The Shape of Water, Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film, is a cinematic masterpiece that combines a monster and classic love tale into one. At the crux of it all, this is a story of two beings who forge a relationship without concern for one another’s differences. However, it is these differences that strengthens their bond and elegantly creates a love tale like no other.
The Shape of Water follows the story of Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman, who lives in a corner apartment right across from her best friend, Giles (Richard Jenkins), who is an advertisement artist struggling to make a living due to the influx of modern photography. The film is set in 1962 Baltimore, where Eliza works in a high-security government laboratory as a cleaner. Her life is drastically altered when something new is brought into one of the laboratories that her and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) clean daily. Eliza discovers that within the laboratory is a scaled creature that is being studied and tortured by the government agent and marine biologist Strickland (Michael Shannon). Throughout the film, Eliza forms a friendship with the scaled creature, and upon her discovery of the creature’s fate, she becomes determined to save it from any more suffering at the hands of Strickland.
On a performative level, the actors dominate the screen and were phenomenal performers. With only a few weeks prior to the shooting of the film, Sally Hawkins dedicated her time to not only learn American Sign Language, she also had to learn it according to the time period it was in. Her ability to display her sorrow, joy, strength, and vulnerability through her eyes and the movements of her hands did not make me think twice about the accuracy of her performance.
The best performers make you forget that they’re performing, and Hawkins does so beautifully within the film. Her co-star, Spencer, performs with just as much strength as Hawkins does. There is a beautiful relationship that both characters share with one another. Shannon’s menacing and vile approach to Strickland’s character is so well done. Though his character is frightening, you’re exposed to his vulnerable life as a family man, who has to take care of his kids and wife, alongside trying to kill a creature that has done no harm to him.
While traditional classic tales of romance focus on individuals falling for one another and accepting each other’s differences, Del Toro’s film does quite the opposite and focuses on what makes Eliza and the scaled creature the same, while also proving that differences do not matter. This is a common theme throughout the entirety of the film with all of Eliza’s relationships. For example, in her relationship with her best friend, there is quite a large age difference between the two of them. Between Eliza and Zelda, Eliza is a mute white woman, while Zelda is a person of colour, and both these women are understood as “less than” in the America they live in. With these relationships, Del Toro manages to also subtly suggest to you the common social structures of the time. Rampant racism, sexism, homophobia, and the American dream are all themes Del Toro’s film alludes to.
With these relationships, Del Toro manages to also subtly suggest to you the common social structures of the time. Rampant racism, sexism, homophobia, and the American dream are all themes Del Toro’s film alludes to.
This message of acceptance of one another is definitely the core of the entirety of the film. Del Toro’s genius comes when he decides that the only way to show us how unaccepting we are of each other, no matter how much we might believe we are, was to show love through the eyes of something we’ve never seen before, a fish man. Those who haven’t seen the film may read through this and have the immediate thought about the impossibility of falling in love with a fish. However, it is purely this intolerance that Del Toro clearly alludes to that is within all of us, no matter how accepting we might believe we are.
Watching the film a second time, a scene that strikes the most is when Giles believes he can express his love to the male waiter at his favourite pie shop. When the waiter freaks out, asks Giles to leave the shop, and immediately proceeds to kick out an African-American couple from entering his shop, purely as a result of their skin colour, the emphasis on intolerance of those who are different becomes clear. Del Toro’s aim is to make you as uncomfortable as possible with the idea of the fish man being a creature of love; to make the audience realize that these fears or intolerances of those different from the majority, are not so different than what we see today.
Eliza’s eventual love for the creature shows you that although this creature is unlike a human, it still has the physique of a human, the desires of a human, and the ability to love as a human. It’s biological nature as a male creature is even identified in a comical scene where Eliza describes how her and the creature managed to mate with one another. The only difference is his physical appearance and how he interacts. Though at the end of it all, that doesn’t matter, because the film reminds you that irregularities cannot separate one another— differences make no difference in a world where they are routinely brought to light and emphasised. At the end of it all, what we want, who we are, and what we are the same, and that is one of the core themes that Del Toro delivers in his film.
Stylistically and visually, the film is gorgeous. The use of blues, teals, and green is such an important touch to this film that brings out the vulnerability and fluidity of the film. Del Toro is known for his extreme attention to detail, so it did not surprise me when looking closely at the wallpaper of the walls you noticed small fish-like details that brought the world to life. The flow of the shots and the music tie together to form a film that moves smoothly and freely as you would within water.
There is no shape of water in the end; water is shapeless and only forms a shape that we decide to put it in. The characters of Del Toro’s film have very little care for their immediate differences between one another. Del Toro could have easily made a film to portray his message with human actors entirely. However, the genius of Del Toro is that he needed to shock us, he wanted us to see something completely foreign, make us a little uncomfortable, and deliver a beautiful story to teach us the lesson of tolerance. Del Toro’s The Shape of Water is definitely a favourite and is important in a time where all we do as a society is separate ourselves and have little tolerance to those that are different. Whether fish man or human, our tendency to love, empathize, and be vulnerable to one another, no matter who or what we are, is what the Del Toro hopes you experience outside the viewing of this delicately beautiful film.