It’s been a while since I’ve watched a Guillermo del Toro film. I’d forgotten what a visual delight his work is, and The Shape of Water is no exception.
Do you ever get the sense when watching a movie that, hm, this is cool and all, but it could equally well have been a novel or radio play or comic book without losing anything essential? This was the opposite of that. From the use of color to the composition and motion, the visual elements all come together to carry us through a fantastical 1960s Baltimore of brilliant colors and ominous shadows. From the opening frames, this was a story that felt mythic.
The focus on visuals worked well to bring the audience into our heroine’s world. Elisa is a woman who can’t speak, and the story begins when she discovers an intelligent humanoid sea creature is being held at the government facility where she works as a cleaner. Her visual and non-verbal interactions with the world around her are at the heart of the film.
Though the plot centers on Elisa’s developing relationship with the fishman, her relationships with the other human characters are at least as important.
It was so refreshing to see a movie on the big screen where our heroes are two working-class women in their forties (one living with disability and the other a black woman) and an aging gay man. In a movie set in the sixties, I’ll add. This is clearly an intentional choice on del Toro’s part, as the struggles they face on the periphery of the white, middle-class American world play out parallel to the brutal treatment of the literal fish out of water. Each of these three characters also experiences at least one incidence of explicit discrimination. These moments aren’t exactly subtle. Maybe they shouldn’t be. Maybe we aren’t living in a time when we can afford to be subtle.
Equally interesting is the villain’s storyline. Man, can Guillermo Del Toro pen a monster, and this time I’m not talking about the fishman. It’s immediately clear which character is the villain because del Toro does an excellent job of making him viscerally repulsive from his first appearance. Several of his scenes had me squirming in my seat. What is interesting about this villain is his persistent unhappiness in spite of the fact that he has everything he is meant to want, that white middle-class nuclear family, a life that these three other characters are structurally prevented from having. Yet he struggles with the same isolation that other characters do.
That, to me, is what The Shape of Water was really about — isolation and connection.
We experience Elisa’s isolation from others due to her inability to speak and her joy at finding someone who can bond with her without seeing that as a barrier. Giles’s loneliness is palpable as he struggles to paint the perfect heterosexual family while he faces bigotry in his personal life. Zelda expresses dissatisfaction with her marriage, a longing to connect to a husband who feels increasingly distant. It was deeply satisfying to watch these characters fumble for meaningful connections and face the complex reality that no relationship is perfect.
The film raises other questions, too: who gets to be seen and heard, and under what circumstances? In a war between two powerful super-nations, what ethical stance is it possible to take?
This movie stressed me the hell out, but I mean that as a compliment. I was sucked into this world and cared enough about the characters to completely dread the thought of something bad happening to them. Or their cats.
Spoiler alert — I know I said no spoilers, but… if you need a warning about something bad happening to a cat, consider this your warning. (I’m not over it, Guillermo.)
In all, I enjoyed The Shape of Water — another in the long and honored tradition of monster movies in which the creature is not the monster, but it uses this theme to great effect. It’s an unflinching portrait of a time we very much need to remember right now. Like in Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro’s fantastical elements are expertly crafted to shine a light on the brutalities of a particular moment in history.
It’s also just good fun — funny, suspenseful, poignant, unabashedly weird, a visual feast. I recommend it.
ADDENDUM: I highly recommend Elsa Sjunneson-Henry’s essay, I Belong Where the People Are. She explores the more troubling subtext in the film’s portrayal of Elisa as a disabled woman. It’s an insightful and nuanced take on elements of the movie that I would have missed without Elsa’s perspective. (Spoilers.)