As its title implies, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is an enigmatic film. It’s not a horror movie, though it has elements of the horrific. There are scenes of intense drama, but there are also bits that are laugh out loud hilarious. Not only does the film boast the astounding visuals audiences have come to expect from Del Toro, it also includes surprisingly frank portrayals of sexuality. At times its ever-shifting tone evokes the feeling of slipping on black ice. This is a precarious sensation and one that seems increasingly rare in mainstream cinema.
The plot is simple enough: woman meets fish man and they fall in love. This is not a spoiler; the film is predicated upon a basic love story. On the other hand, isn’t that why people still enjoy new productions of Shakespeare? It’s not the plot; it’s the way it is brought to life in front of our eyes.
One of the film’s biggest accomplishments is creating a living, breathing Creature from the Black Lagoon for the new millennium. For those who have sensed the emotion beneath the monstrous visages of The Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein, or the Beast, The Shape of Water is for you. What’s remarkable is that “Amphibian Man” (as Doug Jones is credited on IMDB) is never given a name, nor does he speak. Similarly, his paramour Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) never utters a word. Both characters transcend their constraints, resulting in something beautiful to behold.
Similarly gorgeous is the film’s look. As Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) points out regarding his new Cadillac, “it’s not green, it’s teal.” And turquoise and aquamarine and cyan and chartreuse. The color palette of The Shape of Water is as mutable as its namesake and its unpredictable characters. This, too, is a metaphor for the film’s nameless fish man. Is he a highly intelligent creature? Or a god?
Such questions are frequently asked in the cinematic landscape, most recently in films like Prometheus, Ex Machina, Alien: Covenant, and Blade Runner 2049. When artificially intelligent beings look “more human than human” the question of Freud’s uncanny is always lurking in the background, but what about when the beings in question don’t look human, but act human?
In Beauty and the Beast, Belle falls for the titular character despite his ghastly appearance, and in the end, true love brings him back to his human form. In The Shape of Water, there is no human form. Amphibian Man isn’t a giant frog transformed with a kiss; he’s a fully functioning, sexually active being. This kind of erotica is becoming increasingly common in fiction. Good Reads, for example, includes a list of “Best Monster/Bizarre Erotica Books,” including one with the title of I F*cked the Swamp Creature. (1)
Visual arts have been similarly entranced by such interspecies couplings. Artist Tarusov creates graphic depictions of humans having sex with a whole host of monsters, including The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Wolfman, and an Alien Xenomorph. (2) Yet few films have plunged headlong into such transgressive love stories, and that makes The Shape of Water even more unique.
However, this isn’t just a film about transgressive sex, but the ability to traverse boundaries to find love. Elisa’s character tells her friend Giles, “When he looks at me he does not know how I am incomplete. He sees me as I am.” There are many characters like this in The Shape of Water. Some can’t speak, some are fish men, but all are lonely outcasts. Others look like normal men but are monsters underneath, while others look like monsters but are more human than expected. What it means to be a man is also questioned; Strickland’s cattle prod and wounded fingers serve as metaphors for the markers of masculinity.
The insidious legacy of othering, and how it harms people, is another major element in the film, from Elisa and the Amphibian Man to Giles’ homosexuality and Zelda’s African-American heritage. Yet as Giles says of the Amphibian Man, “He’s a wild creature. We can’t ask him to be anything else.” It is precisely the otherness of the characters that makes them important. They are what makes The Shape of Water such a minor miracle of a movie.
1) “Best Monster/Bizarre Erotica Book.” GoodReads.com, https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/21931.Best_Monster_Bizarre_Erotica_Book. Accessed December 12, 2017.
2) Tarsusov. Instagram, https://www.instagram.com/askandy/. Accessed December 12, 2017.