The Shape of Water: How Deep Is Your Love?, by David Bax
Guillermo del Toro has a knack—maybe a passion—for giving us sets and locations that are grand but, at the same time, grimy, soiled or ruined (this goes back at least as far as the abandoned subway set in Mimic). Somehow, when seen through his eyes, the muck and the crud only make these places more beautiful. He does it again in The Shape of Water, possibly the best film in a career in which that’s really saying something. This time, though, he applies this trick in a metaphorical sense, too. He shows us an America of the late 1950s full of racism, homophobia and xenophobic paranoia (in other words, a place much like the America of today) yet his vision of a land of potential and opportunity ultimately shines through.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) lives alone above a cinema, next door to out of work advertising artist Giles (Richard Jenkins). She works the night shift, along with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), at a secretive government research facility where a mean-spirited spook named Strickland (Michael Shannon) is holding and torturing a mysterious sea creature (Doug Jones) while a doctor (Michael Stuhlbarg) performs tests. Elisa lacks the power of speech. So does the sea creature. That commonality will only be the beginning of their connection, leading to Elisa’s eventual plan to free the creature from captivity, with Zelda’s and Giles’ help, of course.
The Shape of Water may be del Toro’s homage to monster movies of the 1950s but, curiously, it also seems to be a bit of a love letter to Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The heavily green costume and production design—all shot beautifully by Dan Laustsen—and Alexandre Desplat’s accordion-centric score recall Amelie and there’s even a flooded bathroom scene right out of Delicatessen. It’s never stood out quite so boldly before but the two directors’ blends of the whimsical and the perverse have much in common.
Speaking of perverse, this is likely the most overtly sexual of del Toro’s films so far and, given that one of the main characters is a fish-man, it’s not exactly boilerplate steamy romance stuff. On the contrary, most of the sex herein is furtive and shameful. Giles is a closeted gay man who knows that to even touch another man’s hand is to risk his entire livelihood. Strickland, meanwhile, has disturbingly straightforward and self-serving missionary sex with his wife behind the closed doors of their ideal suburban home with the brand new Cadillac in the driveway. Yet the most ostensibly unnatural sexual relationship, between Elisa and the creature, is the most wholesome and beautiful in presentation. One of the first things we learn about Elisa is that she has a daily masturbation routine and thus it comes as no shock that she’s so unselfconsciously willing to embrace her own satisfaction, especially in contrast to Strickland’s brief covert commodification of his wife’s body. In The Shape of Water, people are defined by how they get off.
Pointing out that rotten things lurked behind the façade of the postwar American ideal is far from groundbreaking. Where del Toro breathes new life into things, though, is in his ability to tie these themes to the present day. It’s not a surprise to learn that a Mexican man working in the United States might have something to say about the daily nobility of immigrants and people of color, whether they’re surviving the 1950s or Donald Trump’s America. From the heavily accented man who owns the movie theater to the Canadian pie shop owner down the block to Elisa and Zelda’s Latina coworker Yolanda (Allegra Fulton) to the Russian bad guys (yet another parallel to 2017), most of the movie’s characters don’t fit the narrow “All-American” bill. Even the creature is from South America. And we haven’t even included Giles’ homosexuality or Elisa’s speech impediment, traits that turn both into oddballs and others. Strickland is the most traditional American figure, yet he is base, cruel and ignorant. Perhaps we’re more invested in the way we as a country present ourselves than in the way we really are. The Shape of Water says that we can be beautiful both inside and out by accepting that we are at our best when we love each other for our differences.