When I was in 6th grade, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth became the first foreign language film I saw in theaters, maybe even the first foreign language film I’d seen at all. Brian Russell, (frequent blog contributor and my dad) invited myself and my sister Carly, who was not aware it would be in spanish with subtitles. One of the trailers before the film was for another foreign language film, and Carly said something to the effect of, “If I ever have to sit through a whole movie of subtitles, kill me.” Welp. When the movie began and she realized that was exactly what she was in for, I think she took a nice long nap. I, however, loved it. Not only did I feel like a cool, grown-up movie person, watching a serious, violent, movie in a different language, but it was unlike any movie I’d ever seen. Strangely though, Pan’s Labyrinth proved to be an exception in del Toro’s career. While all his films are formally brilliant and thoroughly entertaining, none are as profound as his Spanish Civil War fairy tale. When The Shape of Water was announced, my fingers were crossed that it would be a worthy successor.
The film follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor at a high security government facility, where she exists on the periphery of America’s Cold War secrets. Her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) watches out for her, and translates her sign languages to those who do not understand. Namely Strickland (Michael Shannon), their mean, ruski-fearing superior. When at home Elisa watches musicals with her kind neighbor and close friend, Giles (Richard Jenkins). Elisa’s world is disrupted when she discovers the “asset” (Doug Jones) a humanoid fish creature from the Amazon. Strickland has brought a this creature to the facility for testing. While Strickland considers this creature an affront to God’s image, Elisa finds the Amphibian Man endearing and secret relationship between them ensues.
The Shape of Water is visually sensational. It’s the rare film that is dimly lit, shadowy, while simultaneously using vibrant color (most notably green, something even the characters acknowledge). This perfectly combines genres, and oscillates between them with ease- musical, noir, and horror. The earnest melodrama (del Toro’s specialty) soars to heights of a sweeping musical number, even in small moments. For instance, Elisa and Giles sit side-by-side on the couch appreciating the dance number on the TV. They do their own tap dance routine in their seats, grins on their face. It’s a charming portrait of friendship.
Elisa and Giles, Elisa and Zelda, and Elisa and Strickland have clearly defined and impactful relationships. Where the film falls short is the central relationship, between Elisa and the Amphibian Man. It develops quickly, with no room to breath. We see Elisa feeding him eggs and teaching him what music is, and that’s about all they do together. The film asks, is this creature human, or just a wild animal? For the story to work, it needs to be the former. If he’s just an animal, our hero is a delusional pervert. Unfortunately The Shape of Water fails to prove the Amphibian Man’s humanity. Aside from responding to music and learning the ASL sign for “eggs,” there isn’t much evidence anything is going on behind those sideways-blinking eyes. Hell, at one point he kills a cat, on purpose. He doesn’t show any remorse, or learn anything from it. The film holds together because the characters, especially Elisa, treat him as human, act as though he’s human, and talk about how he is human. But none of the amphibian man’s actions validate this.
Another facet of this flaw is that Elisa’s love for him isn’t motivated. Moment to moment, scene to scene, her compassion feels authentic, in large part thanks to Sally Hawkin’s performance and del Toro’s formal expertise. But there’s no reason for her to fall in love with a fish person. She has caring, even loving relationships with others in her life. At one point in an impassioned attempt to persuade Giles of how important this creature is to her, she signs, “When he looks at me, he doesn’t know how I am incomplete.” But the film goes to admirable lengths to show that being mute does not make a person incomplete. Lacking speech does not make her less in her own eyes or in the eyes of her friends. This creature is not the only person who understands her. One of the most simultaneously wonderful and frustrating scenes in the film is a fantasy sequence in the third act. Elisa imagines the ultimate expression of her love, which involves her miraculously having a voice. The scene itself is breathtaking, but it undermines what, up until this point, I thought was one of the films strongest messages- being differently abled is an authentic way to be, and it’s no less than being typically abled.
Considering this central flaw could have been solved with more time spent with Elisa and her amphibious lover, it’s strange the amount of time spent with Strickland. He’s a cruel villain, who’s even-tempered bullying is truly terrifying. He’s particularly cruel toward the Amphibian Man, who he insists is no more than a wild animal…but he also is sure he’s a scientific discovery that will put the United States ahead of the Soviets…but he also wants to kill the creature? He’s just a mean, archetypical villain. Which would be fine if he were simply a foil for the compassion-based protagonist, but he consumes so much of the runtime, his absolute evil eventually feels flat, and even logic-defying.
Where the film truly succeeds is in the friendships. The story between Giles and Elisa is one of the greatest platonic love stories I’ve ever seen committed to film. The small comforts these two vulnerable human’s take in each other’s company is moving. They each go out into the world, alone, where they are small and powerless. Then they return to their neighboring apartments, where they listen, laugh, and help one another. Giles’ arc is ultimately one of ultimate empathy. Elisa asks him to help her break the Amphibian Man out of the facility, a dangerous task that Giles understandably resists. But he sees her love, her pain, connecting it to his own experience with unattainable affection (he’s a closeted gay man, in the 60s.) He fully commits to the mission, despite all his clear and legitimate fears.
I’m having a hard time reconciling my thoughts about this movie. So much of what it purports itself to be isn’t fully realized, or is contradicted. However del Toro’s formal skill, his mastery of tone, and his ability to communicate emotions is so powerful it overrides many of these flaws. While I was watching the film I loved every moment. As I type this I am discovering more flaws, and realizing how these issues tarnish the film’s most central purpose. But the purpose, that message, still came through, it still affected me.
I give The Shape of Water 8 hard boiled eggs out of 10 green jello casseroles.