“—There, inside, space
is an open hand, a mind
that thinks shapes, not ideas,
shapes that breathe, walk, speak, transform
and silently evaporate;
—there, inside, land of woven echoes,
a slow cascade of light drops
between the lips of the crannies:
light is water; water, diaphanous time
where eyes wash their images;
—there, inside, cables of desire” – Octavio Paz
“I was raised Catholic, but masturbation saved me.” – Guillermo del Toro
The shape of water is that it has no shape. It fills the empty spaces. It makes you feel weightless. For women it signifies sensuality, e.g., as women show how aroused they are with wetness. In his exquisite film The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro ties female sensuality to water in so many ways – but none so directly as when Sally Hawkins, the film’s star, gently traces drops of water on glass until they chase around each other and eventually combine to form one. Hawkins plays a mute cleaning lady, Eliza Esposito, who also routinely and on schedule uses the bathtub for singular sexual pleasure (off-screen). It is no surprise that she finds her one true love in the shape of a water creature.
Out of the brilliantly nimble, wildly creative mind of del Toro comes one of the best films ever made about love, cinema, and America — and perhaps one of the best films ever made, period. A man whose life was consumed at an early age by monster movies, the colorful landscape of Mexico, and his own curious imagination, del Toro has put so much of himself in The Shape of Water and given us the most fascinating glimpse he has yet granted of the furious tempest churning inside that mind, and that heart, of his.
Taking his cue from Creature from the Black Lagoon and other mid-century monster movies made in an era of limitless anxieties — when Americans were frightened of everything from Russians to nukes to anyone who threatened that illusion of placid American life — del Toro brings to life a humanoid from the deep to reflect America’s sociopathic drive towards weaponizing anything they don’t understand. Del Toro has said that he wanted the backdrop of this film to evoke a time when those in Trumpworld last thought America was great. Back to the cusp of the early 1960s, before civil rights, Vietnam protests, and the feminist movement all blew it up and made it not great anymore for anyone who never wanted or needed those changes. The film illustrates a level of oppression rarely shown in Hollywood movies that flourished at the time, with a homophobic racist pie shop manager and a government man (a movie-stealing Michael Shannon) who says out loud that God probably looks most like him. Just like him. His obsession with who gets to be a god and who doesn’t comes to matter later in the film.
The Shape of Water is a love story, though only partly in the traditional sense. It could be argued that it is del Toro’s ode to the transformative power of cinema and art. And maybe a sonnet to monster movies. But at its heart it is a love story between the oddly sweet Eliza, a woman with strange scares on her neck who can’t speak, and frequent del Toro collaborator Doug Jones as the sea creature with (as del Toro says) “a great ass.” “He had to have a great ass,” the director says. “That’s all I knew.”
Eliza spends her days adhering to a rhythm that works for her. She’s a custodial worker in a Cold War lab, cleaning bathrooms and mopping floors alongside Octavia Spencer who reveals her inner thoughts to Eliza every night. She has befriended an open-minded neighbor (the brilliant Richard Jenkins) who confides in Eliza each day. Her silence makes her an appealing confessor. Otherwise, she lives her life in quiet desperation, invisible to almost everyone, unnoticed, unloved. One day she puts a hand on the glass tank that holds a marvelous sea creature captive. The two form an instant and unspoken bond. She knows that he sees her true nature as no one ever has. Not as a misfit. Maybe as a thing of beauty.
Little by little she builds a deeper connection to the creature, offering him eggs and teaching him the rudiments of human language. The two of them exist in a shared reality that no one else could see or understand; her deep connection to water may be part of the reason. But of course, the brutal government agent (Shannon) and his team of military thugs demand total control over the creature, and torture him into submission. Eventually the danger is made clear: unimaginable harm will come to the creature if Eliza doesn’t jailbreak him out of the lab and get him back to his home in the water.
The plot is deliciously B-movie-esque with del Toro dipping deep into movie nostalgia and quirky Americana. Michael Shannon spends much of the movie trying to save two fingers, one of them his “pussy finger.” But they start to rot and stink and sooner or later something will have to be done about them. This detail is one of many in a film that really does capture how funny on the fly del Toro can be. Octavia Spencer has many of the film’s best lines like “short people are mean.” Richard Jenkins provides further comic relief, delivering crisp, drive-by one-liners. Also great is Michael Stuhlbarg who plays the scientist tasked with taking care of the monster. As romantic and swoony as the film ultimately is – and it is, by god – it is also funny in the way del Toro is funny: disarmingly, unpredictably.
Sally Hawkins does some of her best work of her career as the mute and lovely Eliza, her name a sly reference to My Fair Lady. Hawkins is one of those actors skilled enough to use her whole body to express things that words alone cannot. Watch how she uses her hands, for instance. Or her mouth. Only a brilliant actress could have pulled this off, to make us believe she is in love with something that isn’t human. It’s weird, it’s wild, it’s beautiful.
By the end of Shape of Water, del Toro has made us laugh out loud many times, grossed us out, terrified us, and fires on all cylinders with everything that we expect and need our movies to deliver. With so much horribleness happening in the world, we’re reminded once again why movies are so essential to society’s psyche.
Del Toro saves the best for last as his funny, odd love story comes to a close, as all movies unfortunately must. By the end, it becomes so hopelessly beautiful. This ethereal place drifting between worlds where there are no defining lines, no boundaries, no separations. Water unites and absorbs everything into it, so that there is no shape that is not liquid.
We enter this world through the gift of cinema. As terrible as humans are, as much as we’ve destroyed this planet and wrecked our own future, there is one thing that will always redeem us and that is our ability to make art – to create beauty in ways that only gods are meant to do. Our fearsome potential to cause maelstroms towers over us, threatening to extinguish our power in all ways except that one – our capacity to create astonishing facsimiles of living things. We can depict those things on cave walls, on paper, in marble, on canvas and yes, on film.
Bravo to Guillermo del Toro for this strange and unforgettable film. He takes us on a breathtaking journey for a couple of hours that makes all our senses come alive. All too soon, like every incredible gift, it must come to an end. The lights must come up. The doors of glorious imagination must be flung open and we leave the cool sanctuary behind, wandering back into the real world – a world not drawn for us by brilliant artists, but one we must make out for ourselves.