To say Guillermo del Toro is a master of the romantic as much as he is a master of fantasy and horror isn’t a stretch and The Shape of Water proves it. It’s a film that wears its queerness on its sleeve, focused on uniting everyone who isn’t the peak representation of oppression, i.e. a straight, white, privileged American man who only thinks of himself. It’s why setting the film during the Cold War works beautifully, forcing the audience to look at all of those who were impacted by how stifling the government became. The films of the era were about making us fear the Russians, but del Toro prefers to make us fear the status quo.
As such, this tale of romance between the mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) and the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) becomes something greater than what one might expect from a Beauty and the Beast–style narrative. Dragged from South America by government worker Strickland (Michael Shannon), the Amphibian Man remains shackled until Elisa begins to fall for him. Neither can speak to each other, but their bond flows beyond that as del Toro connects them through music, through looks, through touch. It’s a queer love, and a beautiful one, punctuated by del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor’s small bits of lovely dialogue.
Though the writing can’t be diminished, the film relies on its lush visuals, making every moment feel like a true fantasy. Scenes flow into each other gorgeously and cinematographer Dan Laustsen never allows the camera to stop moving, circling, gliding through rooms as though literally flowing through water. Condensation even becomes a means of shifting from scene to scene, like a hand running through a still body of water to create movement. Motion between Elisa and the Amphibian Man’s bodies become important then too, as it’s their means of communication in a world of relative silence. Much like Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck, characters repeat what others sign for the sake of convenience (and emotional impact), but del Toro allows Elisa’s words to hit the viewer on occasion through subtitles that appear alongside her body in unique fashion.
It is because of her muteness that del Toro indulges in the realm of cinema, allowing the two to have every moment of their romance, even those that are tragic, feel truly cinematic in a way that some might consider over the top. Though there were issues with the sound at my screening (something that we were forewarned of thankfully), Alexandre Desplat’s score puts a spring in the step of life’s mundane moments–from masturbating while boiling eggs to clocking in and cleaning–and enhances the fantastic elements greatly. Scenes of escapism via fantasy–like one black-and-white dance sequence clearly inspired by Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire–don’t stand out quite so much when paired with the relative fantasia of reality. A bathroom can fill up entirely with water for a moment of enhanced intimacy with minimal floorboard leaking, and it’s this kind of playful intertwining of the two that makes the film so special.
But for all the unreal beauty, there’s an abundance of reality waiting around the corner. Racism impacts Elisa’s coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), homophobia affects her best friend and neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), and violence punctuates the relationship between Russian spies and the American government workers who fear them. The camera never looks away from the blood and horror, from death and disease, and there’s something to be said about how del Toro and Taylor script the film to be as dark as it is romantic.
The Shape of Water is also thankfully unafraid of sex, particularly of sex between woman and creature, though there’s a bit of a Lubitsch touch to how the film approaches their carnality, as shameless as it is about masturbation. Jones’ lithe figure, gentle movements, and the immaculate creature design he was blessed with makes him the kind of creature you’d believe someone would find sexually appealing. While the film never shows their lovemaking, del Toro is making a film for adults who wish to engage with fantasy. Balancing the two deftly while telling a story of the underprivileged, of those plagued with loneliness due to their otherness, is what makes The Shape of Water so seductive. It has all the childish whimsy and wonder that one could wish for from a fairy tale without sacrificing the fact that no classic fantasy was ever void of tragedy and suffering.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro; written by Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor; starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer & Michael Stuhlbarg; 119 minutes.
The Shape of Water played at Key West Film Festival on November 15th. It will begin its limited theatrical release in December.