In my head, the elevator pitch for “The Shape of Water” went like this: a lonely cleaning lady falls in love with an amphibious creature captured in a government research facility. The premise, I imagine, would have earned scoffs for its unusual, almost laughable nature. But placed at the able hands of Guillermo del Toro as it had been now, the film blossoms into a romantic fantasy as rapturous and heart-rending as “Beauty and the Beast”.
As do great fairy tales, the film is opened with a narrator, who introduces us to “a princess without a voice.” Set in the 1960’s, “The Shape of Water” follows Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a lonely custodian who works at the Occam Aerospace Research facility. Elisa finds simple joys in her daily routine: she wakes up to boil eggs for lunch, bond with her next-door neighbor (Richard Jenkins), and occasionally masturbate in the bath. But Sally’s clockwork lifestyle gets disrupted when a mysterious, amphibious creature (borrowing Doug Jones’ physique) is brought into the facility. Elisa and the facilty’s “asset”—as the creature is referred to by the irascible colonel, Strickland (Michael Shannon)—form an unusual bond that brews into romance.
Del Toro turns this supposedly unconvincing romance into a magical bedtime story with effortless command, that at some point in the film it makes perfect sense that the two fall in love. The film has you beholden that you no longer question the oddness of a woman having intimate relations with a fish. The fact that both characters are unable to speak only make their interactions more sensual and personal; each subtle movement is a sensual, transcendent experience they share with the audience. Some gestures are not subtle too, like how Elisa offers the creature eggs, a heavy-handed reference to her literally offering her womanhood.
Come to think of it, having both Sally and the Creature unable to talk is probably one of the reasons why their love story works. It puts both of them on the same platform as equals, which wouldn’t have been the case, had one of them been able to speak. Needless to say, Hawkins and Jones deliver remarkable performances that defy dialogue.
In hindsight, Sally’s silence lends the film its essence. At a time seething with homophobia, racism, and sexism, Sally becomes a trustworthy listener to her gay neighbor and to her spirited black co-worker (Octavia Spencer). The 1960’s setting reminds us that despite the dreamlike aesthetics, the film is still very much a political one, much like del Toro’s earlier works (“Pan’s Labyrinth”, “The Devil’s Backbone”).
“The Shape of Water” is a beautiful fantasy film that treads between romance and horror. It is an immersive and rich sensual experience. I took Donatella Versace’s word for it, for she says the film is right up her alley—it’s stylized, impassioned, and powerful—and I’m glad I took heed.
The Shape Of Water
2018 / Drama, Romance, Science Fiction / US
Direction: Guillermo Del Toro Direction: Guillermo Del Toro Cast: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer
At a top secret research facility in the 1960s, a lonely janitor forms a unique relationship with an amphibious creature that is being held in captivity.