Last month I declared that The Shape of Water was the year's best film about interspecies sex, specifically the human-on-fish variety. This was a sort of tongue-in-cheek dig at the fact that the film won Best Picture at the Oscars and while I didn't think it was the best picture of the year, I did feel it was the best in a particular, very narrow category. It was a declaration I felt comfortable at the time making because, I mean, how many films about humans banging fish could the world possibly produce in a single year?
The answer, it turns out, is at least two. And not only that, but the second one, Cold Skin directed by French director Xavier Gens, is actually probably even BETTER than the Shape of Water. I am a bit worried that Hollywood will take this the wrong way, decide that fish-banging films are hot right now and start cranking out an assembly line of aquatic romances. That would be the wrong lesson to learn here. These films don't owe their success to their racy beastialism (those scenes are fairly incidental), but to careful direction, thematic depth, good acting, and dynamite production design.
Cold Skin, based on a best-selling Spanish novel, is about an unnamed British man in 1914 who is stationed on a remote island where he will be recording the weather. The only other occupant of the island is the caretaker of a lighthouse who, by all outward indications, appears to be insane. During his first night on the island, the weather-man is attacked by amphibious frog-man creatures and eventually seeks shelter in the lighthouse, where he enters into a weird Three's Company-type situation with the lighthouse keeper and his frog-lady sexy slave. Almost every night, the creatures attack the lighthouse and have to be beaten back. Eventually, deeper secrets about the island, about Man, about these particular men, and about human society are revealed until finally everything comes full circle in a surprisingly coherent and satisfying fashion.
Now, although this film is fairly rich thematically - it takes on colonialism and epistemology, for instance - the thing I loved the most was the production design. It is a sparse film, limited to a cast of three people (two humans and a girl in a fish suit). They are all strong so there is no problem with them carrying the film even with a limited cast, but for this movie to really shine the other elements needed to come together and the production design did so in a big way. The attention to detail, important in a period piece, is spot on. My favorite example is probably a sequence involving an old-timey diving suit - the kind where someone had to hand-crank an air pump from the surface - that is just great.
The lighthouse where most of the action takes place is also pretty much a textbook example of good location scouting - this thing looks the part, it feels massive, lived in, like it grew out of this rocky outcrop in the middle of no where. The way they shot the lighthouse is - and I feel a little ridiculous saying this - kind of powerful. Somehow the crew managed to imbue it with some personality, and that is really important. The island itself gets the same treatment. It's a bit of a cliche to say that the setting functions like a character, but sometimes it must be said. The DP just shot the hell out of this island, capturing its sinister, stark and lonely beauty. The way the waves pound the coast, the way the light sweeps the beach as the creatures swarm on it, the way a single figure makes his way across the rocks. Beautiful and terrifying and kind of sad.
And that is really important in this film, because eventually it becomes clear that the human characters are actually in love with the island. That is, they both love it and they hate it. They crave and enjoy the solitude, the dominion over the land, the thrill of the fight every night - even as existence is hard and they could be eaten by frog people. There is obviously something about the island, of proving that they can survive in such a hardscrabble place so far removed from humanity's orbit, that injects some life into them. And that is why it is really crucial that the DP and the production design convince us that there is something special and eerie and seductive about this island. Otherwise, we would spend the whole movie just saying, Why the hell don't these chumps get off the island? And if that's your reaction, you'll miss out on some of the deeper things the story and the director are trying to get at.
Lastly, in case you aren't into that level of Moby Dick textual analysis of existential dread and the meaning of life, the movie also offers up quite a few jump scares and traditional horror thrills - no surprise but the sound design, which of course is excellent, plays a big part in that. This makes it a really interesting genre pastiche of horror tropes and more lofty artistic vision. Also the period setting alone is worth the price of admission as far as I'm concerned.
I love, love, love the fact that the film takes us back in time - over 100 years - but doesn't smack us in the face with it. It's just kind of dangled in the background, unspoken, that the world of this film is a world where human beings DID have to travel 67 days by ship to man remote outposts so they could make weather observations for the Good of the Empire Back Home. We hardly ever think about that now, since we can zoom in on any place in the world with our phones after five seconds of searching, but during the time period of the film the world was a much more mysterious and less knowable place, and that final little sheen of mystique just adds another layer of detail and depth that puts Cold Skin over the top. I really enjoyed this film.
TLDR: What a year for human-on-fish sex movies!