THE SHAPE OF WATER is Guillermo Del Toro’s most openly romantic film. Del Toro’s love of monsters has never been a secret but rarely do monsters get to fall in love. The films that Del Toro cut his cinematic teeth on were films where the monsters were the other. The creatures of these films were villains and outcasts.

These monsters were nightmares to be feared, not figures of empathy. Of course for a bullied young kid like Del Toro, the monsters were not the villains, but rather the misunderstood heroes. To him, the Gillman of CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON was actually a misunderstood romantic figure, as he explained in a Hollywood Reporter interview:

“’The creature was the most beautiful design I’d ever seen,’ he recalls. ‘And I saw him swimming under [actress] Julie Adams, and I loved that the creature was in love with her, and I felt an almost existential desire for them to end up together. Of course, it didn’t happen.’”

THE SHAPE OF WATER springs from this childhood obsession. It’s this creature, referred to in the film as the Asset, and his romance with Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), that perfectly crystallizes Del Toro’s philosophies on love, sex, and the freedom granted by empathy.

THE SHAPE OF WATER and Genre

The Shape of Water

While the Creature (Doug Jones) is breathtakingly realized, the film’s true heart and soul is Elisa (Sally Hawkins).  A childhood injury rendered Elisa mute, so she spends her days in silence. She works as a janitor at a secret government facility and accidentally wanders into an entirely different film. Before discovering the Creature, Elisa’s world is chipper music, daily morning masturbation, and precise routine in a chipper montage. She drives to work each morning in a sea green vision of mid-20th century America. Elisa’s magical realist, French-influenced world is then suddenly upended by a Universal monster flick.

This blending of genre establishes the tone that Del Toro will explore for the remainder of the film. On paper, a horror monster romance filtered through AMELIE sounds like a disaster. However, Del Toro is nothing if not an expert craftsman. His deft understanding of what makes the tones of genres function allows him to mold the tropes of one film to blend perfectly with another.

Part of this blending comes from the character Elisa and her group of friends, each of which are outsiders in 1962 America. Her next-door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) is gay, while her close friend and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is black, and the only one sympathetic to the plight of the Creature is Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Russian spy.  From the perspective of the heteronormative, jingoistic, racist, ableist, red-blooded American of the time, each of them are “monsters” and “freaks.”

The Real Monster

It’s no surprise then that the antagonist of this film, Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), would have been the hero of a traditional Universal horror film. Shannon’s square jaw gives him an all-American look that would have fit alongside Richard Carlson and Richard Denning (yes, they were both actually named Richard) in the original CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.

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Where Del Toro makes us love the monster, he turns against the patriarchal figure of American authority. Strickland looks like the hero of a classic monster film, but he behaves like the boorish men of Cold War America. Del Toro even says so himself:

“’If this was the 1950s,’ del Toro says, ‘the hero would be Strickland [Michael Shannon’s character]. Strickland represents three things I find terrifying: order, certainty and perfection. He wants those three, which are impossible and they represent the torture of a life, because no human can have any of them.’”

Strickland believes the world deserves to bow down to his superiority and stands with his hands on his hips proudly while his penis hangs out to pee. Shannon’s performance is menacing, but Del Toro allows us to laugh at him. He is a clown who believes he is a crusading hero. He lusts after Elisa for his own perverse reason: she cannot speak. His ideal woman is one who cannot voice her opinions or her own agency.

Beyond Words

The Shape of Water

Elisa, on the other hand, cannot speak but is able to find agency beyond her voice. It would be easy for a lesser director to make Elisa helpless due to her inability to speak. Lesser directors or writers might make Elisa passive and virginal, like a Disney princess who cannot even express her desire through song. Though she is mute, it is clear to the audience that she isn’t some prudish, delicate flower. She often reveals her true feelings through sign language, knowing those around her won’t be able to understand. 

From their first meeting, Elisa is able to empathize with the Creature. She is able to see their shared humanity, or the closest approximation to it. She recognizes in a fellow living thing the right to freedom and life. Elisa’s compassion is her superpower. She feels more than anyone around her with a voice can even begin to comprehend. This is Del Toro’s ultimate expression of what love is. It’s deeper than simple emotion; it’s empathy for those we share the planet with. Without empathy, love cannot exist.

Sexy Fish

When preparing for THE SHAPE OF WATER, the make-up crew had a difficult task ahead of them: they had to make the monster hot. In this behind the scenes video, the crew and actor Doug Jones discuss specific elements of the make the Creature convincingly attractive to a human woman. They mention his athletic body and fuller lips to make him “handsome,” to use their words.

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There’s another element to the Creature that remains important: his lack of defined masculinity. The Creature is gentle and lithe like the water he inhabits. Though people call this a “Beauty and the Beast story,” the Beast of that fable is monstrous, imposing, and masculine. The Creature, by contrast, is not aggressive or territorial, but rather peaceful. If Strickland is unhealthy masculinity personified, then the Creature is his opposite. Rather than rage, he expresses love and, like Elisa, empathy.

The Creature reveals later in the film that he is capable of healing people. The Creature has a literal power driven by compassion, much like Elisa has an internal capacity for boundless care. The two are drawn to each other through a shared love of music, but also by their endless ability to care for other people.

Boiling Water

So, THE SHAPE OF WATER has built something of a reputation for itself as “that movie where a lady has sex with a fish man.”

I have to give Del Toro credit here. Not only does he confront America’s weirdly puritanical attitudes towards sex, but he does it with an entirely sincere interspecies love story. Yes, the sex is somewhat surprising, but it’s important to the characterization of both Elisa and the Creature. First, Del Toro’s depictions of sex in this film are not titillating, but rather mundane. Elisa’s morning masturbation is timed in order to properly fit into her daily routine. Rarely are women in films allowed to not only enjoy sex but to be so casual about it.

Second, the sex also manages to be emotionally moving. Yes, these two are from different species, but their act of love allows them to express their affection in a way words cannot. Sex is important, but it isn’t an act that is placed on a pedestal. It’s a type of communication.

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Love and Empathy

THE SHAPE OF WATER is ultimately a film about the power of both love and empathy. The film is sincere, but there are no moments where the people who have been oppressed suddenly help their oppressors to see the error of their ways. Rather, the oppressors are left behind to die in their imperfect worlds while those capable of compassion evolve into a new, better life. Elisa and the Creature free each other from the prison of the world through their shared empathy and love as vast as the ocean.

There’s perhaps a no better way to summarize this film than with Del Toro’s own words with his director’s statement from the Venice Film Festival:

Fairy tales were born in times of trouble, in complicated times — when hope felt lost. I made THE SHAPE OF WATER as an antidote to cynicism. For it seems to me that when we speak of love — when we believe in love — we do so in a hopeless way. We fear looking naïve and even disingenuous. But Love is real — absolutely real — and, like water, it is the most gentle and most powerful force in the Universe. It is free and formless until it pours into its recipient, until we let it in. Our eyes are blind. But our soul is not. It recognizes love in whatever shape it comes to us.”

Go out. Empathize with those around you, especially those different from you. Drink in love like water.

2 Comments

  1. […] that? And a lot of inspiration came from whatever movies we saw. I got a lot of inspiration from THE SHAPE OF WATER. So a lot of […]

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  2. Lauren Frank

    February 6, 2018 at 8:59 am

    Excellent outline and analysis. Thank you actually concentrating on what the actual creator of the film fairy tale actually intended.

    So many ‘reviews’ have reviewers ignoring the author completely and presenting their own personal interpretation and take on the story, as if to validate their expertise or the like. (A) that’s not needed, and (B) it virtually going down a wrong alley virtually every single time.

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