Directed by: Guillermo del Toro. Written by: del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
Guillermo del Toro is known for his fascination with monsters. This fascination is not a simple aesthetic desire to create novel looking beings: rather they symbolize “the other” as in those we do not see as part of respectable, human society. He cites, for example, Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, as an influence of his: a film that tells the stories of “circus freaks” from a sympathetic perspective.
This theme is readily apparent in The Shape of Water a story of Eliza Esposito, a mute janitor in the 50s who develops a relationship with a humanesque marine creature (Doug Jones) who is held captive at her workplace. Eliza (Sally Hawkins), explains her empathy for the creature by citing her own marginalized status. Meanwhile, the film’s antagonist, Strickland (Michael Shannon) is a US government agent who speaks in thinly veiled racist and sexist dogwhistles.
Thematically, therefore, The Shape of Water is a bit plain-stated. The film’s aesthetic, however, goes a long way towards making it a memorable work. The film is decidedly green. Eliza’s punches in a green time card (with help from her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), to go into her green dungeon of a building, where she cleans green-tiled bathrooms with bubble-like wells of green soap. While the exact meaning of the color is somewhat ambiguous, visually it serves to make Eliza’s life look much like the creature’s: she too is submerged in murky, green depth. It should be noted here, that there is nuance to this connection. Showing Eliza in the shadowy green depths of her work helps create the impression she is drowning (while by contrast the creature of course needs to be in water).
Del Toro could have opted for his green aesthetic to be a mere mood setter, something many viewers might simply process unconsciously. Instead, however, he works the word “green” into his scripts. Giles, Eliza’s friend and neighbour, lovingly keeps neon green pies in his fridge, even as he doesn’t enjoy them. Strickland, by contrast, takes great interest in a turquoise Cadillac, but before buying it awkwardly seeks assurance from the car salesman that it is not green.
It is thus through color, that Del Toro truly enriches his story of otherness. Giles a non-disabled white man, at times stands in contrast to the marginalized and principled Eliza, yet his compassion for the green pie (an other of sorts), is symbolic of his goodness. Strickland, a less redeemable white man (he’s a bit of a caricature in fact, though that’s not really a flaw in the movie, as Strickland’s characterization is an essential part of the film’s 50s aesthetic), goes out of his way to make sure the borderline green thing he loves is not green: his behaviour is reminiscent of “straight” men going out of their way to point out that they are not gay.
While green is the film’s primary color, red is it’s secondary shade. Red tends to appear in the film in the form of blood. One interpretation of the appearance of blood is that it is an invocation of Shylock’s “doesn’t a Jew bleed” speech. Be they green-haters or lovers, Russians or Americans, humans or non-humans all of the film’s characters bleed red.
The Shape of Water is simultaneously a political, and apolitical film. Through depicting intersecting racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism, Del Toro made a movie that he saw as a response to the rise of (presumably) the alt-right. At the same time, the film, through its logic of everyone bleeds, tries to transcend political ideology in favour of humanism (perhaps anthropomorph-ism is a better word in the context of this film). While there is a cold war subplot to the film, and it is an American agent that comes across as the film’s villain, for the most part the Soviet-American conflict simply contributes to the film’s period commitment. The film’s “good” Soviet, like the film’s “good” Americans, stands in contrast with his mission-focused superiors, as opposed to with “American ideals,” and vice versa.
In short, The Shape of Water is a film of various “others” uniting. Chief amongst the others is of course the creature. While largely anthropomorphic in its design, and compassionate towards humans in its behaviour, the character was carefully designed so as to not make it 100% obvious that he can be embraced by humans. One small example of this is his stunning eyes, which though charming, are indeed more fish than human like.
There is one scene near the end of the movie where the creature’s loveableness is indeed put into question. While the script largely brushes over this incident, it adds important nuance to the film. Loving the other is easy when it simply means resisting the textbook bigotry of figures like Strickland. It’s more of a challenge when there are times where the other does truly seem like an other.
There is one final thing I should point out. The Shape of Water shares some notable similarities with a Dutch student film called The Space Between Us, To be honest, what caught my attention most when I watched the short film was not its similarities with The Shape of Water, but that despite being a student film it’s graphics were on par with Del Toro’s big budget effort. There are notable similarities between the films such as the design of the monster (fish eyes include), the context in which the janitor finds it, and muteness (albeit, the protagonist in the short film is metaphorically mute as a gas-mask wearing working class woman in a world of authoritative soldiers and scientists). I am not a strong believer in intellectual property and believe in the retelling of stories. I am also hesitant to jump to conclusions, given that when asked to comment on this issue, Del Toro notes he had been developing this idea along with novelist Daniel Kraus since 2011 (The Space Between Us was released in 2015). That said, it would be a shame for The Space Between Us to go under-appreciated due to its similarities to the newer film, and moreover, I see no problem in using a bound-for-success film to prop up the viewership of a less visible effort (both are good works).
The controversy aside, The Shape of Water is a simple, plain-stated story, but one that also provides a lot of room for dialogue and analysis. Whether you like seeing dark science-fiction, or simply find fish-eyed creatures, whose vulnerability is expressed through their gill-based breathing, adorable, you should enjoy The Shape of Water.