‘mother!’ and ‘The Shape of Water’: 2 Strong, Strange Oscar Movies, But One Will Be a Harder Sell

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Artists create worlds that are extreme visions of our own. This fall, several films accomplish this with varying degrees of success; Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” is the most accomplished. Del Toro builds, brick by brick, an immersive fantasy world (shot in Toronto around the venerable Elgin Theatre) inspired by the ’60s melodramas of Douglas Sirk and the horror classic “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” that could only come from his prodigious imagination.

“The Shape of Water”

Cinephiles will fall happily into this fairy-tale romance that matches lonely mute laboratory cleaning woman Eliza Esposito (incandescent Sally Hawkins, who will be nominated for her sensual, powerful performance) with a well-muscled captive merman (Doug Jones). They see beauty and sensuality in each other where others see abhorrent aberration.

You can argue that Michael Shannon is typecast as the heartless government villain who tortures the gorgeous aquatic creature he calls “the asset,” but the movie is otherwise perfectly realized. This includes the impeccably designed and photographed apartment above the movie theatre (that is memorably flooded), the sexily glowing masculine aquaman, and supporting actors Richard Jenkins (Eliza’s equally lonely gay neighbor), Octavia Spencer as Eliza’s talkative cleaning partner, and Michael Stuhlbarg as the committed Russian-born scientist who appreciates the asset’s living, breathing value.

Just as the Academy recognized the artistry and craftsmanship of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which was nominated for six Oscars and won three including cinematography, makeup, and art direction, voters will respond enthusiastically to Del Toro’s English-language masterwork. So have critics. Also, Del Toro himself is a respected and beloved figure who managed to artfully mix genre and commercial elements with his own personal imprint. That’s the stuff of Oscars. Could the movie take home the coveted and predictive Toronto audience award? It’s possible.

mother! Jennifer Lawrence

mother!”

Less clear is how the Academy will gauge the many merits of Darren Aronofsky’s hallucinogenic dreamscape “mother!” It’s an audacious, entertaining movie that delights on many levels — it helps if you are willing to go along for the ride and not demand a literal narrative.

It also seems to confuse many people. Critics love peeling back the movie’s layers of allegory, from religious Biblical/Hindu/Buddhist reincarnation tropes to Lawrence as protective Mother Earth (Gaia) who wonders why she doesn’t get any respect. Aronofsky is a known ecologist; you can also see him in the attention-starved, creatively blocked artist (Javier Bardem) who doesn’t pay enough attention to his beautiful young wife as he feeds off celebrity notoriety and adoring fans. After all, Aronofsky and his “The Fountain” star Rachel Weisz married and had a child, and he is now involved with 27-year-old “mother!” star Jennifer Lawrence.

As you’ve heard, the less you know about this movie before you see it the better. I was glad I didn’t read advance reviews, and thoroughly enjoyed every twist and turn. Paramount’s new chief Jim Gianopulos came to Aronofsky (who pitched the concept to the studio), with the chance to opportunistically move up the movie release to a relatively open corridor right after Toronto on September 15. The director, who succeeded in keeping the marketing materials mysterious, went along, even though September is not considered the ideal berth for an Oscar contender.

That doesn’t mean the director doesn’t harbor Oscar hopes. Festival reviews are polarized, but leaning upbeat: it’s at 83 on Metacritic.

Academy actors have long supported Aronofsky’s movies, nominating Ellen Burstyn in “Requiem for a Dream,” Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei for “The Wrestler,” and Natalie Portman in “Black Swan,” who won Best Actress. Aronofsky also landed his only directing nod among five nominations for “Black Swan,” which had the advantage of being set in the high-toned art world. To the extent that “Mother!” is an undefinable genre closer to Luis Bunuel surrealism than sci-fi, fantasy, or horror, the Academy may keep hands off.

Perhaps the movie’s strongest Oscar asset is ‘mother!” star Lawrence as the innocently bewildered fertile earth goddess who carries the movie’s strong point-of-view throughout as Aronofsky’s go-to cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s cameras focus on her face. She could land her fifth nomination, although this year’s Best Actress category is shaping up as a competitive one. 

Assuming “mother!” makes money and nabs more critical support — especially at the end of the year, when it could look good compared to other disappointments — it could emerge in the Oscar race.

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