Film

In The Shape of Water, Small Acts of Rebellion Make a Splash

Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, about a mute cleaning woman who liberates and falls in love with a humanoid amphibian monster, is intimate in scale but tells a potent story of empowerment.

A scene from <em>The Shape of Water</em>, featuring Doug Jones and Sally Hawkins (all images courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures)
A scene from The Shape of Water, featuring Doug Jones and Sally Hawkins (all images courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Editor’s note: The following review contains spoilers.

Enveloping. Fluid. Powerful. Soft. These are words that I use to describe water, and now to describe the feeling that flowed through my body when I first watched The Shape of Water. Directed by the Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, this genre-fluid film — a mix of romance, film noir, monster movie, old-school musical, and comic book — is eccentric, sweet, and most of all liberating, both aesthetically and thematically.

The Shape of Water is a parable of love and revolution centered on characters deemed Others, and even though the movie is set 55 years ago in Baltimore, it’s quite relevant to our current political situation. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning lady who works the night shift in a secret government lab, falls in love with a mythical, aquatic, man-like creature (Doug Jones) captured by Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) in the Amazon and sent to the laboratory for “research” as part of the Cold War-era scientific race. What brought Elisa and the amphibian man together is more a question of empathy than curiosity. Not only are the lovers unable to speak in a physiological sense, but their positions in society mean they are voiceless. To save the creature from being tortured and eventually killed by Strickland, Elisa breaks him out of the laboratory and keeps him in her bathtub. Her co-conspirators are her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted queer artist; her best friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a Black co-worker; and Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a passionate scientist who also happens to be a Russian spy.

A scene from The Shape of Water
A scene from The Shape of Water

“On a certain level,” del Toro said recently, “the idea is just gathering everybody up who can be represented as the other, quote unquote, all the invisible people coming together to rescue this creature that can either be a monster or a savior or a lover or a god.”

The aquatic monster — or “asset,” as Strickland refers to him — is said to be inspired by the titular beast in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), but in del Toro’s story he becomes a magical, exotic creature, wild and innocent. The “asset” represents the ultimate Otherness, while Strickland is a butt-chinned Anglo-Saxon white man driven and coerced by power. He drives a Cadillac, has a beautiful family at his home in the countryside, intentionally pees outside the lab’s urinals to spite the cleaning ladies, and will not accept failure. Strickland is a caricature that evokes many of the men still in power today. But the movie, via its dissident characters, articulates a “FUCK YOU” — actually visible onscreen through Elisa’s use of American Sign Language — to him and everything he represents, despite the consequences.

A scene from The Shape of Water, featuring Doug Jones
A scene from The Shape of Water, featuring Doug Jones

In spite of its rebellious narrative and characters, The Shape of Water seeks to show us that “there are so many more reasons to love than to hate,” as the director himself put it. The romance of love and revolution in this movie at times evokes the “make love not war” ethos of the 1960s. Indeed, love and revolution share core features — both can be thrilling, frantic, and enchanting. But The Shape of Water is more quiet than chaotic, more weirdly poetic than beautifully haunting. Love and revolution lie in the very ordinary.

Indeed, The Shape of Water is both extraordinary and ordinary. You fall in love at your service job with a new stranger and bring them back to your apartment. You boil eggs for your lover’s snack and listen to old records together. When you have sex, you annoy your downstairs neighbors. When your significant other isn’t home as expected, you find the “monster” watching a movie at the local cinema. It’s in all the everyday details — the period set designs, costumes, and music — that del Toro’s fantasy comes alive. The Shape of Water isn’t escapism; it invites us to celebrate the lives we already have.

A scene from The Shape of Water, featuring Sally Hawkins
A scene from The Shape of Water, featuring Sally Hawkins

In his films, del Toro always uses creepy fantasies and wild imaginations as his weapons to fight against an ugly reality. Compared to his previous adult fairy tales — including the more horrifying and dark Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Devil’s Backbone (2001) — The Shape of Water is exceptionally personal and soft, yet powerful (like water) thanks not only to its empowering story but also the wonderful cinematic presentation of water as a fluid, sensual, omnipresent, and compelling force. The whole movie is tinged with a whimsical shade of blue. (The wall in Elisa’s apartment is even designed to resemble a mural of Hokusai’s famous wave.) The film’s elemental namesake manifests in concrete motifs, including aquatic sounds, which often build to a crescendo as the narrative unfolds. The Shape of Water’s visual, acoustic, and emotional fluidity transports us into an underwater world where we are free to breathe again.

The Shape of Water is currently playing in cinemas throughout the US, including the Angelika Film Center in New York (18 West Houston Street, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) and the Arclight Hollywood in Los Angeles (6360 Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood, Los Angeles).

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