Michael Wood reviews ‘The Shape of Water’ · LRB 22 March 2018
In his speech accepting this year’s Oscar for best director – The Shape of Water also won the Oscar for best picture – Guillermo del Toro offered a kind of parody of the mode of the film itself. He thanked the executives at Fox Searchlight for listening to ‘a mad pitch’, and for believing ‘that a fairy tale about an amphibian god and a mute woman done in the style of Douglas Sirk, and a musical and a thriller was a sure bet’. Actually it sounds mushy and whimsical and likely to flop, and the success of the film lies in its flirting with these qualities while having none of them. It didn’t seem quite so good to me on second viewing because I wasn’t surprised to like it, but it’s an impressive work, a violent romance rather than a fairy tale, and it’s both perky and gloomy. The name Sirk here signals melodrama and lush style, as well as, in a wonderful phrase of Sirk’s, ‘the weak and sly promise that the world is not rotten and out of joint but meaningful and ultimately in excellent condition’. It isn’t the work that’s weak and sly, just the promise.
We could start by looking at what we might call the film’s optical mood – not at all a bad context if your heroine can’t talk. Two lonely people live in neighbouring apartments above a cinema. No interior scene, as far as I could count, is without a television turned on and showing an old movie. Every set is like a dream of the 1950s – I’m taking that decade as lasting effectively until 1968 in the US – with the camera prowling around looking for shabby antiques. And the second major location, after the two apartments, is a research facility that looks like the abandoned storage space of an old museum, lovingly equipped with cupboards, surveillance cameras and inscrutable bits of equipment that signal their failed ambition to look modern. There’s an old-fashioned diner, there’s a bus, there are docks, there’s a Cadillac DeVille, which a salesman calls a Taj Mahal on wheels. Above all, there are male haircuts, plastered down and shiny, set above remarkably similar square faces, as if men were made in the same factory as the cars.
The place is notionally Baltimore, the year 1962. More important, this is the time of the Cold War, which drives the whole plot. That’s why the research facility is there, and that is where the amphibian god comes in. An American agent picked him up in the Amazonian jungle, and brought him home because he might have skills the Russians know nothing of. These skills are supposedly being probed in the facility, but all that seems to happen in this line is that the agent, Richard Strickland, played by Michael Shannon with fabulously nasty relish, tortures him with a cattle prod – and loses two fingers in the process. The creature is referred to as ‘the asset’, indeed ‘the most sensitive asset’ the facility has entertained, but this is wishful political thinking. The Russians – already on the case: they have an agent working at the facility – are wiser. When their agent goes sentimental about science and knowledge, and talks about what can be learned from the creature, his boss is very clear. ‘We don’t have to learn. We just need the Americans not to learn.’
The asset is a more muscular replica of the monster in Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), a fishy figure also meant to serve the interests of science. The recall is intentional, but doesn’t quite, at this late date, prevent the asset, played by Doug Jones, from looking slightly too much like just one more mutant super-hero. This effect matters only because it makes falling in love with him a touch more conventional than it’s supposed to be.
We can get away from the convention, though, because of the way the role of the mute woman is written and played. She is Elisa Esposito, an orphan found by a river with three mysterious scars on her neck, and she works nights at the facility as a cleaning lady. Near the end of the movie, when Strickland is hunting for the people who helped the creature to escape, he asks for their name, rank and number. The dying Russian, battered by this question and thinking of Elisa and her friend, stammers: ‘No rank and number. They just clean.’ Sally Hawkins, in a truly mesmerising performance, brings together qualities we might think simply cannot cohabit: loneliness and cheerfulness, a certain desperation along with a great calm. She makes friends with the creature, brings him food and music, teaches him sign language. We see her practising a few steps of tap-dance on the way to work, but nothing prepares us for the dream vision when her relation with the creature has turned into a full-blown – I was going to say full-scale – romance. She simply transports herself and her friend into a black-and-white musical, where her dubbed voice sings ‘You’ll never know’, and the couple float around the stage in a plausible imitation of Fred and Ginger.
The creature does have gifts that the Cold Warriors will never see. For example, if he touches a wound, it heals. He can make a bald man’s hair grow. He does this for the film’s other main character, Elisa’s neighbour and friend Giles, who is also our storyteller. The actor is Richard Jenkins, whose voice opens the film, saying:
If I spoke about it – if I did – what would I tell you? I wonder. Would I tell you about the time … Or would I tell you about the place … Would I tell you about her? The princess without voice. Or perhaps I would just warn you, about the truth of these facts. And the tale of love and loss. And the monster, who tried to destroy it all.
We know this kind of story: we think the monster is going to be the creature from the Brazilian lagoon, but the real monster is Strickland, who tortures the creature, and wants to kill the people who try to take it away from him – does kill almost all of them, including Elisa.
This is where the creature’s powers come in, along with a weak and sly promise borrowed from Sirk. The murderous Strickland is temporarily disabled by Giles, and the creature jumps into the water of the Baltimore docks, taking Elisa’s body with him. In one sense this is already a happy ending. Elisa dreamed of water at the beginning of the film, her whole apartment was submerged, chairs and tables drifting as if weightless, herself sleeping some two feet above her levitated sofa. Later she tried to consummate her relationship with the creature by stopping up the door of her bathroom and turning on all the taps – a sort of domestic Liebestod – and was rescued by Giles, tipped off because the spilling water was dripping into the cinema below. And now she finds her element. But del Toro offers us a more playful ending too, giving rise to the rather schmaltzy poster used to advertise the film, creature and woman embracing underwater. Elisa is dead until the creature breathes on her. Then she breathes too, in her element but no longer dreaming. Maybe. Or maybe del Toro is just asking us, as Sirk did, to imagine that the world is not entirely ‘rotten and out of joint’.
All of the closing sequence takes place in torrential rain, borrowed from the soggiest of films noirs, so that everyone, dead and alive, is drenched without tackling any sort of underwater adventure. Giles makes a comment in voiceover, intimating Elisa’s immortality. When he thinks of her, he says, what comes to mind is an old Persian poem that begins: ‘Unable to perceive the shape of You,/I find you all around me.’ But it’s not enough, I think, to say that water doesn’t have any shape and to define this as its ineffable virtue. The hard question might be what sort of damage it could do, on land and off, to the dry shapes of habit and prejudice.