By Claire Park
A late take on Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” in a pre-Oscars review series.
By CLAIRE PARK
In “The Shape of Water,” we are plunged into the green netherworld of early 1960’s Baltimore. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a cleaning woman at a government research facility. She falls in love with the newly imported “Asset,” a hulking blue-green amphibious creature (Doug Jones) plucked from South American waters, whose superhuman physicality might aid the United States in the space race against the Soviets and who the grittily vicious project supervisor Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) tortures senselessly with a cattle prod. Elisa is mute, a “princess without a voice,” and gestures her valiant defiance with sign language, taunting Strickland at one point with “F-U-C-K-Y-O-U” and a gleam in her eyes. While Shannon’s villain is impeccably wicked, Hawkins effervesces in silence, with her tremulous smile, with those disarmingly kind eyes, with sensuality that glimmers beneath her unassuming surface, just as she conjures the creature’s reciprocating blue sparks with her touch.
Elisa, during secret visits, woos the creature with music and her shy dancing, and teaches him sign language. “You…and me,” he later knows to express. Enlisting the help of her best friend Giles in masterminding the creature’s escape, she signs furiously, “When he looks at me, he does not know what I lack or how I am incomplete.” We are privy to charades of monstrous masculinity, manifestations of incompleteness that have nothing to do with being incapable of speech. All Zelda’s (Octavia Spencer) passive husband had back in the day was an “animal magnetism” and she, Elisa’s strong-willed, bitingly witty and warm-hearted co-worker, is now mired in a unfeeling marriage. It’s a film about bodies being treated like animals, like specimens, as Elisa’s muteness becomes tantalizing to the rapacious Strickland. Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Soviet spy and scientist at the facility who eventually aids the creature’s escape, protests his euthanization in the name of science, calling him an “intricate, beautiful thing.” But anyone can experience the loneliness of living like a thing. Giles, gay in an era of vicious bigotry, commiserates with the creature: “I was either born to early or too late for my life…maybe we’re both just relics.”
The film is a viscerally material experience in the formless made terrifying, from the green gelatin parfait that Strickland’s wife perkily presents to him to the green goo of key lime pie, which Giles purchases in order to schmooze with his crush at the local diner. Guillermo del Toro makes this world look like a place beneath some surface, imbued with a green hue that evokes both decay and the fertile promise of the future. “That’s the future now—green,” proclaims Giles’s boss. Strickland’s slick green Cadillac epitomizes the era’s crude impulse toward progress, but there is also something primeval about this world that makes it truly fairytale-esque, that pulls us into a magical time of creation
. Elisa feeds the creature boiled eggs, which are strangely alienating in their roundness and simplicity in spaces filled with shadows and slime and brine. And after they make love for the first time, she dreamily runs her finger along the window on the way to work and watches water droplets do a primordial dance.
del Toro’s aesthetic is a fantastical amalgamation of styles and realities: Elisa expresses her love in an enchanting black and white musical number, an abandoned lot in the midst of sand dunes, used as a meeting place for the Russian spies, affects Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory,” and the shots in which the camera pans up to Strickland’s shadow-riddled face borrow from film noir. The story’s authority figures are predictably villainous and could be glaringly reductive if the other characters weren’t so uniquely lonely, and if their world wasn’t so delightfully weird. The film’s plot unfolds predictably, but treasure is to be found in the details of every scene. And if you indulge the allegorical mythmaking, you’ll gladly submerge yourself in the aquatic performance of a happily-ever-after ending as well.
Claire Park (firstname.lastname@example.org) ranks this breathtaking film as her second favorite among the Best Picture nominees so far, behind “Call Me by Your Name,” of course.