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“The Shape of Water”: Connection Transcending Species and Silence

By Lindsey DeRoche; A&E Editor
On April 1, 2018

Director Guillermo del Toro has quite the impressive track record as a director, screenwriter and producer. With renowned films like “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the “Hellboy” series and “Pacific Rim,” del Toro already seems to have proven not only cinematic capability, but prowess. While seamlessly shifting between the genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror and action, his films always have a flavor of darkness or intriguing oddity that is satisfying in its own right.

del Toro’s newest film,“The Shape of Water,” which he wrote, directed and produced, cleaned house at the Oscars this year. After premiering on December 1 in the United States, it went on to win Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Score and Best Production Design. This film, which is a tasteful and refreshing blend of fantasy and science fiction, only continued to amass buzz after the awards ceremony.

The film stars Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a non-verbal woman of what seems to be her late twenties or early thirties, who communicates via sign language. The film takes place in Baltimore during the Cold War. Early on, it is established that Elisa lives a rather solitary, empty existence. She does have friends, such as her co-worker and at-work interpreter, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and her close friend and neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins). But, it seems that a blend of Elisa’s inability to speak and her naturally meek disposition have closed her off from most of the world.

Though her character lives a life that clearly feels alienating and lonely, Elisa still manages a rather conventional American existence--she works nights cleaning a government base. It is at this base, which is working tirelessly to outwit and out-weapon its Russian rivals, where Elisa’s melancholic and mundane world finally gains a glimpse of color.

While cleaning a laboratory within the base during one of her shifts with Zelda, Elisa watches soldiers and scientists bring in a new specimen. The two women are quickly shuffled out, as the whole affair is top-secret. Viewers quickly learn that the specimen is an amphibious creature of some sort, which also possesses strikingly human-esque physical qualities. We learn that the creature was captured from South America (where he had been worshipped as a god) by the film’s antagonist, Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon).

Once Elisa discovers the creature that inhabits the laboratory, which she is now assigned to routinely clean during shifts, she realizes how seemingly-human it is, both in appearance and behavior. Not only does this creature look to be part man while standing, it responds to music, and even learns how to sign from her. Swiftly, she reaches out to the creature with tenderness and care, as she can tell that most of the soldiers and scientists who oversee its housing are cruel and abusive to it.

Elisa and the human-like creature quickly develop a deep bond, one which seems to evolve from friendship to some level of romantic attraction. This bond is difficult to articulate, let alone explain. Societal norms definitely don’t lend themselves to completely understanding the meaningful, yet interspecies relationship that Elisa and the creature form. But, at the same time, I didn’t find the concept overly “creepy” or “taboo.”

I saw the pairing as odd, and something that would never happen in reality. However, I also saw two characters (one human and one very similar to human) who had both always been alone and silent, and had finally found someone else to connect with and understand them. Through their silence, they formed a bond, a love even, that appeared stronger than that of many others in the film who could communicate with sound.

I would argue that del Toro was aiming for this kind of “feeling torn” about the relationship; he must have wanted, or at least anticipated, viewers finding the relationship simultaneously strange and endearing. del Toro certainly earned his screenplay Oscar, in my opinion, with this dialogue-sparking film concept.

Though the film’s main focus is on Elisa, her isolated life and her connection with the amphibious, yet human-esque, creature, “The Shape of Water” also does a phenomenal job at weaving in social issues, which were even more potent during the Cold War era than now, throughout the plot. Her neighbor and close friend, Giles, is a closeted gay man. The film makes a point to show how he longs for romantic connection, just like Elisa, but is bound to a more metaphorical brand of silence due to society’s stigma regarding homosexuality, especially during the time the film is set.

In addition, racism is dealt with through different dialogue and depicted behavior within the film (e.g. people of color being asked to leave a restaurant and other blatantly racist remarks peppered throughout). Each instance is painful to watch, and especially painful to see be “accepted”or “expected” based on the time period. And, though not the same brand of social issue, the often-taboo subjects of female sexuality and sexual longing are tackled without apology or shyness via Elisa’s insinuated sexual frustration in the first half of the film, as well as her romantically seeking out an intimate connection with the human-esque creature.

To be completely honest, I wasn’t sure if I would like this movie. I went into it with an open mind, but I don’t normally enjoy fantasy or sci-fi in films. However, something about this film, whether it be the originality, the tenderness or the probing of the human (and not-so-human) yearning/need for connection, won me over immensely. This is one of the most genuinely endearing films of the last few years. And, though Elisa’s character never says anything audibly, she delivers some of the most powerful lines of the movie.

If you are willing to entertain the notions of fantasy and science fiction in order to truly enjoy a movie with layers upon layers of intelligent work and examination of connection, I highly recommend “The Shape of Water.”

 

 

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