In his genre-bending film The Shape of Water, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro is the master of duality, creating a work both harrowing and sensual: an idealistic fairytale and a portrayal of a universal, harsh reality.
Feel free to jump to any section of the review.
- Themes and Motifs
- Biggest Strength of the Film
- Final Remarks
1. Themes and Motifs
From the opening narration (revealed to be a neighbor, Giles) the protagonist Elisa Esposito is described as a “princess.” Elisa is mute, and she works as a janitor at a government laboratory in Baltimore; the film is set in 1963, during the Cold War. Early on, we see the juxtaposition of a dreamlike world and imperfection. Elisa is punished time and time again for her disability by ruthless peers, but we also note that she is described as being beautiful and royal, even perfect.
Elisa maintains a close relationship– one of her only friendships– with her closeted neighbor Giles. and When Giles and Elisa watch a dance show on TV, Elisa describes it as “different but beautiful” then tries to dance herself. No doubt, she is describing herself, albeit unintentionally. This immediately establishes the theme for the rest of the movie; it is also the first of many moments del Toro basically hands us, the audience, what to think and take away from his film.
Colonel Richard Strickland serves as the antagonist, overseeing the project of taking care of the Fishman. Anger boils in his eyes, as well as an insatiable desire to be important; he makes fulfilling his duties a life-or-death matter. On the surface, the threat of his motivations comes from the fact that he wants to kill the Fishman; in reality, del Toro is packaging him as the force that seeks to destroy the “Other.” This is not hard to understand: Strickland makes many racist comments, especially toward Elisa’s fellow janitor and interpreter, Zelda, who is an African American woman. To paraphrase, he says in one scene that the Lord looks “maybe more like me than you,” going on to undermine Zelda’s intelligence. When explaining that Amazonians worshipped the creature as a God, Strickland adds, “Well, they were primitive.”
The “Others” in the film are the disabled, the people of color, the LGBTQ+, and the non-American (not exactly an immigrant in the plot, but maybe it can stand for it too) represented by Elisa, Zelda, Giles, and Hoffstetler (the Soviet spy who wants to save the Fishman) respectively. Over and over again, the “Others” are oppressed by the white man. In one scene, a restaurant owner (a white man) chases out a black couple who enters, as well as Giles when he tries to makes a move on him. Strickland also describes the janitors as “the shit cleaners, the piss wipers.”
The colors in this film are also key to understanding the film. What everyone should have caught was the overwhelming presence of green and blue, but not everyone might have notice the slow appearances of red and orange over the course of the film. Green and red are opposite colors on the color wheel, meaning they create maximum contrast. I understand teal to be the central color symbolizing the Fishman’s aquatic world, while red represents sensuality.
After she first communicates with the Fishman using eggs, the sun shines on Elisa’s face in the train. More red lights flash on the train ride after she has sex with the Fishman– Elisa gradually wears a red dress, red headband, red shoes. She begins embodying sensuality that was once foreign to her, once withheld from her.
As for teal, when the team of “Others” escape with the Fishman in a truck, they destroy Strickland’s flashy new teal Cadillac. Call me out for reading too much into it, but I saw this as a punishment for perverting teal. Strickland wanted to commercialize teal while harming the lives of people and creatures who tried to preserve the wonder of the fantastical oceanic world.
2. Biggest Strength of the Film
I would like to praise The Shape of Water most for its questions about the tension between reality and fantasy. Before being killed by the Fishman, Strickland mutters, “Fuck. You are a god.” And the fact that someone– something– more grotesque, more imperfect than him is a god… what does that say?
As I mentioned above, the TV shows and movies that characters so adore represent fantasy, what seems like the ideal world and life. Further, Elisa and Giles live on top of a movie theater. This placement is interesting; does this mean that they are above, or their lives are beyond, fantasy and perfection? When Elisa and the Fishman have sex in a flooded bathroom, the water– their love– spills down into the movie theater; it overwhelms fantasy. But in one scene, Elisa finds the Fishman in the movie theater, completely mesmerized by the movies.
Therefore, del Toro leaves the question up for us to decide if Elisa and the Fishman’s romance is more beautiful or perfect than fantasy. Does its strangeness and imperfection exceed or fall short of the TV shows and movies they so admire?
Sigmund Freud once wrote, “I am getting used to considering every sexual act as a process involving four individuals.” I don’t remember where I read this explanation/interpretation, but someone said that the four individuals are 1) partner A, 2) partner B, 3) partner A as s/he exists in partner B’s mind, and 4) partner B as s/he exists in partner A’s mind. I felt this was a gorgeous and absolutely accurate statement about relationships or “sexual acts.”
In the case of Elisa and the Fishman, I felt this interpretation was completely true. What Elisa fell in love with was the Fishman’s perception of her: “When he looks at me, the way he looks at me… He does not know, what I lack… or how I am incomplete. He sees me, for what I am, as I am,” she signs.
Of course, I have some reservations about the film. I felt the scene with Elisa singing and dancing on a stage with the Fishman was a little odd and out of place. The scenes with Russian spies were also not fully integrated into the rest of the plot; it felt awkward and disjointed.
I also felt that its social commentary, while definitely well-intentioned, was too one-dimensional. Almost like Animal Farm’s “Four legs good, two legs bad,” del Toro simplifies discrimination to “white man bad, everyone else good.” Sure, this was in the Cold War, but I still feel that del Toro could have trusted the audience to make sense of more nuanced manifestations of discrimination. To quote RogerEbert.com, “At its worst, using these real-life events feels like a shorthand, a too-obvious pointing out of the similarities between the real world and the fairy tale, in case we didn’t get it.”
4. Final Remarks
Obviously, most people were astonished or appalled by the apparent “selling point” of the film: the romance between Elisa and a man-fish-thing. After all, Huffington Post published an article titled “How Weird, A Movie About Fish Sex Became Awards Season’s Consensus Vote.”
I myself could not fully accept the peculiar romance, but I concede there is plenty to learn from it– how something you can’t understand can actually be beautiful, etc. What I found myself returning to time and time again was the struggle to reconcile fantasy and reality, and I think del Toro did a praiseworthy job of planting that seed in our heads.
Many critics have said the film offers necessary make-believe in this time of difficult reality. But this film is not all fantasy. Far from it. It is powerful exactly because it is not all fantasy— the tension between the perfect life and romance Elisa and the Fishman are hoping to achieve and the idealistic movies and TV shows is moving and thought-provoking.
Elisa and the Fishman created their own kind of perfection and fairytale in the face of odds that stood against them and while preserving their imperfections: Elisa, her muteness, and the Fishman, his otherworldlyness. The coexistence of fantasy and reality: that is the crux of the film.
I will give the film a 94/100.
After every review, I will provide links to a variety of opinions to avoid implying that a film was all good or all bad.
A very thought-provoking review: Chicago Reader – The Shape of Water is wondrous, but woefully narrow-minded