“Time is but a river flowing from our past.” This is the first “thought of the day” we’re confronted with as mute cleaning woman Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins, who’s sure to be more valued henceforward) rips off a page of her calendar and heads to the government facility, Occam Aerospace Research Center, where she works in Baltimore (for added grimness to punctuate her day-to-day). Little does she know, that river is about to bombard her in ways she could never have imagined.
Most days, her friend and co-worker of ten years, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), covers for her lateness once again by holding her place in line so she can punch the clock without being marked as late. And so this daily routine goes ad nauseum and without deviation for Elisa, with the only glimmer of excitement appearing in her timed masturbation sessions in the tub before the ding indicating her batch of hard-boiled eggs simmering on the stove is finished (therefore so should her orgasming be) and ready to pack in a lunch before departure. She lives in the same building above a movie theater as an aging and former alcoholic ad man named Giles (Richard Jenkins), who seems to get more out of their living arrangement than she does in that he can freely talk about his homosexuality with her. Indeed, Elisa has been subjected to many an unwanted key lime pie for the sake of visiting a much younger waiter Giles has a crush on.
So, in many senses, Elisa has achieved as much contentment as any mute living Baltimore in 1962 can. Yet even so, the loneliness she feels cannot be ignored, and stems directly from being seen by the world at large as nothing more than a voiceless invisible only to be glanced at should a glass of water fall from the table and cleanup is required. Thus, when a mysterious creature materializes in the lab and Elisa becomes inexplicably drawn to it, it is as though she is awakened from the stupor of believing that her life before this meeting was all it could ever be. But thanks to the head of security over the research team of what is referred to vaguely as “the Asset,” Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, much less mute in this role than he was in The Iceman), Elisa’s eyes are opened to a concept that was formerly anathema to her: “When he looks at me, he does not know–how–I am incomplete. He sees me…as I am.” And once someone who has never known this phenomenon experiences it, she isn’t so quick to let it go.
Best of all, to boot, is that “the Asset” is played by Doug Jones a.k.a. Billy Butcherson from Hocus Pocus. And, if Winnie (Bette Midler) proved anything in that movie, it’s that Doug Jones is hard to let go of in any incarnation. As the film Guillermo Del Toro has chosen to sandwich in between producing Kung Fu Panda 3 and Pacific Rim: Uprising, it makes sense that the auteur would want to go all-out with “weirdness,” choosing to use as his inspiration from so many decades ago Jack Arnold’s Creature From the Black Lagoon, whom “the Asset” looks like a near exact replica of. In his youth, Del Toro was fixated upon an ending in which Julie Adams’ character Kay Lawrence ends up fulfilling her foiled romance with Gill-man (Ben Chapman/Ricou Browning). In fact, when Del Toro was at one point in communication with Universal about remaking the film, he positioned the storyline as something that would center more on the creature’s viewpoint and allowing him to end up with the object of his affection. Obviously, the studio declined the pitch. Enter Vanessa Taylor to aid in the realization of Gill-man’s dreams. With the oddly disparate resume builders of Hope Springs and Divergent, Taylor, Del Toro’s co-writer (one would like to envision a sexless Nancy Olson/Joe Gillis dynamic during their brainstorming sessions), brings a uniquely feminine perspective to the narrative. One that, because of Elisa’s muteness, must be especially overt in its subtlety. Take, for example, Strickland’s sick fetishization of her, a woman who wouldn’t be able to talk back to him or scream during sex. So “intrigued” by her he is that he even puts his hand over his own wife’s mouth while going through the motions with her to try to envision his thrusts inside of a mute. But everyone’s got their fetishes in The Shape of Water. Even spy/agent Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is desperate to continue studying the “Asset” without harming it.
As we learn more of the creature/”Asset’s” background, we discover that it shares very many characteristics with its Black Lagoon counterpart. For one, as Strickland mentions, “The natives in the Amazon worshipped it. Like a god. We need to take it apart, learn how it works,” and for another, it is capable of engaging two respiratory systems, which is precisely why the Russians of the Cold War want a piece of its action for the purpose of finding the perfect candidate to fly to the moon.
In a year when princesses (that’s how Giles refers to Elisa in his narration) and the monsters that tried to subjugate them were assignations that reigned supreme, it’s plain to see that, in The Shape of Water, the real monster, of course, is not “the Asset,” but men of society like Strickland and the General, who are themselves so ugly that they must attempt to suppress any entity that, in their mind, physically represents their inside.
Fanciful in a way that borders the same French intensity of quirk and charm as Amélie, The Shape of Water is also a loving homage to the pop culture and cinema of the Golden Age of Hollywood, which, though extremely exclusionary of people like Giles, Elisa and Zelda, also made possible the magic of Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda and Mister Ed (all, of course, showcased in the film). In keeping with this reverence, there is one point in the film when “the Asset’s” celestial, god-like powers allow Elisa the opportunity to speak so she can express the extent of her emotions for him, even if only in re-imagining herself as a musical star of the 40s singing Vera Lynn’s “You’ll Never Know” to the creature.
In a cinematic world so frequently populated of late with relationships that have no wistfulness or romance to them (mother! comes to mind), it’s not surprising that it took a connection between a mute woman and amphibian humanoid set in the sixties to get audiences to believe in the transcendence of love again. And as each of them had planned to spend their life in melancholic solitude, another calendar thought of the day is proven: “Life is but the shipwreck of our plans.”
With an ending that defies you not to shed a tear as watery as the makeshift sex den Elisa must create to bone her beloved, Del Toro leaves us with a poem that reaffirms just how poignant an affinity between two lovers can be, species be damned. And so the Creature from Black Lagoon is vindicated from the great beyond with the heart-swelling assessment: “Unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me.