An allegorical tale of the co-existence between human and monster, The Shape of Water confirms that director Guillermo Del Toro’s hands on magic realism is masterful, and his breakthrough with 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth was not a fluke.
Set in the outbreak of the Cold War, The Shape of Water follows the life of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a rendered mute, who works as a janitor for a classified, underground government laboratory. She soon caught herself in the middle of unraveling the secrecy of her workplace: the imprisonment of a sea monster with omniscient abilities. Government officials use it to conduct tests and experiments in preparation to beat the Soviet Union in the Space Race.
As a mute, Elisa’s livelihood is limited to blue collar jobs, yet she treats it with such dedication and finesse, as if she works as a corporate professional. This suggests that, despite being categorized in a lower social status, she is never sub par in her own terms as that has always been her reality. Her condition is never reliant to the definition of others. The first few scenes show how she revolves in her own world — the way she delicately presses her clothes, prepares her bath and brushes her shoes before going to work, taking so much pride in what she does — she never sees herself as someone any lesser.
Despite being, a love story between a woman and a monster, Del Toro’s approach to the film is never about bestiality. He used the concept of the monster’s existence as if they are the patron saints of imperfection. This is parallel towards the imperfect life of Elisa, mirroring to that of the sea creature — both are living beings suffering the alienation because of their differences and abnormalities. Del Toro’s direction never leans towards the path of eerie and horror — it was simply a story between two broken souls who possess compassion, sympathy, and the ability to look beyond the each others’ disabilities.
The production design played a vital role in expressing the undertones of the characters’ emotions. During the scenes where Elisa is at home, the film felt claustrophobic — suggesting the character’s imprisonment in the tight spaces of her home because of her condition. The lighting is dark, yet it exposed little yellow lights here and there, almost sepia — suggesting that she never sees hopelessness in her world. As she goes to work, the cinematography changes from tight closeups to wide, panorami shots — this shows how big the world around her is, and she didn’t seem to be bothered by it. This serves as a contrast between her reality and the world; it suggests how little she is for anyone to even bother notice her.
The screenplay used Chekhov’s Gun technique in the film, particularly on how Elisa shows her care and affection to others. The hard-boiled egg was utilized thoroughly to express this intent. The first scene shows how much she takes time and effort to cook these eggs, basically almost every morning; she then gives them to Giles (Richard Jenkins), her long-time friend. He rejects it; stating that she “need not to bother”. The sea monster is the only one who accepts it; ultimately, “egg” becomes the first English word it learns. The egg symbolizes a woman’s capacity to nourish, and perhaps this is something that Elisa has been long waiting to offer to someone who will accept what she can give. She found this in the monster. Keep in mind that her capabilities to give are limited, thus every little thing meant a whole lot to her.
Sally Hawkins’ performance is the heart of the film. Given that her character didn’t have any speaking lines, a lot had to be said with every muscle in her face. Every stare, her eyes pierce with a hundred layers of emotions. Her mouth moves as if she is dying to speak her entire life. Her body language vibrates what she feels inside; every tick of a finger and every stomp of her foot made me feel something from her. She didn’t need a word to convey these emotions. I felt her contentment; I felt her simple joys, I felt her sexual frustrations; I felt her anguish; I felt her love for the monster. Hawkins’ gave the best female performance of the year.
The film used music and dance in fantasy sequences to display the subconscious of Elisa. In scenes where her emotions are too overwhelming not even sign language can express it, Del Toro shifts to a monochromatic musical number where she dances and sings as if she were in a musical. The film used the dream-like landscapes and elements of fantasy as a remedy for an inconvenient reality. This supports Elisa’s love for tap-dancing, and watching TV shows where flapper girls are dancing in jitterbug shows; her love for music and dance is an escapade from her own mundane life.
Overall, The Shape of Water embodies exactly what its title suggests — it’ll fill ever corner of your being, and how indefinite its form is gives you a thousand possibilities of what to feel while watching the movie. A monumental achievement for Guillermo Del Toro for, one again, giving a whiplash of his magic realist genius. Clearly, one of the best films of 2017.