“It’s not even human.” Our mute protagonist, Elisa, responds: “if we do nothing, neither are we.” Guillermo del Toro gushes back onto the big screen with the aquatic, gothic-fantasy film The Shape of Water. Adding to his catalogue of humanoid monsters, del Toro welcomes an amorous amphibian man, and provokes us to redefine what it means to be human, what it means to be a monster, and to question if the two are ever wholly separate.
Set in the green shadows of cold war-era America, we follow the outcast, monotonous life of mute orphan Elisa. This is a life shared by her friends Giles, a closeted homosexual man, and Zelda, an African-American woman: all marginalised by the extensively discriminatory attitudes of their time. As an overlooked cleaner in a secretive lab, Elisa comes face to fish-face with America’s newest advancement in the space race against Russia. But, where others find a monster, she finds love.
Guillermo produces an exemplar for our expressions of wonder
Yet, that’s not to say we find him unconditionally loveable. We see the creature’s grisly capability before we see his charm, and there remains an unpredictability in his animalistic tendencies. It is only due to Elisa’s fearlessness, pulling us to intimate proximity with the creature, that we are able to begin to understand him, and her for that matter. The ambiguity of Elisa’s life is not a lack of character development, but key to the boundaries the film pushes. We only get a real insight into her lifelong struggle as part of a society that views her as flawed when she fervently relates to the creature’s loneliness.
Following the life of a reclusive, black-bobbed woman to a fantastical, romantic Parisian-esque score: you can see where the comparisons to Amelie arise from. But, in their respective fantasy-realist worlds, you could say that Amelie’s is quirky and otherworldly, whereas Elisa’s is erotic and underworldly. A world Guillermo has beautifully orchestrated to be shrouded in green, speckled with blue, and spotted in blood.
a crystallised masterwork
And what director can resist injecting their (and our) love of cinema into their work? When the creature escapes to the cinema, he stares in awe at the big screen for the first time: here Guillermo produces an exemplar for our expressions of wonder and encourages us as an audience to identify with this amphibian man, allowing us to realise in that moment what it means to feel the same as the monster. What’s more, Elisa lives above a cinema. At one point, water seeps through the floorboards and showers the audience below. Here is a seismic shattering between spectator and player, between reality and fantasy. I almost wanted to look up to the ceiling of the cinema and feel droplets on my face.
On course for flooding the awards season, water may have no shape, but The Shape of Water is a crystallised masterwork strung on the silver thread between dream and reality: it will suspend you in the light-bending, reflective and unpredictable surface of the sea.