The thing about fairy tales is that they have always been darker than Disney would have us believe. That darkness is necessary to define the light, in fact, and no filmmaker understands that contrast better than Guillermo del Toro. He creates his own fables filled with misfits and monsters, and knows that the true villains are neither. His stories of love, compassion, and hope are shot through with veins of pure horror, and his happy endings come with an often literal sacrifice.
If Pan’s Labyrinth was a spiritual successor to The Devil’s Backbone, then I’d argue that del Toro’s latest film, The Shape of Water, is the spiritual successor to Pan’s. On the surface the differences are apparent: instead of being set around the Spanish Civil War, Water takes place in Cold War-era Baltimore. Instead of a lonely child protagonist, we have Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor working at a high-security lab. But dive below that surface and you’ll see the similarities. Elisa may have outgrown the fantasies that led Pan’s Ofelia into that Labyrinth, but the surreal waterlogged opening shots reveal the magic hiding in Elisa’s dreams. Both characters are on a journey to find their place and their purpose in the world — but how their journeys end depends entirely on how the audience chooses to read the film.
Much has been made of the romance in The Shape of Water, but the (emotional and yes, physical) love between Eliza and her Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) is merely the motivation that drives the rest of the story — and it’s the rest of the story that elevates the film. Elisa herself is a woman who leads an orderly existence, and a woman of simple pleasures. The film is frank when it comes to her day-to-day existence, putting bath-time masturbation on the same level as shining her shoes. But what the film never does is confuse being unfulfilled with being bored. Elisa finds joy in music and dance. She is exacting in her appearance even as she mops up urinals. She has great friends in her life, including her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), and her co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). They are all outcasts in their own ways (Giles is a struggling artist and an aging gay man, and Zelda is a Black woman living in the South, working nights and tending house for her unhelpful husband). These relationships are thriving long before Elisa meets her mysterious merman, and all the characters are rounded out with precision even though the film is unquestionably Elisa’s alone.
One night an “Asset” is transferred to the facility where Elisa and Zelda mop up: an aquatic creature discovered in South America, where it was revered as a god by the locals. Captured and brought to the States, the government is hoping the creature’s unique biology may hold the secrets to surviving in space. The man who accompanies the creature is Richard Strickland, played by Michael Shannon. He seems personally and religiously offended by the reality of the Amphibian Man, and leans on his cattle prod rather than science when attempting to wrangle the creature. But Strickland’s villainy extends far beyond his job, as evidenced by the keen focus he gives Elisa.
This film was already in the can by the time the #MeToo movement swept our social media accounts, but one scene in particular seems to be an unintentional meta-commentary on it. Strickland, it turns out, has a thing about silence. As such, he fetishizes Eliza specifically for her inability to speak — though he thinks he might be able to make her “squawk.” He knocks over some water as an excuse to summon her to his office, and proceeds to outline his interest in her. Sure, this is wildly inappropriate in the workplace, and he is a man in power. But the punch in the stomach is that Eliza literally can’t speak up to say no (it’s demonstrated later that Strickland doesn’t understand sign language).
This isn’t to say that Eliza can’t communicate, because she can! Sign language, yes, but there’s the physicality that Sally Hawkins brings to the role which makes you forget for long stretches of time that she’s not actually speaking. And it’s the character’s unique grasp of communication that makes her approach the Amphibian Man in her spare moments. She shares her food, and teaches him gestures and introduces him to music. Theirs is a relationship of kindred spirits, but that’s what all of Elisa’s relationships are, in the end. And that’s really the message of this fairy tale: those of us who can see past our differences to find the common ground that unites us are the real heroes, and the villains are those who only see the differences.
When the decision is made to simply dissect the creature and extract its secrets that way, Elisa is forced into action. She is aided by her friends, as well as a scientist with a secret (Michael Stuhlbarg), who rebels against the politics he’s embroiled in to do the right thing. The rest of the film is like E.T. with sex and bloodshed. And some of that bloodshed is indeed inflicted by the Amphibious Man, lest you forget that he’s part animal. He’s not evil, and he’s definitely misunderstood, but he’s also got urges and defense mechanisms. Elisa may think he’s cuddly, but…
Actually, I’ll let you in on a secret: he’s totally hot. This film is visually sumptuous and emotionally rich, but perhaps it’s greatest feat is making interspecies romance seem enticing.