By Allen Callaci
Imagine if Julia Adams responded to the sea monster’s romantic longing in the 1954 classic Creature from the Black Lagoon with affection as opposed to horror. Therein lies the central conceit of Guillermo del Toro’s achingly haunting 21st century fairy tale The Shape of Water. This recent release plays like a long-forgotten fairytale where true love prevails and the dark forces that act to undermine love get their fingers gnawed off at the knuckle by a misunderstood amphibious monster.
In other words, a film for the whole family.
Like David Lynch, Tim Burton and Wes Anderson, del Toro’s singular vision instantly becomes recognizable. Connective tissue links all his films. He presents a world in which sympathetic monsters share DNA with the classic Universal monsters of yore combined with fairytale, myth, and the gothic beauty of the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and/or the horrific and twisted etchings of artist Bernie Wrightson.
Del Toro never shies away from dressing the most serious themes in the comic-book macabre. His 2006 release Pan’s Labyrinth offered a meditation on war and innocence as seen through the eyes of a young girl who creates her own internal fantasy world as a means to cope with the waking nightmare of the war that surrounds her. The Shape of Water reflects on the unfathomable nature of love as represented by the unlikely attraction between a lowly, mute janitor and a trapped amphibious creature.
This new film avoids the simplistic cliché of opposites attracting. It owes not a dime to romantic comedies like Sleepless in Seattle in which people with seemingly nothing in common worm their way towards one another. Instead, del Toro presents a tale of two similarly damaged, lonesome souls finding and recognizing one another, two fish out of water trying to make their way back to the ocean.
The Shape of Water bites deep into the traditional romantic fairytale lore and leaves only the core. The typical fairytale romance/romantic comedy rests on the premise that love is rooted in change. Love can transform the fiercest of beasts into the gentlest of souls, a persecuted servant girl into a princess and a frog into a prince with a single kiss. In The Shape of Water love derives from acceptance—a timely message in a society obsessed with makeovers, crash diets, and Botox injections to the forehead.
“When he looks at me, he does not know – how – I am incomplete. He sees me… as I am,” Elisa responds to her co-worker when asked about her attraction to the amphibious creature held captive at the government lab where she works as a lowly cleaning lady. Elisa, a mute, sees herself reflected in him: silent, detached from “normal” society, and alone. Like him, she exists both literally—and figuratively—without a voice.
Elisa forms a connection with the creature using the language of art like other outcasts throughout human history. Through film, painting, and song they express their mutual love.
The film’s belief in art as the universal language of love plays out in a vivid black-and-white, old-school, dreamy music-and-dance sequence in the film’s final act. In this scene, we finally hear Elisa’s voice as she sensuously croons a breathy version of “You’ll Never Know How Much I Love You”—a moment worthy of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. What sounds campy and ridiculous turns into the most romantic moment at a multiplex in recent memory.
In three transcendent and hopelessly romantic minutes, this movie restores our faith in celluloid magic, without a trace of saccharine. A fairytale happy ending if ever there was one.
The Shape of Water, with its well-deserved R-rating, is a fairytale, but it is not one for children. It is a fairytale for the ages. Like any fairytale worth its weight in magic dust, morals abound: love, like water, has no singular shape. Its shape is determined by its surroundings. It can be as infinite as the Pacific Ocean or as minuscule as a three-milliliter polyethylene eyedropper. The shape of water, like the shape of love, is as limited or as boundless as the parameters that we place around it.