A fairytale about the transcendent power of communication, The Shape of Water is the eloquent gem that Guillermo Del Toro fans have been waiting for. Set in early ’60s Baltimore, it tells the story of a young mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) who works as a janitor at a secret military lab where a sentient amphibious creature (the “Asset”) has been placed in captivity. Most regard the creature as an exotic menace and potential Cold War weapon, but Elisa identifies with it. Like her, its inability to speak has left it restricted, misunderstood, and profoundly separated from others. A strange and delicate love takes shape between the two, mingling elements of poetic fantasy, monster movies, Cold War thrillers, and silent cinema. Though ambitious in scope, Del Toro’s vision transcends its mix of genres, which crystallize around the simple insight that our humanity is deeply entwined with our need to communicate.
The Shape of Water resonates in large part through Hawkins’ performance, which keeps human feeling at the center of Del Toro’s hyper-stylized world. Her bubble of silence hovers expressively as she moves through the bustling, mechanical routines of daily life, attuning us to the invisible barriers that isolate her. Another actress might have fallen back on cloying hyperbole, but Hawkins “remains life-size and real” (Miami New Times). She draws on the gestural poetry of silent cinema while allowing fluctuations of feeling to play out almost entirely through her eyes. She keeps us emotionally anchored in the film’s fantastic tapestry of allusions, which range from Creature from the Black Lagoon to Fred Astaire musicals to Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast.
The romance between Elisa and the amphibian could have been the film’s most ludicrous element. But it proves undeniably mesmerizing, climaxing in the underwater fantasy sequence of her flooded apartment, where her and the creature are left suspended in embrace as objects and furniture swirl around them in a kind of dance. It’s a sublime subversion of ’50s America, with Del Toro transforming Elisa’s home into a sensual undersea palace where society’s prisons have been swept away. The dispassionate ticking of clocks and timers that ruled the film’s beginning dissolve inside the exultant fluidity of fairytale, while the water immerses our senses in the absence of speech and the private universe of pure gesture through which Elisa and the creature communicate.
The themes of sentience, language, and communication all make The Shape of Water surprisingly reminiscent of last year’s film Arrival. Like Villeneuve’s visionary sci-fi, Del Toro’s work reveals the fear-driven psychology that tends to dominate our interaction with other intelligent life forms. He shows how quick we are to assume the nefariousness of the non-human – to control and subjugate it, rather than communicate with it. Like the heptapods of Arrival, the amphibious creature possesses abilities that are in fact beneficial to humans – in this case, a restorative energy that emanates from the creature’s electric blue nervous system and heals wounds. The fact that it has been dubbed “The Asset” by military personnel who regard it only as a potential weapon against the Soviets is sadly ironic given its undeciphered power to cure and regenerate.
The creature’s subjection to torture inside the laboratory can also be read as an allegory for the cruel intolerance that continued to blight American culture in the early ‘60s. Elisa’s bond with the creature is paralleled by her friendships with those that would have been marginalized and mistreated during this period, including her African-American coworker Zelda and her closeted neighbor Giles. In another film, these characters might have felt stereotypical, but Del Toro imbues them with humanizing quirks (i.e. the finicky Giles indulging his passion for outdated musicals with Elisa, and Zelda’s feisty storms of chattiness serving as a comic foil to her friend’s silence). Some of the most uplifting moments in the film come from watching this band of eccentrics orchestrate the creature’s escape, defying society’s heartlessness and the sadistic reign of the all-American laboratory head, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).
While confronting humans’ lurking capacity for cruelty, The Shape of Water ultimately expresses faith in our ability to achieve compassion through communication. Balancing ferocity and lyrical beauty, it pulses with stark emotion beneath its visual flourishes. Commenting on the aesthetic that defines his work, Del Toro cites Francisco Goya, Jorge Luis Borges, and Lewis Carroll as important influences, as well as his own childhood experiences with lucid dreaming. If anything best describes The Shape of Water’s indelibly beautiful moments, it is precisely that: a lucid dream, where meaning is silently shaped and brought to life.