The Shape of Water (2017) – dir. Guillermo del Toro

In my memory, my high school had a caste system identifiable to any post-Breakfast-Club high school might. Jocks, overachievers, scene kids, band people, stoners, etc. At the time, I didn’t identify with any particular clique. Now, I would guess I technically belonged to the Kevin Smith strain of beta nerds who were into anime, video games, and weird movies—even though my own interests barely overlapped. While I certainly had friends in other factions, so to speak, I certainly never identified with any of them the way I did with the people I saw at lunch or in class. And when my friends couldn’t understand me, David Fincher could. Justin Vernon could. Even Louis C.K. could—him, often better than anyone. In that sense, I’ve always felt some belonging, even if that unity was hard-won or at a distance.

Is this how Guillermo Del Toro felt when he was young? Is that why E.T. or The Creature from the Black Lagoon resonated so much? They’re abnormal and inhuman, but they’re the sorts of beings that always seem to make sense to Del Toro. Del Toro has made a career out of telling stories about misfits or outcasts, and newly-minted Best Picture winner The Shape of Water, well, fits in quite nicely into his filmography. In the tradition of Del Toro’s best films, The Shape of Water is a story of marginalized individuals who are united by their pervasive isolation against an insurmountable autocrat. As in the best Del Toro films, The Shape of Water is moving, thrilling, and magical in one fell swoop.

The Shape of Water is the story of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning woman whose best friends include her gay next-door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), and her black co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Del Toro has always had a penchant for writing strong, often complicated women, but Elisa is among his most straightforward protagonists. She watches movies, goes to work at a secluded government lab, masturbates in her bathtub, listens to her friends’ prattle on about whatever, and cooks a lot of eggs. Inspired by the early Baltimore trilogy from Barry Levinson, the world illustrated in The Shape of Water is characteristically lavish and idiosyncratic, filled with aquatic blues and greens. Baltimore is rainy and wet, giving texture and surrounding Elisa in a sea without gills, while still holding her at arm’s length from what she really wants. Between the meticulous production design and Alexandre Desplat’s breathtaking, lullaby-like score, one is bound to be absorbed into this setting.

Of course, this routine is shaken upon the arrival of two figures. One is man’s man Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), whose militant sense of entitlement would be more convincing if he were not showing signs of decay. The other is a mysterious, amphibious humanoid with healing powers (Doug Jones), captured and stored in the lab, where Elisa discovers them. Soon after, Elisa and the creature begin a courtship that involves eggs and dancing. When Strickland orders the creature be dissected, he is met with resistance by scientist Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Soviet turncoat whose real name is Dimitri Mosenkov. Elisa catches wind of the plan, and with the help of Dimitri, and that of Giles—whose own professional and romantic conquests are messy and unsatisfying—to assist her in breaking the creature out. From there, the film becomes a game of cats and mice, while a woman and fish monster fall deliriously in love.

The Shape of Water, or more specifically the faux-bestiality within the film, has become a bit of a punchline. That a human woman and a cat-eating bottom-dweller with a retractable penis consummate their affection so, well, nakedly is silly, right? The film doesn’t think so, nor does their romance come off as such. Elisa and the creature can’t even communicate with words. Yet, they have an unmistakable connection. As the film progresses, Elisa has to come to terms with how sustainable their relationship is, which culminates in one of the film’s most dazzling sequences: A black-and-white song-and-dance that may as well have been ripped from Vincent Minnelli. The Shape of Water is cinematic in many regards, but this is a moment that, in the hands of a less thoughtful filmmaker, included this scene for the sake of having a musical interlude of sorts. The Shape of Water has such empathy for each character—including the broad, but dangerously real Strickland, whose masculine dominance is articulated with the clarity of a film that understands how to address the cause of a problem instead of simply taking a stand.

The Shape of Water fits nicely at the end of a sort of rebel trilogy—starting with The Devil’s Backbone, which is then followed by Pan’s Labyrinth. While the first two films are set during the Spanish Civil War, where the good guys lost hard, his first films end on a hopeful note. The Shape of Water is set during the Cold War, on the eve of the Civil Rights movement, mirroring the current social climate in the U.S. Our country is at odds with Russia, while angry minorities gear up to dismantle a society where the white/cis/hetero patriarchy identifies oppression as coexistence, so long as anyone beneath them stays that way.

This is the arc of The Shape of Water. Bereft of perfect definitions, but symmetrical in heart and soul. People who understand being beaten and subjugated recognize and help one another. The empathy on display is so simple to see, but so difficult to adopt. We see that a character like Giles wants to be in the kind of adoring relationship that Strickland takes for granted, or even the deeply imperfect kind that Zelda has with her husband, or the one that he eventually gives to Elisa. Del Toro knows that, even if we must filter others’ needs through our own wants, that is enough, so long as we give to others. Still, for as much of a heart as The Shape of Water has, this isn’t a film without teeth. This is a film whose aspirations of love and community are threatened by an unfeeling juggernaut, albeit one that is not invincible. The Shape of Water commits to a premise of rebellion wholeheartedly, going places that are strange and fantastical, but each as real to these characters as anything else. Wherever we go, and whatever we do for a better world, no one arrives by themselves.

Rating – 9.3/10

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