Everything is underwater. The light is reflecting off the walls, casting a gentle green hue. Classical music is playing as we enter an apartment where everything is floating. We see our protagonist Elisa (Sally Hawkins) sleeping, lingering within the water. Slowly, the setting transitions into a regular dry apartment. Shades of other colors return, the music continues to flow, and an alarm clock goes off to wake Elisa, as if everything before was just a dream.
This opening sets the tone for The Shape of Water, directed and written by Guillermo del Toro (with additional writing credits from Vanessa Taylor). Del Toro is a master in crafting fantastical worlds; in such works as Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, his stories center around outsiders that find themselves surrounded by dreams and nightmares, coming from both the metaphysical realm, and the material. It’s within these worlds that lies some profound comment and reflection of society and politics. The Shape of Water is fairly grounded in its realistic setting, and whereas del Toro’s other pictures have brought his characters into fantastical worlds, it’s the characters themselves, and what they represent, that make for the film’s magic.
It’s the Cold War era, Norman Rockwell America, where we find ourselves in a secret American facility. Elisa is a mute janitor who works the nightshift alongside her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). One day the staff learns of a special “asset” that is being brought into the facility. At this point, we see a large water-filled container brought in by none other than Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). From there, Elisa eventually comes face to face with the humanoid sea creature. As her and the creature bond, Russian spies and the American government begin to cook up their own schemes in regards to the creature. Elisa, with the aid of her friends, helps the creature escape, and begin a plan to set him free.
From the trailers alone, some viewers might assume that The Shape of Water would contain some strong horror movie elements. One cannot deny the strong influence from Creature from the Black Lagoon—especially in the creature’s appearance—but while that similarity makes itself apparent, that’s where the horror element stops for the most part. While there are plenty of thrilling espionage moments, The Shape of Water primarily plays out as a charming, romantic tale. At the heart of the romance is that of Elisa and the creature. One might wonder how the on-screen chemistry may actually play out between a human being and a sea creature, but thanks to the brilliant direction and writing, this romance is actually more believable than most churned out romance movies today. This is because, at its core, Elisa and the creature are one in the same (being that they are both “outsiders” in this time period). It’s one matter that conservative society would find their love too bizarre to understand, but would also view both individuals as different from the cultural norm.
This is 1960s America, where the supposed hard-working man goes to his job, and comes home to a warm cooked meal from his wife. The time period in a sense is an antagonist, which is reflected and acted through Michael Shannon’s character. Shannon is a true embodiment of the white, straight patriarchy. He is a strong, loyal American, committed to his work. He has a nice home, and drives a good car because he’s “America’s future man”. He has a wife who submits to his will when it comes to sex, telling her to keep quiet while he’s on top and taking charge. He is also constantly insulting towards Elisa and Zelda, always talking down to them as if they were lesser beings.
What makes Shannon’s character so intense is his representation of bigotry; he represents the force that continuously puts down people like the disabled, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. We see another form of this antagonism take place with Elisa’s friend Giles (Richard Jenkins, who plays a closeted gay character). At one point in the film, he attempts to make a flirtatious gesture towards a bartender, who then reacts in repulsion, stating to Giles that he should leave and not come back since the place is a “family establishment”. Yet, even though the film gives us these bigoted points of views, it offers us more time to witness the relationships between Elisa, the creature, and Elisa’s friends. They find laughter among one another, they find trust, love, and friendship. They all know that they are different from society, and that they are different from one another; and yet, it does not stop them from caring for each other. With keeping Elisa, the creature, Zelda, and Giles in mind, The Shape of Water wonderfully explores the power of love. From the beginning of the film we see friends who are there for one another, bringing love and support. We see how these bonds are what give Elisa her strength and drive to help someone in need, connect with them, and to embrace her own beautiful individuality.
But the love doesn’t stop there, for The Shape of Water also acts as a love letter to film. Going back to that opening sequence with everything underwater, the film is always constantly presenting something to its audience that is magical and endearing. The picture plays around with fantasy and art in delightful ways, sometimes actually giving us quick glimpses of various TV shows and movies. In the beginning of the film, Elisa and Giles spend their time watching TV, commenting on the dancing and the music. It’s this latter element that continuously finds itself popping up throughout the film, appearing in moments where Elisa and her friends are dancing, joking, and enjoying each other’s company. Scenes with music also tend to include elegant colors and visuals, such as when Elisa and the creature are kissing and holding each other. There’s such heavy use of charm in the air, giving off a playfulness that is reminiscent of such works like Amélie. Furthermore, the celebration of art comes even more into focus when we see the contrast of all these characters, to that of Shannon’s Colonel. He constantly seeks to be in control, to narrow is focus, and at times state his want for “silence”. All the experiences and joys we see from Elisa and company, are not there with the Colonel; all his actions and scenes are just to tackle goals and a sense of accomplishment, rather than to flow with life and embrace feeling. So in a sense, the film shows us how art encourages to live freely, to be as one's self, and to live with passion.
The Shape of Water shows the magic of love and art as a force stronger than anything we know, standing tall in the face of discrimination. Elisa and the creature care for one another because they are both lonely beings seeking friendship. To them, the other represents something within themselves, fully completing the puzzle of their souls. The Shape of Water is also Guillermo del Toro’s declaration of love to film, presenting the spirit and ethereal nature that the medium has to offer everyone. The Shape of Water at times is comedic, at times it’s thrilling and will get your heart racing, but at the core of it all, it’s about romance. It shows us how love and art are one in the same, and how love—like water—comes in many shapes.
Michael Pementel is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago's Creative Writing Program. When he isn't writing for Film Daddy, he writes full time for Metal Injection and New Noise Magazine. He has also written for Alternative Press, Film Inquiry, and The Curator. He's the Social Media Manager for death metal record label Ultimate Massacre Productions. When not writing, he enjoys a hot cup of black coffee, a good book/video game/film, and to cuddle with his fiancée and cat.
Follow Michael on Twitter @pementelm.