The Shape of Water is the latest movie from visionary director, Guillermo del Toro. A genre-bending film, it is a thriller, a period drama, a romance and a creature feature all at once. It tells the story of a mute janitor, Eliza, who falls in love with an amphibious creature being studied at a government facility during the Cold War. Told with del Toro’s trademark passion and creativity, The Shape of Water is a visually stunning and a poignant masterpiece.
However, beyond being a beautiful movie, The Shape of Water is also an intelligent one. Through an effective use of storytelling and symbolism, the film makes a strong statement against fear and hatred. Del Toro confronts prejudice through love and laughter while providing an astute critique of American society.
1962: The Future Is Here
1962 was a time of social change that included Civil Rights demonstrations and the rise of Second Wave feminism. It was the age of The Space Race, economic prosperity and technological innovation. Yet, it was also a time when many held extremely racist and prejudiced attitudes against those who were different from them. In 1962, with the Cold War in full swing, paranoia and fear of foreigners was rampant.
It is against this backdrop that #TheShapeofWater is set. In an interview with Vanity Fair, #GuillermodelToro talked about his choice to set the movie in 1962 and about what that year symbolizes for him, saying:
“When America talks about “Make America Great Again,” it’s talking about 1962...the peak of the promise of the future, jet-fin cars, super fast kitchens, television, everything that if you’re white, Anglo-Saxon, heterosexual, you’re good. But if you’re anything else, you’re not so good. Then when Kennedy is shot and Vietnam escalates, and the disillusionment of that dream occurs, I don’t think that has healed. We’re living in a time where the one percent has created a narrative in which they are not to blame.”
For del Toro, many parallels exist between the social and political tensions that marked the 1960s and what's going on today. In fact, in an interview with The Playlist, del Toro stated that he “wanted to show 1962 is now.” Thus, The Shape of Water is a movie that reflects on America’s past, but that's also very in tune with its present.
Hatred, Prejudice And Fear
The characters in The Shape of Water are all outsiders. Eliza is a mute orphan, her friend at work, Zelda, is a black woman, while her neighbor Giles is gay. The scientist who is studying the creature, Dr. Hoffstetler, is Russian. All four characters are treated as being ‘lesser’ than a white male. When speaking to Indie Wire, del Toro said:
“They are invisible people. Everybody that rescues the creature is invisible to the eyes of the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant guy. Everybody.”
The amphibious man is also an outsider. The last of his kind, he was taken from his home in the Amazon where he was revered by the locals as a god to be tortured by the American government. He too is invisible to the world, literally kept hidden away in a top secret facility and referred to only as "the asset." Unable to speak, he, like Eliza, literally lacks a voice in society.
The villain, Colonel Strickland, is a wealthy, white male who holds a position of power. He is condescending to those who he considers below him — Eliza, Zelda and Dr. Hoffstetler — and expresses a mixture of fear and hatred towards the creature. In this way, The Shape of Water reverses the conventional stereotypes of who gets to be the heroes and villains, providing a close look at white power and otherness.
Love: A Choice Against Hatred
At its core, The Shape of Water is about the romance that forms between the creature and Eliza. These two lonely characters form a bond with each other and see each other as they truly are. The creature doesn’t see Eliza as incomplete and Eliza doesn’t see him as something to be feared. Through their love, they save each other.
As the other characters interact with the creature, their fear gradually falls away until they no longer see the amphibious man as an "it" but as a "he." Their choice to disobey society and help him represents a choice against fear and against hatred.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, del Toro explains his choice to create a love story, saying:
“Before the current administration, I felt an undercurrent of what was to come and thought, 'Wouldn’t it be great to address it through a fairytale, tolerance and love?’…And I thought, 'What harder time for a love story than the Cold War?'”
Laughter: Destigmatizing Love
To quote Canadian comedian, David Granirer, “humor can be a powerful form of therapy as well as being a taboo buster.” In The Shape of Water, del Toro uses laughter to bring you closer to the characters and to help normalize Eliza's relationship with the creature. However, del Toro is always careful to ensure that you are never laughing at the heroes, only with them.
Zelda and Giles in particular have many humorous lines, but Eliza and Dr. Hoffstetler have a few funny moments too. By presenting the story this way, rather than through a very serious lens, you are able gain familiarity with the characters and to see them as normal people, not as the outsiders society tells them they are. Conversely, Strickland evokes revulsion and there is no humor in his hatred.
There are a few great lines in The Shape of Water where Zelda and Giles are coming to terms with Eliza’s relationship with the amphibious man. By tackling this subject with humor, it brings their love out of the realm of the strange and into the realm of the everyday. It allows their love to be treated with openness and acceptance, rather than with shock or shame. Their relationship is always raw and sincere, no different than one between two humans.
When between two consensual adults, love is never anything to hate or fear. This is demonstrated poignantly in The Shape of Water. In fact, love and hate are set in stark opposition to each other, for it is through our choice to love that hatred and fear can be defeated.
The Shape of Water opens in US theaters December 8 of this year. Will you be seeing this film this holiday season?