“The Shape of Water,” the latest film from visionary filmmaker and casual monster fetishist Guillermo Del Toro, is about those who don’t belong.
It’s about Elisa (the brilliant Sally Hawkins), a scarred mute who works as a cleaning lady at a secure government facility, and the sea creature (Doug Jones) secured at this facility who she falls in love with. But it’s also about her best friend and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a black woman adept at helping Elisa communicate after years of her own husband barely speaking to her. It’s about Elisa’s neighbor and confidante Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted artist with a fridge full of half-eaten dessert from repeatedly, unsuccessfully flirting with a handsome pie shop attendant. And it’s about Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a scientist whose compassion finds him without a country when neither of the masters he serves want to help him save the life of the “asset,” as the Amphibian Man is referred to throughout.
Even the film’s setting in Baltimore, lensed by cinematographer Dan Laustenser to appear at times like one of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s otherworldly visions of Parisian post-apocalypse (it was shot in Canada—Hamilton and Toronto), is treated like an outsider, the bastard child of Washington, D.C. Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) suggests Hoffstetler should settle down elsewhere, in a “real” city. The pristine rows of suburban homes the colonel calls home are “Stepford Wives” clean, antiseptically vanilla. It’s a hermetically sealed simulacrum of the “great” Amerikkka Donald Trump and Roy Moore and every asshole with a red baseball cap wants to bring back. It is a world in which Strickland, a borderline sociopath whose underlying streak of humanism only serves to make him more villainous, would prosper as a hero.
A telling moment early on in “The Shape of Water”: Strickland goes into a car dealership and gets sold on a teal, finned Cadillac, the kind that seemed sci-fi back in 1962, when the film is set. The salesman tells Strickland that it’s the car of the future, which makes it perfect for him. He tells Strickland he’s the man of the future, that he belongs. As a WASP-y military man in a suit, of course he belongs. He always belongs. Cut to Strickland driving the car confidently, like a vision out of a Don Draper ad.
But this isn’t a McCarthy-era creature feature where a handsome man with a pistol saves the damsel in distress from a fish monster. It’s a Guillermo Del Toro film. So Del Toro course corrects the monster movies of his youth and give us an adult fairy tale where a woman and a Merman fucking in a bathtub is presented as matter-of-factly as a wife passing her husband the Sunday paper. Though the film is gorgeously realized and hypnotic in its classical beauty, at its core it’s a timeless, regular-ass love story. There’s a purity to the love Elisa and her gilled beau share. Shorn of screwball rom-com dialogue, their wordless courtship is more potent for its lack of banter, its delicate pussyfooting. This cinematic distillation of attraction is a dance of the eyes, a near musical spectacle.
Elisa struggles to express to Giles why she wants his help saving this mysterious creature. She signs that when he looks at her, he sees her as she really is, not what she’s lacking. When Strickland finds himself attracted to Elisa, it’s specifically because a woman who can’t speak turns him on. He’s a married man, but he still lusts to dominate Elisa, which seems to be his only other concern in the film outside vivisecting her paramour at the behest of his betters.
Elisa and the creature don’t speak—both because they can’t and because they do not need to—but for Strickland, silencing otherness is practically a kink. So the film flits between the whimsical majesty of its central romance and the terrifying reality of the time in which it is set. It paints two concentric circles. The world shared by its two lovers and the world at large looming around them, ever threatening to drown them, an irony that makes their moments of peace under water all the more sweet.
Del Toro does a masterful job of transitioning between this film’s conflicting moods, arriving at a singular tone that distinctly crystallizes his authorial voice. “The Shape of Water” is the culmination of his entire career, fusing Del Toro’s confidence in his own storytelling ability with the boldness of his themes. He’s as comfortable assaying an effervescent Jacque Demy impersonation as he is getting his hands dirty in showing the rotten core of a world that rejects what doesn’t immediately mirror its own visage. The result is a picture that works best at the intersection of warring tones, the centerpoint between the beauty of love and the cancer of bigotry, between cinema of the absurd and the macabre. Passive furries may have helped “The Beauty & The Beast” become a global smash this year, but it’s “The Shape of Water” that uses its interspecies, star-crossed lovers to actually say something.