Essay: Visceral Experiences in Media: The Shape of Water

Guillermo Del Toro is a master craftsman of the simplicity and elegance of linear storytelling. He creates modern fable-films, tales that are explicit in their portrayal of good and evil, even if he is presenting the typically evil as inherently good. He gives you no doubt whatsoever that Hellboy will overcome his destiny as the destroyer of worlds to in fact save it. You know that even in tragedy, Ofelia has triumphed and ascended to the throne she belongs in, lovingly looking over the fae. You even know that beyond being smart-asses and a little over-confident, the Jaeger Pilots care about the world they live in and will die to protect it. He’s a man of horror and science and philosophy, but not egotistically so.

Every movie he’s made is completely digestible to the appropriately aged audience who sees it with an open mind, even if not all of them have found some kind of critical acclaim. I can personally admit that Crimson Peak, for example, felt lacking in some character depth, though at the very least, where he offers complexity is in the visual spectacle. In his successes, he also offers a challenge against simply accepting those things in our society that are so blatantly corrupt and against our very humanity.

To the point, I recently watched ‘The Shape of Water’ and wept alone in my car for the experience of seeing it. If you have any intention on seeing it, please don’t read this, not yet. There will be some mild spoilers, and I’d rather someone waited to check out this blog post than ruin their own experience going into the theater.

Elisa and Giles

For those unfamiliar, ‘The Shape of Water’ is set in 1960s Baltimore, following the mundane, yet colorful, eccentric life of a mute woman named Elisa. She works as a member of a government facility cleaning staff, shares a love of old musicals and illustration with her neighbor, and masturbates most mornings in a pleasantly warm tub of water while her breakfast heats. She is a real woman who dreams of far off places, astonishing in her silent charm as played by the infinitely talented Sally Hawkins, but outcast enough to represent the many of us who feel as Del Toro does: that perhaps deep down, we are part-monster ourselves, atypical and strange and unfit for this puzzle of life society has shut us up in, and yet, that isn’t that exactly what makes us so human after all?

Every sentiment that Guillermo Del Toro has this film represent is nothing new, it’s nothing that hasn’t been said by countless other people already. The difference is the manner in which he translates them, his poetic love song (one might even say his fan fiction) to the Creature from the Black Lagoon and Kay Lawrence of what could have been. The horrific tones surrounding a humanoid monstrosity are still present, but instead are reflected in the most average figure of a man, a white man in a position of power during a period of unrest and complete submission to the whims of the government’s secrecy. Our villain is a man who used to be seen as the ‘hero’, someone actually cold, arrogant, and every bit as lifeless and joyless as one with a major superiority complex can possibly be. MinovskyArticle says it best,

The romance and magic, on the other hand, is purely given to the creature (Charlie is apparently the Asset’s name, though this is never spoken in-film), and Elisa, and it can feel quite strange to see how easily you fall into love along with them. But you do. You’re swung around in a dance to the same old classics held to interrogation here, movies that perhaps shaped the narrative of ‘The Shape of Water’ by offering the sweetness that Guillermo imagined for the exact opposite characters in question. You want them to win, you want these two characters to be together and you can’t even understand how you’re so attached to a mer-creature that is still thoroughly animalistic.

Elisa and the Asset’s Dream Sequence

But then there is also something about Elisa. Our first time seeing her is suspended within an apartment filled to the brim with greenish ocean water, furniture casually floating about until it settles and the dream ends with a blaring alarm clock. The moment I saw three striped scars at each side of Eliza’s neck, I knew they were gills. I absolutely knew it, and yet the moment it finally was revealed, my breath was taken from me. Of course she was found by a river. Of course she’s always had those scars, of course could never speak, of course she connected immediately with the Asset. What has her life been, how is she any different from this creature? The intensity in which Hawkins signed out her most important speech, of seeing and loving people for who they are, seeing past what they were not and what they didn’t have, is so utterly profound and beautiful a moment, I’m amazed I didn’t completely break down right then and there. It took me walking to my car in the cold to suddenly lose grip and let it out. Keeping in mind Sally Hawkins using American Sign Language to speak entirely with her body’s venting frustration, her passion for a good cause hindered with danger and uncertainty, this is what she says:
And what am I? I move my mouth–like him–and I make no sound–like him. What does that make me? All that I am, all that I’ve been–ever–brought me here, to him. The way he looks at me, he doesn’t know what I lack…or how I am incomplete. He just sees me for what I am. As I am. And he is happy to see me, every time. Every day. And now I can either save him now or let him die. Never see his eyes, see me again. I will not let that go.”


The Asset and Elisa

The beauty of this simple story is the mirror it holds out to you, the question of your own humanity and monstrosity, what hurt you’ve endured for being who you are. When I was in high school, I had a friend who over the course of a Summer apart, quickly became a thorn in my day upon returning to school that following year, largely to do with my coming out. Where I’d felt I was trying to finally open my true self to people I thought loved me, it instead became a whirlwind reaction that turned sleepovers and weekend shopping trips into being cornered and isolated me in a way that no one was willing to defend, but also formed a kind of witch-hunt. I was targeted in multiple ways, including on a walk home from school where a group of some ten girls physically beat me in ways I still carry scars from.

This film touched me because it was both shy and forward about allowing its characters to be who they were, from Octavia Spencer’s ‘Zelda’, roughing it through a stale marriage and the racist, disrespectful views of the antagonistic overseers, to the openly gay Giles, played by Richard Jenkins, who is not only rejected by a man he fawns over day in and out, but comes to see the venomous prejudice that most people of that time simply allowed and bought into. The story follows their hopeful attempts, their shame and humiliation, and ultimately, their triumph in holding steadfast to the truth of their heart and their soul, regardless of the difficulty and terror they faced. In fact, they all protect one another, despite their doubt and question for what was law, versus what was RIGHT. It felt like a note, handed to me from my younger self, hoping that I was still around all these years later, and honestly, I think A LOT of people felt this way watching ‘The Shape of Water’, people that have experienced varying sorts of abuse for being different, for being a ‘monster’, or people that have stood up for others struck down for what they can’t help being.

Dr. ‘Robert Hoffstetler’, Elisa, and the Asset

‘The Shape of Water’ is another piece of Del Toro’s legacy as a film-maker, but it’s finally a story told the exact way he needed and wanted to tell it, and for it to be gaining such recognition as a Golden Globe and multiple other major nominations beyond just visual effects and film score makes me swell with pride for him, like I would a friend. It’s really silly, I don’t know the man, but I don’t care.

Maybe this movie will serve to encourage us all to seek within, to stand up for one another, to look at what was considered ‘wrong’ and try to actually understand any of it all. Maybe we’ll learn to accept one another, a long time from now. I imagine ‘The Shape of Water’ will stand the test of that time, and that it will serve to inspire more stories of the same message:

“Since childhood, I’ve been faithful to monsters. I have been saved and absolved by them, because monsters, I believe, are patron saints of our blissful imperfection, and they allow and embody the possibility of failing and living. For 25 years, I have handcrafted very strange little tales made of motion, color, light and shadow, and in many of these instances—and in three precise instances, these strange stories, these fables, have saved my life. Once with ‘Devil’s Backbone’, once with ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and now with ‘Shape of Water’. Because as directors, these things are not just entries in a filmography. We have made a deal with a particularly inefficient devil that trades three years of our lives for one entry on IMDB. These things are actually biography, and they are alive.”

            – Guillermo Del Toro in his acceptance speech for winning Best Director at the 2018 Golden Globe Awards.  



‘The Shape of Water’ is currently out in theaters for a limited run.


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