For a moment, let’s put aside allegations about plagiarism and the backlash we’ve heard, and talk about The Shape of Water. The film itself has a lot to offer: a lot to say about what goes unsaid. It is weird, it is wonderful, at times disturbing, but also quite beautiful. It certainly was moving and raised a lot of questions about how we communicate with each other, on a verbal, physical and spiritual level.
Before we are born, we live in water. We hear sounds as if through sonar. We need water to survive on earth, and it constitutes over 60% of our bodies. And for Elisa (Sally Hawkins), the water is a place where she finds what she has been hoping for in quiet desperation for years. She feels that she doesn’t belong to this world. A mute since childhood, she lives a lonely life, paying pennies for rent upstairs in a movie theatre and working nights as a cleaner at a research facility, ensconced just outside of Baltimore in 1963. But expect no Tracy Turnblad singing through the streets. This is a much more sober place, revealing furtively kept secrets under its glossy veneer.
Elisa has the gentle power to draw in those cast out by society, including her gay friend Giles (Richard Jenkins) and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). It is this quality that leads her to a remarkable series of encounters. When Elisa and Zelda are called in to clean up after an underhand experiment under ruthless Strickland (Michael Shannon), Elisa finds herself inexplicably drawn to the facility’s ‘asset’. The unusual companion she stumbles across is a metamorphosed half-man, half-fish (Doug Jones, the face of Del Toro’s other CGI experimentations). Indeed, there are echoes of Pan’s Labyrinth in the otherworldly encounter between girl and beast, and this particular creature might have walked (or swum) straight out of Ovid. After all, the film does have all the ingredients of a fable: the story that weaves between these two kindred spirits is fanciful enough to cause us joy and pain in equal measure.
Set in the Cold War, there is a sense of the pervasive but tacit suffocations of the nation, despite the fact that we see little of the real world outside Elisa’s vicinity. In classic Hollywood fashion, our window to the world is the television, that most didactic of teachers. From troubling news stories to classic movies, it reveals what is fundamental to American culture and, importantly, reveals our capacity both to love and to hate. And it’s just another way of condensing the events of the world around us into something palatable. When Elisa and Giles pick up a TV guide and start flicking, it shows just how easily we can switch off to the voices around us, hearing what we want to hear. The lapses in communication are evident on a national (as well as a personal) level.
For all its seclusion, though, this isolated world rarely seems claustrophobic — spacious sets reveal ambitious designs and give a sense of the diverse spheres we revolve around. The research facility might be icy and threatening; by contrast, Giles’ and Elisa’s apartments are shabby but enduringly homely. One can’t help but think of Amélie and her friendship with the Glass Man. The slick 1960s home that the Strickland family inhabits is no more than a facade for the loveless man that comes home to his children every day. And in turn, the theatre where characters find solace (in a friendly, self-reflexive nod to the audience) has a gorgeous interior, marked by sprawling neoclassical pillars and vibrant use of colour. Ironically, the film stars seem to have the perfect words in which to describe everything the characters need to express, but can’t articulate themselves.
Throughout the film, symbolism abounds, and Freud would go to town if he got the chance to see it. The post-war masculinity crisis is everywhere: Zelda’s husband rendered voiceless and immobile, a sparkly new teal Cadillac unceremoniously defaced. And the exploration of the use of language is key: we are given English, sign language and Russian to contend with. In an early sequence, the jovial but financially failing theatre manager shouts at an employee who mistakenly puts up the wrong letters, missing his pun on ‘Mardi Gras’. It seems that even signage on the streets is unable to fully communicate the author’s true intention.
Only Elisa and her amphibian friend have a true connection, a deep understanding, which transcends the level of verbal or written communication. The fundamental irony of this is so simple, and is what makes The Shape of Water so gripping. Perhaps what Del Toro wants to make clear, then, is that we really have to listen – we have to be attentive. In a world of mixed messages, conspiracy, and deep disaffection with authority, the only way to build trust is to communicate what we really mean to others.
The Shape of Water is in cinemas now. Images: IMDb