"Unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me.
Your presence fills my eyes with your love,
it humbles my heart,for you are everywhere."
The Shape of Water is beautiful, touching, and celebrates the power of cinema while satirizing its oldest, most toxic tropes. Writer/director Guillermo del Toro's films are often visually spectacular, but The Shape of Water is one of his more thoughtful films (I haven't seen Pan Labyrinth, and yes, I know that makes me a horrible person). Dealing with themes of racism and the nature of social outcasts desperate for affection, The Shape of Water is sweetly romantic and hard-edged in all the best ways. The cast is stellar, the production design shines, and the story is full of unexpected little moments. It honestly has all the makings of a modern classic, and while the film's elevator pitch might sound off putting (what if the woman who always gets abducted by the Creature from the Black lagoon was... you know... into it?), it never feels like erotic Creature from the Black Lagoon fan fiction (even though it totally is, and I'm just fine with that).
The story follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman living in Baltimore in the early 1960s. Racial tensions are high and Cold War paranoia runs rampant around the country and at the government facility where she works as a janitor. Her African-American co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her gay neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) are her closest friends, but romantically, she is alone and desperate for sexual affection. She also really likes hard boiled eggs and sweeping Hollywood movies. One day at the facility, Elisa discovers a half-man/half-fish creature captured from South America by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Elisa and the Creature form a loving bond, and before Strickland and a scientist named Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) have the chance to dissect and kill the creature, Elisa devises a plot to break him out.
The Shape of Water is simultaneously a celebration and a satire of Old Hollywood, incorporating and subverting the tropes of sci-fi, horror, and musicals of the time ( Elisa even lives above a movie theater, if you needed any doubts). When del Toro saw The Creature from the Black Lagoon as a boy, he wanted to see a successful romance between the Creature and the woman he loves. You can see why one could argue for this being Del Toro's excuse to make erotic monster fan fiction, because Elisa's affection for the monster (and his for her) are explicitly sexual in nature. But the film has a sweet center, and Elisa is a wonderfully-realized character (no small writing feat when she can't speak). While the film is not a direct tie-in the Universal series, foreknowledge of how the original stories go is beneficial: the slimy, aquatic monster from South America falls in love (or is just attracted to) a woman, who he promptly tries to abduct. She must be saved by the handsome white man, and the monster can be killed like all outcasts should. That's the most cynical reading of the plot I could muster, and none of that mean-spirited attitude is present in The Shape of Water. You should only satirize the things you love, and it's del Toro's love for the classics that allows him to so deftly turn their cliches on their heads.
Take the Strickland, for instance, who is the film's ostensible villain. He's the very essence of the white, heteronormative, successful family man, but he's faced with characters and situations that challenge his status as "the norm." He's all the things that make up the bland "heroes" of the films of the 1950s and early '60s, but as the film progresses, this clean facade breaks down to reveal a character defined by toxic masculinity, bloodthirstiness, materialism, and a superiority complex. The way he treats the creature, Zelda, and the intellectuals he works with make him despicable, and all his actions are justified by the Red Scare and the ideals of the time. None of this is done with much subtlety when it comes to some of the scripting (and lack of nuance tends to hold the film back in other areas as well), but Strickland and every major character are still complex and richly defined.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Besides Hawkins and Shannon, both giving extraordinary performances, we have Octavia Spencer charming us to death with her humor and emotion and Richard Jenkins doing the same. Both are playing characters who are societal outcasts like Elisa and the Creature, and who have to step up to be more than society tells them they can be. Their stories function as a parallel to the unusual romance that takes center stage. It helps that they have wonderful dialogue written by del Toro himself and Vanessa Taylor, which exhibits wit and earnestness that never leans too saccharine or too cynical. The film has a light heart most of the time, but the way the actors react to some of the darker moments really sells the danger, and even though the stakes are relatively small when we hit the climax, we care a hell of a lot.
Brining The Shape of Water up another level are its lovely technical accomplishments. Del Toro's film are often known for their visual splendors (in some cases, that's all they have going for them), but the production design, music, and cinematography give the film the feeling of a modern fairy tale for adults. There are oddly fitting (and unmistakably) French touches, like Alexandre Desplat's score, the casual use of nudity and sex, and the layer of romance applied to the whole bizarre situation. The characters and situations are rooted in reality, but Paul Austerberry's production design whisks us away to a mythical land defined by art deco and steampunk. The use of shots through water and underwater are also quite beautiful, and left me with more than a few instantly iconic images.The Creature itself, played by the brilliant Doug Jones, is brought to life via suit and make-up techniques and the results are absolutely breathtaking. While I believe CGI was applied to his eyes to give them more animation, the majority of his effects (including bioluminescence and gills that move on their own) are done in-camera. His design exhibits just enough handsome, human-like traits that you can buy into Elisa's attraction to him, and while I would have liked the film to explore his personality a bit more, their relationship is very winning.
The social commentary, the Hollywood sendups and homages, and the outstanding performances are all just dressing on a film that truly thrives because of its enormous heart. Speaking as a gay man, it can be difficult to find relatable love stories in Hollywood films, but The Shape of Water seems designed to appeal to the misfits and the outsiders; to the old-fashioned romantics as well as the trailblazers. It may very well be a groundbreaking film for the genre (whichever one you decide to slot it into), and I'd even say that it's an important one. It may be a bit on-the-nose with some of its ideas, and it covers a hell of a lot of ground, but its artistic merits are damn near transcendent.