Love in the Time of Mermen

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a film about who we are asked to be and who we actually are. The film follows Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) a cleaning woman working at a military lab. Her inability to speak frames the narrative. Elisa and her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) live in a world different from the early sixties setting. Giles is an artist, banished into retirement because of his homosexuality and his apartment is a bastion of art. Early in the film Elisa flips the television to news footage of  a riot and Giles pleas with her to turn it to a musical. In many ways, Elisa and Giles relationship is about rhythm and music. Miming the musicals they frequently watch, they sit on Giles couch performing an intricate dance routine. Life has resonance and meaning, as both character live in a bastion of fantasy.       

Elisa and Giles live above a movie theatre, a resplendent yet dilapidated palace of  art, a place both beautiful and dying. The ultra green slime color of some of the products in the film indicate various character’s value system. Giles, drawing a magazine advertisement, is told, ostensibly by the man who fired him, that the artificial green is the new color the company wants to promote. Giles draws the gelatine ad free-hand, something he’s told should really be a photograph. There is symbolic heft to an artist being asked to represent something artificial that must be placed in a mold. Similarly, the server at the local dinner Giles has a crush on owns a franchise which makes Key lime pie in the same neon green shade. This franchise owner, who servers terrible pies, also dehumanizes both Giles and an African American couple who come into the dinner to eat. The artificial also plays a part in Richard Strickland’s (Michael Shannon) story, where he constantly chews bright green candies, often before performing some violent act. The color signifies the artificial, the industrial aspect of producing something, a trend that both kills creativity, but also dehumanizes those targeted by advertising. Creation means nothing, it is only about selling.  The neon green symbolizes the difference between creating and manufacturing, from empathy to dehumanization.

Elisa’s job in the lab juxtaposes the music of her apartment. The lab is a place where things, creatures and humans alike are taken apart, gutted and discarded. Elisa and her friend Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) are afterthoughts, barely acknowledged as people and merely there to clean up the mess. Elisa falls in love with a mysterious god-like creature.  Elisa doesn’t see the creature as a potential threat or a series of attributes that can be used. She sees only a lonely soul, something ineffable and unclassifiable.  The creature is a mystery in a world that is trying to rid itself of difference. Elisa’s struggle and her friends and allies are the question of our time. Do we cherish mystery, majesty, and artistry or do scorn it because we know, defending it will not make us rich.  Do we accept the commodification and dehumanization because we will make a good living or embrace something other, something that looks beyond what our eyes show us. Guillermo del Toro creates a fairytale, a modern fable about how monstorious our society can be when we value soulless consumption.    

Ultimately, Giles narration allows the viewer the choice of how the film ends. The viewer decides the fate of Elisa, do we believe in magic or the cold sleep. In Guillermo del Toro’s vision, we see a mute woman given voice, a creature that is something more than an animal display love and sympathy, Giles, a man living on the very edge of society giving up the guise of normalcy to stand for something majestic. All of these characters show us the world of the artist, of creators not manufacturers, of the soul and not the wallet. As the movie draws to a conclusion, the viewer is asked what they believe. The Shape of Water as a title is the concept of placing barriers around the anomalous, creating molds and strictures of a thing that should be free flowing, like art, like empathy, like love.

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