The Shape of Water (2017; dir. Guillermo del Toro) is a fantasy about a mute woman who falls in love with a creature captured by scientists in South America. He looks like the creature in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954; dir. Jack Arnold). So much about this film was novel, fanciful, unusual, off-kilter. It has elements of comedy and is definitely a satire on 1950s Cold War America. The creature itself (in the credits he is listed as Amphibian Man, played by Doug Jones, in heavy makeup) embodies the Other. He is, of course, a large amphibian with certain human features. He is intelligent, self-aware, and feels emotion. To the military, and to the Russian espionage agents who want to kidnap him, he is simply an “asset,” a thing to be vivisected and killed. The mute woman who works as a janitor in the research lab, Elisa Esposito, played by Sally Hawkins, is the only person able to recognize him for what he is. She lacks the ability to talk, and he has difficulty communicating as well—this draws them together and their bond gradually strengthens.
Michael Shannon is Colonel Richard Strickland, the evil director of the research lab where the creature is confined. He is a deliberate stereotype, the quintessential 1950s American man, rigid in his thinking, narcissistic, materialistic, ambitious at the cost of all others. When he has sex with his wife, he puts his arm across her mouth so he doesn’t have to hear her respond. He is attracted to Elisa because she is mute and tries to come on to her. He is singularly focused on his career, on himself, on following orders. He refuses to consider that the creature in his lab might be worth keeping alive. He is especially angry that the creature bit off two of his fingers in an early encounter.
Elisa’s roommate, Giles (Richard Jenkins) is a middle-aged illustrator, a recovering alcoholic who draws hyper-traditional magazine covers (in the style of Norman Rockwell). Along with Elisa, he watches saccharine 1940s and 50s musicals. They’re both romantics. Occasionally, he takes her to dinner, but there is nothing sexual between them. He’s timid and unassertive, afraid to make waves, but in the end, he becomes Elisa’s ally in her attempt to save the creature, as does a scientist in the lab, an undercover spy who doesn’t agree with his Russian superiors that the creature should be killed to prevent the Americans from studying it.
The creature may be an alien being. He has the ability to heal the humans around it, and when he is aroused his skin illuminates in beads of bluish-green light. The natives in the jungle where he was captured are said to have worshipped him, and Giles even wonders whether he might be a god. The movie doesn’t encourage or pursue such possibilities. This film is, after all, a fantasy, so there is no surprise that he is a fantastic creature. While many 1950s and 60s monster films portrayed threatening creatures as soulless horrors, this film takes the opposite tack.
The soundtrack consists of lush romantic music, mostly by Alexandre Duplat, composed in 1940s and 50s styles, some of it performed by contemporary singers such as Renee Fleming. A scene reminiscent of La La Land (2016; dir. Damien Chazelle) shows the creature and Elisa dancing a waltz in the style of Rogers and Astaire. (I was far more charmed by this film than by La La Land). Clips from period movies and television shows and news broadcasts embed the film in its time period. The film is lushly romantic. Accordion music that recurs throughout the film almost makes one think that it’s a French romantic musical. Yet its commentary on racism, homophobia, otherness, scientific research, military indifference is serious.
All elements of this film cohere in a nearly seamless and wholly entertaining experience. The neon color palette is wonderful. The Shape of Water is a love story, an espionage thriller, a comedy, a study of 1950s Cold War America, and an enthralling, emotionally fulfilling cinematic achievement. I think this film was even better than del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), which itself was quite a remarkable film.