A ballroom dance with the Creature from the Black Lagoon is probably not the romantic fantasy of many middle-aged women working as janitors at their local Aerospace facility. In his latest film, The Shape of Water, director Guillermo del Toro assigns this imagery a heartfelt sincerity that transcends conventional notions of love and relationships. Set in a perversely idyllic 1960s America, where women are kept in their houses while their husbands flaunt their comically luxuriant cadillacs along the streets of suburbia, the film simultaneously laudes and lampoons the Cold War era through the lens of characters marginalized by society. At the heart of the story is a fish-creature seeking freedom in a world bastardized by moral shallowness and conformity.
Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins) is a deaf-mute who lives in a flat above a cinema, cleaning hallways and rocket-chambers at the Baltimore Aerospace Research Center. She has two friends: her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), an advertising artist and closeted gay man; and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), an African-American coworker who acts as a mouthpiece for Elisa. Much like Elisa, and the communities with which they share an identity, both struggle to communicate with the world they live in. On the other side of the spectrum is Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a government agent who is racist, sexist, cruel, and has about every other prejudice one may attribute to the underbelly of mainstream society. He drags the fish-creature, referred to as the “Asset,” from the depths of South America to the facility where Elisa and Zelda work. Elisa develops a relationship with the Asset as she bears witness to the horrible cruelties which Strickland inflicts upon it, culminating in an escape attempt that coincides with a Soviet operation.
Del Toro’s career has been characterized by the interweaving of fantastical and fairy-tale elements into urban landscapes and historical events. He points to a magical world beneath our noses. Unlike in Disney adventures, however, the fantastical elements are in conflict with the technological, rather than a substitute for them. The film’s innocuous beginning—a narrator preparing us for the “tale” that is to follow, as a camera swoops around a hallway submerged in green and dirtied water—evokes the magical realism of many childhood adventure stories. Innocent accordion hums pluck through the scenery, instilling a cartoonish frequency into Elisa’s daily routine and activities. One could even mistake her for a fabled fairy-tale princess, a motif which del Toro plays upon brilliantly in a ballad sequence reminiscent of such musicals as Dancing in The Rain.
The cattle-prod wielding Strickland is like a photo-negative of the fishman protagonist. He is a one-note psycho-villain that defies the modern inclination to shine a light of moral complexity upon the characters we side against. This is not to say he is devoid of depth. Strickland faces moments of weakness and submission, most noticeably with his commanding general who threatens to fire him if he “does not deliver.” He has a wife and two children who embody a general domesticity we find both familiar as well as morally acceptable. But it’s the sense of security in these images of wholesomeness or service that makes Strickland a dangerous person, unaware of the evil in which he participates.
This truly human statement makes The Shape of Water more than a B-movie homage as its surface features suggest. The film balances along the line between drama and comedy, and between fairytale and meditation on social inequality. Revolving pie-displays and arcade-light billboards provide an atmosphere of Americana that is as familiar as it is hauntingly distant. It’s as if we are examining these then-modern conveniences through the lens of an alien infinitely fascinated with technology. Del Toro’s tendency to break from our preconceptions of people and objects—the moldings which we implicitly assign restaurant-owners and advertising agents and the families emblematic of Eisenhower’s America—pronounces the grimly beautiful condition of the souls imprisoned within these caricatures.