Friday Flicks: The Shape of Water
A Cold War fairy tale filled with interspecies romance, festering fingers and an amphibian man partial to hardboiled eggs?
Director Guillermo del Toro certainly has an unconventional way of tugging on an audience’s heartstrings.
But boy, oh boy, is The Shape of Water one of the sweetest (read as: most gentle, warm-hearted, inspiring, and defiantly romantic) movies of 2017. A perfect creature-feature love story for the holiday season.
The Shape of Water tells the story of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning woman who works at a secret government research facility in early 1960s Baltimore.
Elisa live a solitary, unremarkable life stabilized by routine and buoyed by fantasy. She lives directly above a movie theater, and the stories of romance and adventure that play out on the silver screen seem to emanate through the floorboards of her apartment, infiltrating her daily bath and bus commute.
Her only friends are her neighbor, a closeted commercial advertising artist (Richard Jenkins), and one of her co-workers, a perpetually beleaguered but gentle and sympathetic fellow cleaning woman (Octavia Spencer), and even in those relationships she spends most of her time being spoken to rather than with.
The movie’s plot kicks into gear when something unexpected happens at work. The military men and scientists who run this cold, competitive, jingoistic research compound, led by the ruthlessly ambitious Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), bring in something they caught in the waters of South America: an amphibian man, gilled and webbed and muscular, a strong and vulnerable and utterly unknown presence.
The men in the room see this amphibian man (Doug Jones) as a potential weapon, a tool to use to get an edge over the Soviets in the space race.
Elisa sees him as a kindred outcast, and, in his strength and mysterious beauty, a potential lover. The rest of the movie follows Elisa’s courtship and relationship with this manlike creature, and her plot to liberate him from the shackles of his aquatic prison at the research compound.
Del Toro is no stranger to historically resonant fairy tales. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), which follows a young child whose fantasies help her understand and cope with the violence of the Spanish Civil War, is a masterpiece of knowledge through deflection, a child’s wildly imaginative route to constructing a life of dignity, love and understanding amidst great hardship and trauma.
The Shape of Water is less grounded in the world of fairy tales than it is in film history. The movie is a loving riff on the “creature feature” genre, a staple of Hollywood sci-fi and horror cinema from the 1930s to the 1950s that is associated with highly allegorical films like King Kong and Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Creature from the Black Lagoon, which is this movie’s most immediate reference point, that explored how men responded to the unexpected presence of monsters and aliens and other not-quite-human invaders.
Much of the joy and exhilaration of The Shape of Waters comes from Del Toro’s simultaneous embrace and rejection of this cinematic inheritance.
On the one hand, Doug Jones’s performance, costume and make-up are truly worthy of his classic Hollywood movie monster predecessors. Wonderfully bereft of CGI-animation, Jones makes his physical presence felt every time he peeks his side-blinking eyes above the water, or stretches his spine to reveal his full muscular glory. He is wary, vulnerable, and sensual, an all-too-human presence that makes the audience believe that Elisa’s attraction is not just plausible, but kind of inevitable.
But whereas many of the creature features of old were explicitly racist and xenophobic, with monsters like King Kong and the Creature from the Black Lagoon embodying a specific, racially-coded fear of uncontrollable black men sexually terrorizing white women, The Shape of Water finds its protagonists not in the normative culture of the early Cold War, but rather in figures all too often overlooked.
A woman with a disability, an African-American woman, and a gay man lead this resistance to the suffocating hegemony of Strickland’s mid-century machismo. Strickland, on his part, is nearly debilitated by his fear of obsolescence.
Ever the visual storyteller, Del Toro maps Strickland’s physical and moral decay to his hand, bandaged and barely supporting two fingers that were bitten off by the amphibian man early in the film. Over the course of the movie, those fingers slowly rot, turning blacker and blacker, rotting at the edges of a rotting man.
But this movie is not simply a rebuke of an attitude it finds repugnant. It is a celebration of a love it finds inspiring.
Elisa and the amphibian man are two unlikely lovers, yes, but they find solace and respect and great physical pleasure in each other’s companionship. At a time when “real” men treat her with the utmost cruelty and disregard, a movie monster come to life proves to be the exact romantic fantasy Elisa has been looking for.