The Shape of Water * 2017 * Rated R * 2 Hours 3 Minutes
😸😸😸😸😸 Rated 5/5 Happy lap cats
The Shape of Water is a dreamy fairy tale directed by Guillermo del Toro, who also wrote the screen play, along with Vanessa Taylor. It’s more Grimms’ Brothers than Disney, but has additional layers of Cold War era tropes that are deconstructed over the course of the film, so that by the end of the story many truths are revealed
The Shape of Water takes place in Baltimore, in the year 1962, the height of Cold War paranoia and espionage. Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute maid who uses sign language to speak and works as a custodian in a government research facility. Despite her disability (she’s been mute since birth and has a series of scars on her neck), lack of family (she was found abandoned by a river as an infant), and lack of wealth, she has a rich imagination and a few good friends. Her best friends are her chatty coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her starving artist neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins).
Eliza (as in Eliza Doolittle from My Fair Lady, the lower class young woman who’s turned into a misfit Cinderella of sorts?) loves shoes, musicals, movies and dancing. She also loves the water, dreaming of living there as she sleeps, with the contents of her apartment floating. In reality, her days follow a schedule: wake up to her evening alarm, start her breakfast eggs boiling on the stove, soak in the tub and take care of her own sexual needs while an egg timer on the sink counts down the time until the eggs on the stove are done, stop in and visit Giles, ride the bus to work the night shift at the lab, etc.
She and Zelda work side by side each day, with Zelda keeping up a running commentary. When Eliza gets home, she visits with Giles again, sometimes going with him to the local pie shop where he’s trying to woo the waiter/cashier.
Her life goes on like this until the lab receives a new experimental subject (Doug Jones, under an amphibious man suit), a team of scientists to study him and a security detail to control him. From the moment the aquatic creature is brought into the lab in his sepulchre like habitat, Eliza is drawn to him. The creature is viciously hostile to everyone, except Eliza. This might have something to do with the cattle prod that security chief Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) uses to torture the creature everyday, under the guise of controlling him.
After the creature has been in the lab for a few days, Strickland stumbles out into the corridor from the lab, seriously wounded. He’s rushed to the hospital, and Eliza and Zelda are told they have 20 minutes to clean the blood out of the lab. Eliza finds Strickland’s severed fingers under the edge of a cabinet. One of the security guards takes the fingers to the hospital to be reattached.
From then on, Eliza spends time in the lab with the creature. She brings him boiled eggs, plays him music, and teaches him sign language so that they can communicate. Once he returns to work, Strickland continues to torture the creature. The scientists, led by the secretive Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), continue to study him. Eliza and the creature learn to communicate while developing an attachment for each other.
When the five star general (Nick Searcy) who’s in charge of the program visits the site, Strickland, who wants to get out of Baltimore, insists that the only way they can get anything useful out of the creature is to vivisect it. Hoffstetler vehemently disagrees. Eliza overhears the conversation and also disagrees. General Hoyt sides with Strickland, who’s been his pal for years. This leaves both Eliza and Hoffstetler separately trying to save the creature. They face the building’s security systems, the number of people they’d need to get past without being noticed, and the need for a place to keep the creature safe until he could be released into the sea. Each begins to make their own plan.
Sally Hawkins is luminous as Eliza, who dances and glides her way through life most of the time. She occasionally almost turns into a monster and becomes stiff and flaily. Since she doesn’t speak out loud, she has to use her face and body to express her thoughts and emotions. ASL is a very expressive language, so that gives Hawkins a head start. She imbues Eliza with a dreamy quality, as if she’s a lost, enchanted princess who’s been tricked into thinking this is the life she’s supposed to live.
Giles and Zelda appear to be unremarkable stereotypes at first glance. In reality, if The Shape of Water were being true to the films and TV shows of its time period, as it is in other ways, Zelda would be a happily married and settled, middle class, white woman instead of a working class black woman who faces sexism, classism and racism while dealing with a difficult husband. Giles would be a cowardly, artistic straight man who was considered to be a “confirmed bachelor”, instead of a lonely gay man who faces homophobia at every turn.
Strickland, who is most definitely the villain in the piece, and is literally rotting from the inside out, would have been the heroic protagonist without question in the 1962 version. Even the ambiguous Dr Hoffstetler is viewed much more compassionately than he would have been in the 1960s. del Toro didn’t just subvert these stock character types. He’s stripped them of their period disguises to show the reality of who they were, which makes us question the usual need to take the side of the handsome (white) male protagonist that audiences tend toward to this day.
The production design, cinematography and sound all contribute to both the fairy tale quality and the realism of the film, which is an amazing achievement. Much of the music comes from old musicals of the 1930s and 40s, with optimism and a “can do” spirit, full of love stories that end with a happily ever after. The score sounds like the film is about to become a musical at any moment, and it does, briefly. Bits of dance are incorporated throughout the film, and big band music plays a key role in the relationship between Eliza and her creature. The rhythm of the swing music adds to the flowing, watery feel of the film.
Most of the time, we see through Eliza’s eyes, with a teal/golden, slightly shimmery glow to everything, almost as if we’re underwater. There is a rhythm to life and to the people’s movements, like water flowing. Occasional flashes of red signal danger and change ahead, and perhaps that everything isn’t what it seems. Through Eliza’s eyes, even the ugliest places are gorgeous.
Occasionally we follow Strickland, whose world is harsh and ugly. Browns, yellows and oranges dominate his home. The light is unflattering. People get in each other’s way and interrupt each other. There’s the feeling that nothing is quite right. This atmosphere is also evoked several other times in the harsh world of reality dominated by patriarchy, homophobia, and racism.
This isn’t a prettified Disney story, with the hard parts left out. It’s the story of someone who is able to look beyond the hard, harsh realities of life, despite what she’s already lived, and find something else inside herself and in the world. She uses that hope and belief to make magic. It’s a true story in that sense, because we can all make magic in our lives through faith and hard work.
It might only be on the small-scale of indulging in our shoe and musical addictions, or it might be in finding unexpected strength within ourselves and making serious life changes, but magic is magic. Unlike a Disney princess, Eliza wasn’t moping around helplessly at the start of the film. She was already making the best of her circumstances, and was ready to take advantage of the opportunity that was presented to her. She maintains her agency throughout the film and doesn’t let her gender or disability get in her way, even though both would have been major obstacles in that time and place.
The creature is also filmed like a hero, and was carefully constructed to be attractive and sensual. Doug Jones, a frequent player for del Toro, imbues the character with mystery and intelligence, giving the sense of a wrongfully captured and enslaved being, if one is open-minded enough to pay attention. The film doesn’t shy away from the reality of what the creature is, though, or what Eliza and the creature want from each other. Like the original versions of the Grimms’ Brothers fairy tales, this isn’t a story for the overly literal-minded or faint of heart.
The Shape of Water is a fascinating, layered, lovely film, but the best thing about it is its message, as expressed by Guillermo del Toro at Vulture Festival LA, 2017:
“We’re living in a time where we demonize the Other. We are told we’ve got to fear. [We’re being told] everywhere, constantly, why we have to divide the world between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ whether race, religion, government sexual preference, gender — anything that creates this fake division between us and them, and there’s only us. There is only us… The movie tries to embody the beauty of the Other. What makes us different is what makes us great. It’s sort of Beauty and the Beast in a way that shows you that Beauty doesn’t have to be the perfect princess, she doesn’t have to look like a perfume-commercial model … and the Beast doesn’t have to be transformed to be loved, and he doesn’t have to turn into a boring f*cking prince and renounce the essence of who he is. Because, to me, love is not transformation. Love is acceptance and understanding.”
Further Analysis (Major Spoilers):
I was upset that Dr Hoffstetler had to die. He was the one compassionate person that worked in the lab proper and the one person who helped Eliza and Creature without being asked. The death of the cat was somewhat pointless and gratuitous. And the wounding of the vintage teal Cadillac was a downright tragedy that we shouldn’t have had to watch. Do you know how hard it is to find a car like like today, in a condition as perfect as that, in that sherbety color? Oh, the humanity.
The film is filled with clocks, timers, watches, and schedules, giving a sense that times is racing by, and is about to run out. This is true for several characters, they just don’t know it. The most interesting clocks are Eliza’s egg timer in the shape of an egg, and Hoffstetler’s Israeli popper that turns the lab’s lights out for 5 minutes. The egg timer is one of Eliza’s associations with eggs, and connects the eggs to time, as in her time is running out. What will hatch when the time runs out? Is she the ugly duckling, waiting to find the other swans? Is she the chick in the egg, waiting to break out of her limited world and discover her true nature?
The Israeli popper is one of many associations with the number 5, besides having a timer and allowing a major transition. In biblical numerology, the number 5 is the number of God’s Grace, which is a favor or an act of kindness and support. Eliza and the creature give and receive acts of kindness and support which make the difference in how their story turns out.
The creature was worshipped as a God in the Amazon, then Strickland states that the creature really is a God later in the film. The film The Story of Ruth (from the Old Testamant bible story) is playing in the theater Eliza lives above. Ruth was a woman who converted to Judaism for her husband, then remained loyal to her husband’s family even after his death. She is eventually remarried to one of her husband’s kinsmen.
Given the powers we see the creature display, and the magical realism of the film, it’s possible that Eliza is an abandoned hybrid of the two species, human and amphibious hominid. When the lost princess and the frog prince save each other, you have to wonder if they were meant to find each other all along.
Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight