The Shape of Water a film by Guillermo del Toro. With Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer. ****1/2
The Shape of Water is a tribute to movies from the fifties, men in suits and fedoras, women in dresses, the Red Menace hovering everywhere, monsters emerging from the deep. Two of its primary characters, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) and her friend Giles (Richard Jenkins) live in apartments above a movie theater, and Giles—who is an illustrator—likes to work while watching old movies.
My feeling that it’s a tribute to those movies comes more from the way the whole thing is put together than from specific references (the aquatic creature that eventually emerges is said to come from The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but I never saw that epic). The sets are so quirky and detailed, the scenes so true to our memories of fifties life (the grand empty movie theater, the smelly lurching buses, the diner where Elisa and Giles go for pie), every scene is so beautifully shot, with such care; it is one of those stories that only a movie could tell, it wouldn’t work in any other medium.
Elisa is a nighttime housekeeper at a facility where nefarious research is going on. That doesn’t need explanation; we’ve seen such places in so many movies from that era that we take it in stride. But The Shape of Water enters the lives of the characters, so we see Elisa waking every evening before she goes to work, boiling eggs and fixing sandwiches and taking her bath (a place where she regularly masturbates), stopping off to give food to Giles—who tends to neglect such things, and is as nocturnal as she—as she’s on her way to the bus that takes her to work. We’re not clear at first what their relationship is, though he’s learned sign language to communicate with her; she can hear, though she’s mute. Eventually we realize they’re close friends, who may have bonded because of their difficulties: Eliza is a sensitive and beautiful woman who can’t speak, Giles a closeted gay man who has lost his job because of alcoholism and is trying to make a living doing work on the side. They’re part of the nameless hoards who populate a city (in this case Baltimore), living in small cluttered apartments and barely getting by, watching old movies they practically know by heart.
Elisa’s other friend is a black woman she works with, a standout character played superbly by Octavia Spencer. Zelda has also learned sign language but does the talking for both of them, enough hilarious dialogue—though it’s mostly a monologue—for three or four people. Like any black woman in the fifties, she’s trying to make money and stay out of trouble, but the women soon find that the research in this place involves an aquatic creature that a researcher named Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) has brought from South America. Like everything else in those days, this discovery has gotten caught up in the Cold War; we have found this creature, and the commies want to get their hands on him, because he might hold clues about the kind of person who can do space travel (?). Strickland finds out what he can, using torture as a weapon. Powerful and unprincipled people—as usual—are using the creature for their own purposes. They’re afraid of it—it’s the Other they’re always afraid of—and fail to see what it actually is in their hope to exploit it.
Elisa does see something in the creature, almost immediately. A beautiful mute woman is a classic fifties character, in that era when all women were essentially mute; we’ve got the mute woman, the black woman, and the closeted gay man, three characters with no power (we briefly see Strickland having sex with his wife, and one of the things he commands is for her to keep quiet; he’s eventually drawn to Elisa not only because she’s beautiful and seems helpless but because she can’t talk). Elisa sees something in the monster, but he also sees something in her, or rather doesn’t see something. “When he looks at me, he does not know – how – I am incomplete. He sees me… as I am,” she signs to Richard. What begins by her protecting a helpless creature soon becomes a love story, which we completely accept—and were fully expecting—by the time it happens. The love affair develops in scenes both hilarious and magical, the underwater scenes in particular.
The Commies of course want the creature for themselves; a spy posing as an academic named Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) has infiltrated the facility and is studying the creature too, though he recognizes his benign nature and is happy to be part of the plot to free him. All of these official characters are stereotypes; this is a classic fifties story because we know the characters so well. But it’s the little people who become the heroes, the movie fans, not the heroes. (“We’re going to synchronize our watches,” Giles says at one point, “just like they do in the movies.”) And the medium they work in is water; it’s water that they need to keep the creature alive, to help him escape, and it finally becomes the whole atmosphere, on a night in Baltimore where it’s pouring rain and seems to have been raining for days. Everything is drenched, including their apartments and the movie theater.
The plot moves through its inevitable questions: will they free the creature? Get him out of the facility? Will they finally free him forever? Along the way we discover things about the creature that we suspected but didn’t know. And though I never really doubted the outcome—I’ve seen this story before—I was surprised and delighted by what actually happened. It’s a comic book on the screen, but it’s a comic for adults.
As the movie ends we hear a poem that is as beautiful and mysterious as the whole movie has been, and that no one on the Internet has been able to identify. Del Toro apparently saw it in a volume of Islamic poetry, and somehow remembered it. It’s our only clue to the movie’s strange title, but I’m happy to leave the poem, and the title, vaguely mysterious. “Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find You all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with Your love, It humbles my heart, For You are everywhere.”
I don’t think the poet was talking about water.
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