The Shape of Water

So few directors find a signature that lets them stand out in a crowd where everyone needs something newer and shinier to get even an ounce of attention. Even fewer decide at the earliest stages of their careers that love, in every shape, will be their signature. It takes a certain amount of bravery to make this decision and stick to it because, in this soul-crushing world, love is too easy to make fun of when the person mocking it has forgotten what it feels like. Audiences grow more and more cynical every year, it seems like, yet Guillermo del Toro has only strengthened his resolve to remind us that love is … everything. And in the face of forces that would snuff it out? It is the only thing.

In many ways, The Shape of Water is the perfectly distilled Guillermo del Toro film, the one he’s been building toward his entire career. All of his films are, directly or indirectly, love letters to monsters and misfits, which is partially why even his most outlandish characters are more relatable than the cardboard cutouts you see in most movies. Who among us hasn’t felt like a monster or a misfit at one point or another in our lives?

And women especially — how often in your lives have you felt like a princess without voice? In this romantic fairy tale between a monster and a misfit, del Toro chooses a protagonist in Elisa (Sally Hawkins) whose muteness is both under- and misrepresented in film but whose experiences in the workplace are universal. As a janitor in a top-secret government research facility, she is invisible to Strickland, the cold bureaucrat running the show (Michael Shannon), right up until the moment he decides she will be his perfect victim, because he doesn’t have to do anything to silence her. She is already silent.

What Strickland doesn’t understand is that women are never really silent. One condition of being a woman has always been a negotiation of quiet rebellions between ourselves and society; those rebellions only become loud when we conquer fear. Elisa, close to 40 and by no means a blushing violet, conquers hers with love. Her love for the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones, perhaps Hollywood’s most delightful Hoosier export) makes her reckless, brave, and — in her own, soundless way — loud.

It’s only happenstance that The Shape of Water’s release coincides with the Great Hollywood Predator Advent Calendar of 2017, but the truth is that this particular aspect of del Toro’s film would feel relevant whether the Weinsteins and the Spaceys of the world had been exposed or not. That’s part of the magic of the fairy tale del Toro has created, filmed through a fine spray of rain and all tinged in greens and blues. Water at its most still shows us a reflection of reality, only distorting as it is disturbed.

That distortion probably occurs in the ostensibly high ask of believing a romance between a woman and an Amphibian Man — but del Toro is so good at his job that it’s hardly an ask at all. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that made me feel the same way I felt when I fell in love with my husband the way this movie does. It’s difficult to explain, but it has something to do with the way del Toro captures the journey, as if he knows that falling in love isn’t instantaneous. It’s a series of moments, wherein both parties learn to trust one another and to communicate with each other long before they do anything physical. It’s a subtle re-shaping of Hollywood romance that lets Elisa’s love feel real, instead of implausible (at best) and perverse (at worst).

Del Toro has always been one of a handful of directors who knows precisely how to push my buttons. The Shape of Water feels like his most personal film, with everything he loves and every story he loves arranged to perfection, and this one hit me the most personally, too. I lost my last grandparent this year, but I still see my Baba and Grandpa everywhere — here, most recently and most vividly. Elisa’s best friend Giles (Richard Jenkins) — a gay man and artist who adores classic Hollywood and, living in his 60s in the 1960s, believes he was born either too early or too late for his life — and Dr. Hofstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, the true supporting MVP of 2017) — a Russian spy who risks everything to save a miraculous, impossible life — reminded me in different ways so much of both my grandparents, as well as a great-uncle I never met but whose life was heartbreakingly similar to Giles’. Del Toro never knew them, but there they are, right where they’d love to be.

And then there’s Alice Faye’s “You’ll Never Know,” a favorite of my mother’s that I probably first heard while I was still in the womb. The scene in which del Toro plays it, so reverently and with so much love … I can’t think about or watch that scene without weeping. That song already meant so much to me, and now it means even more.

How does del Toro do that? How is it possible that a man I’ll never meet can combine the things that both of us grew up with and loved and turn all of it into a near-perfect film? A feat such as this would be awe-inspiring enough if it were the only time he’s done such a thing, but for me, it is the third. When Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak came out, I felt like he made both films specifically and only for me. Now, with The Shape of Water, I have my Holy Trinity. I’ll treasure his gifts for the rest of my life.

But I don’t think it will stop here. Even with this most del Toro of del Toro films under his belt, Guillermo will never stop giving us new and unusual approaches to love in its many forms. Part of his magic is that he is a master at making the personal feel universal, up to and including falling in love with an Amphibian Man. And if you don’t know how that feels, take a break from seeing Star Wars six more times before Christmas and watch this film instead.

You’ll never know if you don’t know now.

Aly Caviness is an administrator of Midwest Film Journal, possible witch, and lifelong film obsessive. Through Lynch, her grandmother taught her how to spot “The Girl,” and through Frankenstein, her grandfather taught her how to love in spite of fear. She blames Jack Sparrow for her MA in colonial Atlantic history and Guy Pearce for her marriage. By day, she works and writes in the Archives & Library at the Indiana Historical Society, which possesses such artifacts from Hoosier film history as James Dean’s high school yearbooks and posters from the 1997 classic, “George of the Jungle.” By night, she mostly cries about Laura Palmer.

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