Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a Very Strange Film. It tells a story in the dark fantasy/science fiction realm, one that would fit quite at home in a dime store comic book, but with a very adult level of violence and sexuality. Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a mute woman working as a janitor in a Large Government Facility. She has a Gay Best Friend, played by a wonderfully wise Richard Jenkins, with whom she watches elaborately-costumed Hollywood musicals on the telly. Jenkins has a crush on the guy who sells him pies at a nearby diner, but is otherwise sexless; he exists primarily so del Toro can later make a Reference To Homophobia.
At work, Elisa’s best bud is a Sassy Black Woman named Zelda, played pretty much to perfection by Octavia Spencer, who has this sort of role down pat. Zelda is expert at making the kind of facial expressions and body gestures that litter the animated GIFs one sees on Twitter Dot Com and other social media sites. Zelda occasionally references her home life, but exists primarily to help Elisa communicate (she understands sign language) and to provide The Shape of Water with a few References To Racism.
The meat of the film, though, involves just what’s going on at the Large Government Facility at which Elisa works. Michael Shannon plays an army colonel who has brought back a strange creature from the Amazon that the credits identify as Amphibian Man. And, indeed, he looks like a sort of cross between Aquaman and a fish. Shannon, in his role as The Shape of Water’s Bad Guy, gets to torture the poor creature so we feel bad for it, and with Elisa provides del Toro with more than a few References To Sexism.
As you may have gleaned from the trailers, Elisa and Amphibian Man form a bond. She teaches him sign language, feeds him eggs, and before you know it the two are pals. Then… more than pals. A lot more.
It was about at this point that I began to wonder what Guillermo del Toro was really trying to accomplish with The Shape of Water. He ostensibly sets it in the 1960s, but the world is so deliberately artificial it announces itself right away. Like Back to the Future, it doesn’t really take place in the past, but in our American Cultural Idea of the past. These References To Homophobia, Racism, and Sexism tickle our 21st century cultural sensibilities, but they feel like little more than rib jabs. Del Toro doesn’t really make them a comment on society, like similar plot points in Mad Men did; they seem there just to add texture. But like the graphic violence, it’s an incongruous texture, and these elements stick out like the Proverbial Sore Thumb.
The most troublesome rib jab is the centrepiece of the whole shebang: the relationship between Elisa and Aquaman—er, Amphibian Man. Interspecies pairings are not a new concept in fantasy and science fiction, but here it’s never exactly clear if this is a union of equals or not. Elisa has taught Amphibian Man sign language, sure, but he never really communicates above the level of Koko the Gorilla. Whether their relationship is merely transgressive or fully bestial is left up to the viewer. (I’ve seen a couple commentators try to make the claim that The Shape of Water is therefore some kind of gay/queer allegory, but to say that’s a stretch would be unreasonably charitable.)
As the credits rolled on The Shape of Water, I sank back in my chair trying to work through what I had just seen: a very entertaining story, exquisitely acted by everyone—especially Shannon, who chews on his line deliveries like he’s savouring a steak. It’s filled to the brim with great ideas, but doesn’t seem to know what it wants to say about them. It’s a great-looking pie, but hasn’t spent enough time in the oven.