The most enduring stories last because they’re more than the sum of their parts. They’re never just about a king, or an orphan girl, or a monster. They stand for something greater and mean something deeper. They offer warning or comfort or instruction, helping us to make our way through the world.
Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is about so many things: war, sexuality, cinema, maybe even God. It pits the courage of the marginalized against the casual cruelty of American imperialism. It’s a plea for all of us to be kind and brave and good, in a way that actually counts. And all of this comes from a swooning romance about a mute janitor and a fish-man from the sea.
The Shape of Water opens like a fairy tale, with voiceover narration introducing us to a sleeping beauty he calls “a princess without voice.” This is Eliza (Sally Hawkins, incredible), a mute janitor who works nights in a scientific laboratory. Her life is small and predictable, though not without pleasure.
Then, one day, an “asset” is transported into the lab. The men treat it as a wild animal, and it kinda looks like one: humanoid in shape and size, but with scales, gills, and webbed fingers. Eliza, though, sees something in the merman (Doug Jones, heartbreaking even in small doses). She befriends him during her breaks, and then begins to fall for him. When she learns he’s about to be killed, she sets out to save him at any cost.
The Shape of Water is beautiful inside and out. It looks gorgeous: it’s designed and shot in such a way that it feels like it’s in danger of slipping into a reverie at any moment, and sometimes it actually does. (I was particularly delighted by a musical number late in the film.) And it sounds lovely, thanks to a dreamy score by Alexandre Desplat.
But it also has a beautiful soul. The Shape of Water is achingly tender and humane, and entirely earnest about everything it’s trying to do. (It’s also not very subtle, but at least it earns its metaphors.) It’s what makes the romance of The Shape of Water feel so intense – the elation of true love is untouched by cynicism or snark. What keeps it from getting cloying are its sense of humor (Octavia Spencer gets in some particularly good lines) and its smarts.
The screenplay, by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, has a lot on its mind. One of those things is the U.S.: This is a film set in Baltimore, in which the “good guys” are folks who don’t fit America’s brawny self-image. In addition to Eliza, a mute woman, and the Asset, a literal merman, there’s Zelda (Spencer), a black woman who works with Eliza, and Giles (a scene-stealing Richard Jenkins), a gay man who lives next door to Eliza.
The guy who does reflect our national psyche is Strickland (Michael Shannon), a successful white man who found the Asset, brought it to the lab, and now spends his time poking at the Asset with a cattle prod. He defines decency as strength and success, and in that sense, he is obsessed with being a very decent man indeed.
As you might imagine, he’s the villain of the piece, and he’s a chilling one precisely because he looks so familiar. He has a nice middle-class home, and a family he seems to like, and a boss (a five-star general) he really wants to impress. Shannon, and the film around him, strike the perfect balance between the monstrous and the painfully human.
In many mainstream American movies, violence is commonplace but sex is shocking. In The Shape of Water, it’s quite the opposite. The film is frank about desire and sexuality, even when what the body wants is something as unusual as a fish-man who until recently was living in a lab tank. It’s the violence that’s pathologized. Self-defense is one thing, but employing it as a means of domination is cruel and despicable.
In that way, The Shape of Water rewrites the usual fairy tale narrative. The roles of princess and knight and monster get shuffled around. Love is lifted up, and violence reexamined. What results is a story that feels both fresh and timeless – and desperately needed, at a time when the world feels mean. Let’s hope this one sticks around a while.