After about a week of mulling over THE SHAPE OF WATER, directed by the notorious monster-loving Guillermo del Toro, I’ve come to the conclusion that I really enjoyed this film. And after reading numerous mixed reviews and I really wasn’t sure where I was going to land on this. You see there’s a tiny inkling of horror, mixed in with some violence, a dash of eroticism, a villain, a monster, a quiet protagonist, and of course the pathos all riding on the emotional depth of how humanity perceives the “other”. All of these great ingredients combined and you have yourself a Del Toro film. What does this mean? The man knows, what kind of filmmaker he is and has accumulated a style that pays homage to a little bit of everything whether it’s contemporary or classic cinema, it all leads to how the past shapes the future in its own ambiguous way.
For those of you who don’t know the gist of the story, it’s about Elisa, a mute cleaning lady, who works in a laboratory operated by the government somewhere in Baltimore. Her two friends, Giles, an aging artist trying to get back in the advertising game, and Zelda, a hard working woman and coworker who also acts as Elisa’s interpreter all have identifiable differences in society’s eyes, demographic, ethnic, and sex wise. Yes, I’m beating around the bush and you can decide for yourself what that means. And of course an amphibian humanoid creature (who I wanted to be named Phil) shows up to the lab as a hostage by a dude named Strickland, who takes sick pleasure in torturing the vulnerable fishman. Elisa is intrigued by the fishman, and is sympathetic to him being quarantined. She falls in love with him, which drives her to get him the hell away from his fish tank, so he can return to the wild. Oh! and he has healing powers! It’s a simple premise and visually stands like a work of art and I think this is why I enjoyed the film very much because every scene is like an elaborate painting very much how I visually enjoyed PAN’S LABYRINTH. The beauty and themes are always presented in the details.
For instance, THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, takes place in Spain of 1939, post civil war, or PAN’S LABYRINTH, taking place also in Spain in 1944 under fascist rule and now you have THE SHAPE OF WATER, taking place in 1962 post Cold War, all ride on a shaky, disturbing time period, henceforth shapes the behaviors of the characters living through it. Who are they and why are they the way they are? Some semblance of the past always seems to bleed in the veins of the characters Del Toro creates masking a bigger question to a bigger story. He uses historical context as a backdrop essentially revisiting how and why the past tends to repeat itself. Another observation: I feel like, and I might be taking a leap here, but Del Toro’s protagonists’ all have a flair of being the outsider which makes me correlate it to Del Torro, himself, who doesn’t seem to fit into the realm of Hollywood, blockbuster mega-box office smash hits where most achieve fame, success, and wealth. He’s his own kind of weird, and I mean that in a flattering way. He’s a rebel with a weird cause. Too cheezy? Deal with it. Yet his stories all have that twisty-fantasy, adult-like fairy tale that most audiences fall in love with, and it’s surprisingly uplifting not like those cerebral-mind bender movies that keep me up at night. Thanks David Lynch! (insert winky face)
Embedded within, Del Toro’s film, there is a thin somewhat complex layer, illustrated in his use of themes, colors, music, a certain homage to classic cinema and specific objects such as a ticking clock which I’ll get to in a bit.
Take the promotional poster for example, what inspired that? From what I’ve read, a notable work of art titled, “Der Kuss” (The Kiss,1908) a painting by Austrian Gustav Kilmt, which depicts a couple embracing, their bodies entwined signifying a yin and yang but together are one. Personally, I saw a bit of a Zdzislaw Beksinski painting in that poster, to which also showcases two skeleton’s embracing each other, probably a hair to deathly demented but STILL, the embrace remains the same.
All of the minute details, specifically with the color green and symbolism behind numerous objects; for instance, Strickland is always eating green candy, Giles always orders key lime pie, Strickland also drives a teal-colored Cadillac, the amphibian man is an aquamarine color, all of these details shape importance to the characters and the story. Green is the future which is contrary to where they were in the past (post Cold War).
I’ve also noticed the concept of time as a heavy theme. We’re constantly being made aware of it’s presence especially in the opening sequence, where Elisa has a routine, always on schedule, yet always late for work, as enforced by Zelda, who always holds her place in line at the time clock. Or if you got a super, close look at this, the man at the bus stop with a birthday cake sitting next Elisa. This caught immediately caught my eye, because it feels odd and out of the ordinary to see someone holding a whole birthday cake with a slice missing. Del Toro’s cluing us in on something here. Why do we place importance in the passage of time? I’d have to watch this film a few more times, to count how many clocks are actually shown.
I also love the healing element to this movie. Humans get banged up, and carry a crap ton of baggage with them over time, and despite all of that, are resilient once they decide to face fear head on. Fear is always a key component when it comes to facing new challenges or understanding the unknown and your reaction reveals what your character is made out of. For instance, Strickland, appears to be the successful, macho, authority, American made man, but beneath that facade is fear. The fear of failing. The fear of a strange Amazonian creature having any power over him, especially since he was considered a “God” all pins a sadistic conflict between the two. Alas, Strickland, is just another asshole causing trouble.
And given the calamity of today’s socio-political climate, of course there’s deep relevance to THE SHAPE OF WATER. Pick any one of those characters, who are all faced with an expected kind of role in society, and look where we are today, it’s interesting to compare and contrast that. Again, the passage of time is like it’s own weird kind of ghost, all thinly embracing the milieu of this story. We may not be blatantly aware, but certainly feel it’s presence hindering our ability to change, telling ourselves, there’s always tomorrow. Perhaps there is and perhaps there isn’t always tomorrow. What was that saying? Oh, right carpe diem!
(Slight spoiler ahead)
Ultimately, the ending leaves its imprint on an impressive yet slightly ambiguous stain in my mind. (I thoroughly enjoy ambiguous endings.) But this one again, image wise reminded me of the ending to Jane Campion’s THE PIANO, 1993. And anyone who’s seen THE PIANO as much as I have might agree, especially since the Ada (Holly Hunter) is a mute and takes a dive into the water, maybe not as beautifully captured as Del Toro’s but the sentiment is similar. There’s a catharsis there, a sense of peace, and essentially a calming with the reality one bestows upon themselves, a moment of clarity, where the character can decide to move forward or be drawn backwards to the constructs of time, the past, and or just death. Elisa like Ada chooses her will to live or her fish gills provide her that opportunity.
THE SHAPE OF WATER is a visually driven fairy tale, woven with a weirdness all forming the shape of love, and not a conventional kind of love, it’s one that defies normalcy by all means, one to which a world fears to comprehend why the fragments of who we are, are deemed abnormal. Elisa is one piece, Amphibian man is another piece, and together they create a whole, being each other’s equal, and that’s all that matters. Aww isn’t that romantic? And I’m going to just throw this out there, but deep down I feel like Elisa may have been an Amphibian woman herself, she just needed him to bring the pieces together? (Now, cue in ambiguous music.) Finally, it’s an adorable monster-love story, the kind we need more of. It’s strange to many because metaphorically speaking, its one that doesn’t color inside the lines, but challenges your imagination. Think outside the box. Remember Frankenstein and Wolf Man? Those guys needed love too, and look what happened to them. Just saying.