The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2017)
by Christopher B. Barnett
The phrase “shape of water” is, of course, an oxymoron. Water is a fluid and, as such, is defined as a material with “zero shear modulus.” This means that, when a certain “stress” is applied to water, its form is subject to change. In other words, water does not have any shape per se but morphs in accordance with given external conditions and pressures. The question that Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning film The Shape of Water asks is this: is love like water? That is to say, is love irreducible to any putatively “natural” form and thus open to a variety of expressions? This is, of course, a big question, which bears significant socio-political connotations. But del Toro does not directly confront today’s cultural discussion. Instead, The Shape of Water is a fable whose moral is illustrated through fantasy.
The film is set in Baltimore in the early 1960s. It’s the time of the Cold War, and the American government is bent on exploring any and every advantage over the Soviets. With this in mind, Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, in a typecast role) returns from South America with a prize — namely, a humanoid amphibious river dweller.
This creature is menacing and, at times, violent. Moreover, it is incapable of communicating in human language, using instead a peculiar series of clicks and hisses. So mysterious is it that, according to Strickland, tribal peoples worship it as a “god.” On the other hand, the creature’s face resembles that of a human being, and it seems to enjoy human music and cuisine (particularly hard-boiled eggs, in a suggestive metaphor).
A different film might have investigated the philosophical, scientific, and theological questions raised by such a being: what is it that constitutes the humanum? Where, in other words, do we draw the line between a creature that exhibits human-like qualities (as with primates, for example) and a human being per se? Is it the ability to form abstract concepts and language? To create representational art? To pray to a deity or deities?
But del Toro sidesteps these difficult problems. Instead, he pits the brutal and callous Col. Strickland, whose hatred of the creature seems to be grounded in a deviant reading of the Old Testament, against the sensitive and sweet Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a janitor in the facility in which the creature is being detained. Where Strickland sees a dangerous beast, Elisa sees an oppressed person. Elisa too cannot speak (she has been mute since childhood), and yet she has dreams and hopes. Del Toro makes it clear that her longing is chiefly sexual. After all, Elisa has a pair of caring and supportive friends, and she does not seem to lack the necessities of life. Yet, for reasons that the film fails to address, she is not in an erotic relationship. She masturbates each day before work, expressing the sexual desire otherwise suppressed in her life. In this way, she resembles her neighbor Giles, a gay artist who tries (not always successfully) to bridle his sexuality in public. Both Elisa and Giles are incomplete just to the extent that society — still betraying the vestiges of Eisenhower conservatism — dictates the form in which their erotic passion is to find articulation.
As time passes, Elisa realizes that Strickland, under orders from his commanders, expects to kill the amphibious creature. With help from Giles and others, Elisa absconds with the creature and keeps him in the bathroom of her apartment, allowing him to soak in a bath of tap water and table salt. A bond seems to develop between the two, and eventually they have sex. At the same time, Elisa realizes that he (indeed, she visually clarifies that the creature has a penis) is being hunted by the military and must be released into the ocean. This tension sets up a climactic showdown between Strickland and the two lovers.
Del Toro is celebrated as an imaginative storyteller — look no further than his 2006 masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth for evidence — and The Shape of Water is indeed visually arresting. It is as if Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen shot the film with a cyanic filter, imbuing its fictional Baltimore (the movie was actually filmed in and around Toronto) with a wet, shimmering luster. Moreover, the creature himself is indelible, partly an homage to the Gill-man (below) from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), partly a recomposition of the Faun from Pan’s Labyrinth:
And yet, given The Shape of Water‘s premise, much hinges on whether or not one is convinced by the relationship between the amphibian man and Elisa. Taken literally, this is not an easy sell. Yes, Elisa’s personal characteristics — alone, mute, mysterious — superficially resemble those of the creature. Still, to what extent can one say that she is truly like the amphibian man? For example, we know that she is sexually frustrated, but can the same be said for the creature? Elisa communicates her sexual desires both in action and in sign, whereas the creature gives no such indication. They do eventually have sex, but perhaps the creature was simply acting on instinct? In any case, since the creature (unlike Elisa) cannot communicate in human terms, there is no way of knowing his intentions. To be sure, Alexandre Desplat’s romantic score, not to mention the magical realism of Elisa and the amphibian man’s sex scene (she floods her bathroom with tap water), prod the viewer to accept that there is a genuine relationship between the two characters. But these flourishes are more beguiling than substantive. Since del Toro invests so little in the question of what the creature is, it is hard to know the nature of its relationship with Elisa. One simply has to accept what del Toro’s filmmaking is suggesting.
Clearly, then, The Shape of Water is best understood on the level of metaphor — something that many commentators have emphasized. The default assumption seems to be that the film represents the struggles of LGBTQ people and, indeed, is a kind of “love letter” to the gay community. GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation) has designated it as “LGBTQ-related entertainment,” adding that it is a “story about the power of love, and outcasts fighting the system.” While conceding that The Shape of Water is an “unrealistic fantasy,” one blogger nevertheless associates the film with movements such as the Stonewall riots and Black Lives Matter: “Intersectional and ‘othered’ people always end up saving the world, and this time cinema. Thank you Guillermo Del Toro, for making this incredible film.” Del Toro, however, has implied that the film has just as much to do with current debates about immigration, and, as a Mexican citizen, he finds its tale personally meaningful: “I may have light skin and sort of lighter hair, but the moment I open my mouth in immigration, all that goes away. When I’m stopped many times by a cop on a traffic violation and I speak, I am immediately a Mexican. So these are things I am trying to say.”
In this way, del Toro opens the door to viewing The Shape of Water as something other than a parable about sex. Indeed, John McAteer notes that, even as the film takes a critical stance toward certain aspects of Christianity, it also draws on “Christian stories and imagery” and, perhaps unintentionally, gets “a lot of the gospel right.” After all, certain sexually explicit biblical texts — most notably the Song of Solomon, which features lines such as “Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins” (Song 7:3, AKJV) — are often read as representations of God’s love for humanity. Is it possible, then, that the amphibian man, who is referred to as a “god,” symbolizes a divine other whose love redeems those who have eyes to see and ears to hear? One might press this possibility even further and wonder if del Toro’s emphasis on love’s fluidity is not a call for human beings to abandon a perverse and rigid anthropocentrism, whereby that which is other than human (including God) is laid bare by science and then tossed aside. Only if love is open to mystery, to an other that it desires but cannot circumscribe, can it be said to fulfill its deepest impulse. On this reading, del Toro’s characterization of Strickland is not opposed to Christianity per se but to what Martin Heidegger famously called “ontotheology” — a way of “framing” the world that uses God (theos) to underpin a techno-scientific focus on beings.
Such metaphysical ruminations are unlikely to appeal to those who insist on seeing The Shape of Water as a political film. But del Toro’s decision to tell the story as a fable means that it cannot be reduced to any single “statement.” For that reason, its meaning is deferred. The Shape of Water asks hot-button questions but is loath to give a determinative answer. Like the sea, billowing and frothing during a midnight storm, it presents an entrancing formlessness.