Unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with your love. It humbles my heart, for you are everywhere.
In order to understand The Shape of Water try to imagine a retro-futuristic 1960’s government bunker housing top secret assets and all orchestrated by the creative Guillermo del Toro. Naturally, you are left with an amphibious, human-like, creature with the power to connect people in a way that the 60’s American establishment is unable to cope with. At the height of the Cold War, and with racial tensions and intolerance at a high, there is little room for love and acceptance; except, perhaps, through the determination of the minorities and overlooked members that build the framework of society.
The major threads that run through the film are prejudice and intolerance. The central characters, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and The Amphibian Man, AM, (Doug Jones), are clearly outsiders. Elisa’s inability to speak and AM’s alien appearance makes them unwanted in the social structure around them. Elisa and AM are both alone and misunderstood, unable to fully communicate in the world around them. They are also unrecognized for the powerful presence they possess.
These characters are far from the only victims of prejudice and intolerance in The Shape of Water. It is safe to say that almost every character in Shape of Water is experiencing some form of prejudice or intolerance at some point in the film. Even the primary antagonist, Strickland (Michael Shannon) has his own misunderstood nature that has been molded and consumed by the dominating nature of power.
There are also glimpses into the struggles of the civil rights movement, seen playing throughout the background of the film. The abundance of references to these themes makes it difficult to miss. The Shape of Water must focus sharply on intolerance and prejudice so that it is able to emphasize the importance, and need, for love and acceptance.
Sex and Power
Sex plays a huge role in The Shape of Water as a form of release, desire, and power. Right off the bat it is clear that this will be a sexually driven film. Elisa’s desires reveal a vivid capacity and desire for passion and companionship. Conversely, Strickland’s relationship with sex appears to revolve around control and domination. The juxtaposition of Elisa and Strickland’s characters can be seen continuously throughout the film.
Sex also ties in with intolerance as a parallel way to emphasize each character’s struggle and narrative. The way that sex plays a role in each character’s life, helps reinforce their primary role in the universe that Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor created. A lonely and sexually frustrated Elisa is restless, sexually, and also restless in her place in the world. Often forgotten and overlooked, Elisa is desperate to find meaning in her life, as well as, a partner. Strickland on the other hand has a sexual companion, his wife, yet is also lost. He is less focused on the connection that sex brings and is selfishly focused his own desires.
Elisa’s aged roommate, Giles (Richard Jenkins), has a sexual narrative that emphasizes his inability to find solid footing in his life. His struggles sexually are similar to his struggles professionally; he is trapped and constantly having the rug pulled out from underneath him. Giles is unable to use his ‘obsolete’ talents in the professional world and even though he is in the era of ‘free love’ he finds himself unable to express himself sexually.
I was surprised at how pronounced the sex was in this film, given its target of a mainstream audience. Not to say that it was over the top, but simply unusual. The film does take place in the 60’s, so perhaps this is another nod to the era of ‘free love’. It is interesting to see how sex in movies changes over time. I wonder how this movie would have done, or been rated, in decades past.
The main theme of the film had to be the importance of love. Everyone wants it, whether they realize it or not, although some are on the wrong path to find it. The love story is clear between Elisa and AM. Their story is the focal point of the entire film. On the periphery though, there are several ongoing love stories that take place and help support the primary love story. Most of the love stories are driven by desperate loneliness. That loneliness is the backbone of each character’s desire to find love. Giles and Elisa are searching for companions that understand them and see them for who they are. While, on the opposite side of the spectrum, Strickland’s egotistical authoritarian personality leaves him seeking a self-serving relationship. The role that love plays in each characters path demonstrates their worth and value in the overall story.
Juxtaposition of Elisa and Strickland
As the protagonist and antagonist of the story Elisa and Strickland played similar, yet polar, roles. Elisa is desperately seeking attention, both sexually and affectionately. She feels misunderstood, ignored, and an outcast. At the same time, Strickland is lost and is unable to achieve the recognition, and power, that he desires. Their differences are demonstrated by the way they treat and feel about others. Elisa is empathetic while Strickland is apathetic to others. Their character profiles are akin to yin and yang. While Elisa will go out of her way to help those around her, Strickland will go out of his way to help himself.
This leads into the primary difference between Elisa and Strickland, and that is their desire and ability to empathize and love those around them. The differences between them seem stark throughout the film, but I think it is important to also pay attention to the similarities. For example, while both Elisa and Strickland have relationships with AM that couldn’t be farther apart from one another, they both share a deep consuming intimacy and focus on him that only Strickland and Elisa share. They are both consumed by his presence.
There is a certain aesthetic that Guillermo del Toro brings to all of his films. Vivid imagery coupled with creative creatures and set design, make Toro’s films unforgettable. In this sense, The Shape of Water is no exception. Toro incorporates water not just through the story telling, but through the visual aspect of the film as well. This can be seen right off the bat in the opening sequence of the film.
While The Shape of Water was not quite as good as Pan’s Labyrinth, The Orphanage, or some of Toro’s other films. It still stood out in a year full of sub par films. I am excited to experience more of Toro’s visually striking filmmaking in upcoming projects: Pinnochio and the remake of Nightmare Alley.
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Cinematography: Dan Laustsen
Screenplay by: Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor
Edited by: Sidney Wolinsky
Music by: Alexandre Desplat
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, & Doug Jones
Runtime: 2h 3m
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Fantasy
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight Pictures