By Angelica Chong, Staff Writer
On the surface, “The Shape of Water” is a fantasy romance between a mute cleaning lady and an Amazonian fish-man, with classic Cold War espionage and B-horror movie touches thrown in for good measure. Elisa Esposito, played by the quietly luminous Sally Dawkins, is a quiet, unobtrusive janitor at a research center that soon houses a new “asset” (the unnamed fish-man, played by Doug Jones) and his government handler Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). She quickly takes an interest in the fish-man, feeding him hard-boiled eggs and playing him music, even as Strickland and his superiors plot his vivisection. The action plot is rather straightforward, with Elisa and her motley crew of friends – Zelda, a fellow janitor (Octavia Spencer), Giles, her artist neighbor (Richard Jenkins) and Dr. Hoffstetler, one of the facility’s scientists (Michael Stuhlbarg) – spiriting the fish-man away and eventually setting him free. By all accounts, it is a wonderfully weird mix of elements that isn’t unusual for genre film buff and alchemistic director Guillermo del Toro. However, as with most del Toro movies, these seemingly random and clashing generic frameworks effectively highlight the constructed binaries that shape the period’s anxieties, reflected at the modern audience as we go through equally trying times.
The film’s setting in 1962 is an important one. Beyond the ever-present specter of the Cold War, there is an intense need to concretize and valorize America’s imagination of itself in opposition to an undesirable other, be it the Soviet communist or the societal deviant. This is clear in the confrontation between square-jawed, government-certified all-American soldier Strickland, who pisses hands-free and prefers missionary, and Elisa, the disabled working-class woman who falls in love with an amphibious fish-man, and her friends, an African-American janitor, a gay artist, and an undercover Russian agent more passionate about science than patriotic.
The American fantasy that Strickland represents and upholds bleeds through in green, a color motif reminiscent of Daisy’s green light as the “fresh, green breast of the new world” in “The Great Gatsby.” When Giles brings Elisa to a diner for pie, the perky waiter, whom Giles has a crush on, reveals that he’s actually from Ottawa, his country twang merely a job requirement. When Giles reaches out tentatively, the waiter is immediately disgusted. Here, Southern hospitality is a corporate strategy and the diner’s bright green pie is cloyingly artificial. Elisa spits the green out, disgusted, even as Strickland imbibes this nationalistic ethos in the form of the sugary green candies he chews compulsively. Yet we see cracks in this grotesque wash of emerald, from the destruction of Strickland’s brand new “teal” Cadillac to the defiant pops of color in Elisa’s red headband and matching shoes after the fish-man is successfully rescued and the crimson coat she wears when she swims away with him in the end. The play with color is not subtle, but del Toro’s framing of the film as a fairytale allows for and necessitates this lush imaginative landscape.
One would expect the romance between Elisa and the fish-man to take center stage – and it certainly is a key driving force for the film – but the center of its emotional universe is the spirit of kindness and generosity that we see between Elisa and her comrades, amidst a world that rejects them for their difference. The fish-man is only the most obvious example of the Other, but the disgust of the American establishment for all of them is the same when Strickland calls him an “abomination” as when he refers to Zelda as “you people.” What Strickland doesn’t understand is the pure dishonesty and ultimately hollow nature of the American ideal he clings to. He wields its weapons and enforces its ideals, but even he is not immune to its oppressive demands for perfection. Early on, two of his fingers are bitten off by the fish-man; they are reattached but never quite take, and throughout the course of the film they bleed, decay and blacken. Strickland cannot stop the rot that quite literally renders him incomplete, although he never becomes self-aware enough to realize, let alone resist, the insidious cruelty of the system he stands behind.
“The Shape of Water” is a more expansive film than it lets on, and beautifully so. In a post-screening Q&A at the Angelika Film Center last weekend, del Toro spoke about his vision behind the film.
“We have been sliced into the thinnest pieces by ideology, a kind of inherited false knowledge,” he said. “Today, to be emotional is the riskiest position to take.”
In the film, the bravest characters are the ones who give themselves to their emotions. The success of the film lies not just in dismantling the falseness of the American ideal, but in celebrating humanity’s capacity for genuine love, empathy and community. In the world that Elisa dreams, fish-men are lovely, life is a musical and fairytales can come true.
“The Shape of Water” opened in New York theaters on Friday, Dec. 1.