Film soundtrack review: The Shape Of Water (2017)

Composer Alexandre Desplat adds waves of musical magic to Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-nominated buoyant fantasy ‘The Shape of Water.’

How do you compose a score that sounds like it derives from the depths of the ocean? This question would have crossed Alexandre Desplat’s mind when bringing to life the fantastical love story set in the Cold War between a mute lady called Eliza (Sally Hawkins), and a classified humanoid-amphibian creature-cum-political asset (Doug Jones).

The story itself breathes originality, and pushes the idea of fantasy to the extreme throughout, with each moment seemingly more surreal than the next.

‘It’s love and water, the shape of water,’ says Desplat, who was recently described as ‘good’ (trust us, it’s a compliment) by legendary producer Quincy Jones in a recent interview. Desplat masterfully enhances the plot through an excruciatingly detailed original score, while cleverly chosen song choices provide sweet and visceral moments along the way.

Sea frequencies

Desplat wrote the opening scene first, introducing the audience to the main orchestral quirks and themes of Eliza and the creature, which musically sets the tone for the rest of the film.

In this opening, fluid panning of synth sounds works together with an arpeggiated harp motif to achieve a sense of a bubbling underwater environment. This is followed by a lyrical whistling melody (more of that later) before a heavily populated woodwind section adds more musical thrust to the sonic picture.

A flautist himself, Desplat included 12 players of this instrument in his ensemble to sonically convey the murky texture of water – something that worked really well.

But with all of the twists and turns you’d expect from this fantasy genre, Desplat’s writing doesn’t get carried away and stays true to the style of underscoring heard at the beginning. Even during the fast paced scenes, you can still hear sprinkles of textural and harmonic impressionism.

An orchestral twist

Image: YouTube

There are hints of the iconic Jaws theme lurking in the lower register of the strings section when we are introduced to the creature, but don’t be fooled by this musical motif.

Linking to the creature’s South American origins, Desplat chose to use an accordion from the same area of the world for its sonic signature. The accordion melody playfully interacts with the underscoring throughout the film, just like the whistling heard from Eliza; both themes are wonderfully convincing musical representatives of the characters in their desire to be free.

Desplat’s preference for a South American style are also heard in the percussion of The Escape: the offbeat clave rhythms show his attention to detail even in the more dynamic moments of underscoring.

Vintage choices

Image: YouTube

Director del Toro’s choices of contemporary songs didn’t always enhance the Cold War setting, but they certainly added to the quirks of the film’s beginning.

For example, ‘You’ll Never Know’, a song written in 1943 for the film Hello, Frisco, Hello, plays out on a television in Eliza’s home, with the jingle becoming a stunning centrepiece in one of the story’s many heart-warming moments.

Vintage choices, ranging from big band leader Glen Miller to Portuguese singer Carmen Miranda, appear throughout – and in various forms.

Music plays a key part in the early developments of the relationship between Eliza and the creature – who never receives a name in the film. They bond over vinyl played through her portable record player that she brings to her work in an attempt to befriend the mysterious character. A clear symbolisation that music holds no limits in its communicative power, just like the relationship between beast and human.

In keeping with the fluidity of the orchestral score, the contemporary song choices flow in and out of situations in a diegetic manner, which also makes for the smoothest of scene transitions. This in turn embodies del Toro’s desire to achieve a holistic production that reflects the water-centric concept.

Having already won best original score at the Baftas this year, and with the nomination-filled Oscars just around the corner, there is no denying the stunning attention to detail The Shape of Water possesses. Desplat’s carefully constructed score is testament to this hard work, and one that becomes eminently more rewarding on each listen.

– Alex Weston

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