So, a mute, a black woman, a gay man, a racist, and a fish all walk into a bar. The bartender says, “I’d like to seat the fish, but we’re all out of bubbly.” Yea, I’m not gonna try that again.
Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water is so god damn playful. The first five minutes is a spot the reference game for any cinephile, from Cleopatra, to The Little Colonel, to Beauty and the Beast, to The Red Shoes. It’s a modern day fairy tale directly inspired by Creature from the Black Lagoon. Del Toro has always had the special talent of not just making random homages, any director can do that, but stringing those references together to make a story that feels familiar, yet completely new.
The film opens as Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) floats in her water-filled apartment (located above the Orpheum Theater), as if she’s in a fish bowl or Atlantis. As the water drains away, and the furniture slowly settles down, we know that we’re in a magical world. A fantasy very close to our own, set in the 1960’s and filled with race and issues of sexual orientation, and a fish-man (look out for him in the next Marvel film).
Elisa works as a cleaning lady in a government facility with Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a sassy black woman who’s only form of communication is complaining about her husband. Elisa is mute. Her only form of communication is sign language. It’s always difficult to portray someone who can’t verbalize words. We depend on language to exhibit emotion and tone, and acting is no different. When words are taken away, acting solely comes down to the body.
Hawkins’s performance is a study in sensory acting. She’s able to connect with what a mute person would feel, taste, and hear, and adds depth to a character that probably required a lot of excavating. On the other hand, I believe there are some real issues with the representation of Zelda. Spencer is a wonderful actress, and does what she can, but the character is too one note. It falls too close to the archetype of a sassy black woman. Yes, Zelda appears to be well educated, but we rarely hear it from her. Instead, her education is quite passive. Sure, she’s never going to raise her voice to a white man, but she doesn’t intellectualize much with Elisa either. That’s a missed opportunity by Del Toro.
Elisa is also teamed with Giles (Richard Jenkins), her gay cartoonist next-door neighbor. The scenes between Giles and Elisa provide most of the geeky cinephile moments too, as they watch old movies and classic tv-series like Mr. Ed (And yes, Mr. Ed is a “classic” tv-series). All three characters, Elisa, Giles, and Zelda, are opposed by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Oh, let me count the ways Shannon deserves and will get an Oscar one day. Lately, he’s been mostly pigeon-holed into authoritarian characters, but there’s no more intense performance than a Michael Shannon performance. His role as the racist candy popping, cattle prod wielding, nuclear family father and government agent with an attitude problem is one that only Michael Shannon could pull off. If this is Beauty and the Beast, then Shannon is Gaston, insensitive and too full of himself to know why.
However, it’s the romance between Elisa and a fish-man from South America, for lack of a better term, that sets the film apart. It certainly is the biggest hurdle for the audience. The challenge Del Toro has is that neither character can verbalize their words. So, while we know Elisa has humanity, Del Toro has to plead his case for the fish-man. For the most part, it’s tough sledding. Because while we see the fish-man use sign language to say “egg” or “music,” we’re not sure if he’s aware of the concepts as a language or as a form of mimicry.
Del Toro wisely uses intimacy, which makes the sexual maneuvering between fish-man and woman is probably one of the more funnier portions of film, to gain a sense of empathy. The Elisa-Fish-man romance is further wrapped around by references to French cinema, black-and-white musicals, and standards music. You can tell that Del Toro very much had fun making this romance come alive.
The Shape of Water is at its best when it’s silly. While there are moments of seriousness, such as instances of segregation, racism, and homophobia, the levity is what makes the film. Sure, those moments of othering are direct reflections upon how we view the fish-man, however, Del Toro’s playfulness, Elisa’s tap dancing, and Giles’s self-deprecation are what gives the film its emotional baselines. They make the moment of Elisa pleading with Giles to help the fish-man more powerful. They make those instances of sheer hopeless love stand out. I loved The Shape of Water, and I hope you do too.
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Photo Credit: Slashfilm