connect with them, or do not comprehend them but still relate to them varies significantly with each film.
Agnès Varda and JR’s collaborative humanist project to merely explore and honor the “Faces Places” (2017) of rural France is a documentary that celebrates the ordinariness of its subjects, which automatically qualifies the film as an outlier for me within the context of cinema. Cinema as a medium has the tendency, even in documentaries, to heighten the stakes up to build up to something big. But, the beauty of Varda and JR’s approach to “Faces Places” is that it unfolds like a project that is driven more by the directors’ collective impulses and curiosity than by a rigid narrative. The naturalistic and uplifting documentary sees both directors exploring their own interests and their personal friendship that very much makes them come across as many of the ordinary people they interview along their way. It is in this observation and honoring of ordinariness that “Faces Places,” paradoxically, sets itself as a film made by and about outsiders – one whose shape is relatable – which is what makes it memorable.
Guillermo del Toro’s magical love story between a mute woman, Elisa, (performed by wonderfully expressive Sally Hawkins) and an amphibian creature (a terrific Doug Jones), on the other hand, is unabashedly about the outsiders in the real world, which actually makes them ideally suitable as movie characters. An avid fan of monsters and creatures himself, Del Toro subverts the expectations the audience has of the role of the beast, as he aims for his film is to demonstrate the importance of empathy for the other, especially a person who we cannot understand. But, because del Toro works within the template of a fairy tale (Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” (1946) is constant point of reference) and because he directs the film with a pure and unfiltered love for classical Hollywood cinema, all his characters, be it Elisa, the creature, or Giles (an incredibly sincere Richard Jenkins) are simple enough always to be understood, at least from an emotional standpoint. So, although “The Shape of Water” is clearly about the outsiders in our society, I find myself engulfed in its fantastical world, not because of the film’s complexity in dealing with these characters, but because of its transparency in highlighting their weaknesses as their strengths.
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Loveless,” (2017) is similarly clear in demonstrating the need for empathy for a lonely child watching the separation of his selfish parents. The film begins with a focus on the child, Alyosha (a hauntingly effective Matvey Novikov), who in a society full of selfishness, broken promises, and hopelessness, openly demonstrates to the audience how isolated he feels living in the same house as his parents. One scene, in particular, in which the camera follows the parents heated argument about their divorce and then reveals that the child is listening to all this sitting in the bathroom is devastatingly haunting. But several scenes later, Zvyagintsev switches our attention entirely from the outsider to the corrosive lives of his parents and their new respective partners. Similar to his previous directorial efforts, the Russian auteur uses this loveless relationship between the outsider and his parents to not only generate empathy for a suffering young generation but (more significantly) to also critique the bleak state of contemporary Russian society. He focuses more on the harshness of the insiders than the plight of the outsiders to demonstrate the naturalistic way in which society operates. The outsiders in his film really function just like outsiders actually do – which is what makes their plight more relatable – and therefore, tremendously moving.
The one film then whose shape I could not wholly perceive but managed to cast its spell on me is Mike Leigh’s “Naked” (1993). Leigh’s pitch-black comedy-drama follows the fascinating character of Johnny (David Thewlis in a stunningly ferocious performance that at once captures his character’s repugnance and loneliness) through what looks like the post-apocalyptic streets of London. Our central protagonist, rather than conversing, rambles his opinions to different people to try to make sense of what is to come of his life, and their lives. This stumble into the unrecognizable hellish world of 1993 London with Johnny and several other characters who themselves also seem lost in this world never seemed to define itself clearly to me. I found the film a little tonally inconsistent at times, and at one point felt that I would not be able to hear more of Johnny’s exhausting monologues about the end of the world. But, Leigh uses several sequences throughout the film that use Andrew Dickson’s (deliberately) overbearing piano score with the images of a lonely Johnny to juxtapose these persistent long-winding speeches of Johnny to underscore that Johnny, like every other person in its world, feels like an outsider. This struggle between understanding the character as someone who is a part of the society or distinct from the community is what has kept the shadow of film’s hypnotic world and its character all around me, and I do not expect it to lose it anytime soon.