CSUNscreen Reviews: The Shape of Water

woman in blue shirt and grey cardigan being held by woman in blue collard shirt and brown cardigan
Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in the film "The Shape of Water." (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

There have been few movies I have seen in my life that have caused me to classify them as tearjerkers; “The Shape of Water” (2017), directed by Guillermo Del Toro and co-written with Vanessa Taylor, was truly a passionate love story that brought tears to my eyes at its conclusion.

Although many of Del Toro’s projects feature exotic worlds and monsters, this film is uniquely in a class of its own. “The Shape of Water” takes place in Baltimore, Maryland in 1962. The main character, Elisa Esposito (played by the incredible Sally Hawkins), is a mute woman who works at a government facility as a janitor, along with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Issues arise when the scientists of the facility bring in a large capsule with a mysterious creature inside, believed to be an elemental god worshiped by the people of the Amazon. This piques Elisa’s interest and soon a story of wonder and romance unfolds.

However, what is truly stunning about the movie is not just its love story (reminiscent of a darker version of “Beauty and the Beast”), but the content that it discusses and the way the message is conveyed. It is especially important to take a look at Elisa. In an industry that hardly scratches the surface of what it’s like to be disabled, this film portrays a disabled woman who craves affection and has natural needs in a rare depiction of the realities of feminine desires.

The audience is not meant to pity Elisa. There is sympathy for her and it is easy to empathize with her troubles throughout the film; however, she is not made out to be someone who can’t take care of herself. Elisa lives on her own while caring for her next door neighbor and best friend, a closeted artist named Giles (Richard Jenkins). The depiction of her taking care of her friend conveys the idea that those with disabilities aren’t the only ones that need to be cared for and that they can also be that person offering a helping hand. She is just like any one of us. The creature is stated as seeing her as whole, and that is a very beautiful sentiment in terms of how disabled people, able-bodied or not, should be viewed in the world: individuals who are whole and capable of having full lives.

As the film is an urban fantasy, Del Toro touched on the realistic darkness that the real world has to offer and showed the multifaceted personalities of each character involved to the story. He acknowledged the racial tensions in the time period he selected for his film, and also touched on other topics that are hardly discussed in films, such as sexual harassment in the workplace. It was refreshing to see a director who demonstrated an issue but did not exaggerate it in such a way that would deter the audience from the movie.

Elisa is given a sexual agency that many films about the disabled finding love get wrong or have trouble incorporating into their script. She is not pitied into a relationship nor is she looking for love herself. In an online article from themarysue.com, writer Princess Weekes explains that many other films “…always project a sense that the characters lack something or are ‘being taught a lesson’ by their condition, and they’re meant to teach an audience of assumed able-bodied viewers about how we should appreciate our lives.” She continues to say that Elisa’s disability is not a burden, but it affects how people view her, and that is why her relationship with the creature is so powerful. The creature does not see her as different, broken or flawed.

Although, the movie was beautifully written and showcased many of the evils that our world has to offer from the past and present, there is a need to commend the visual and special effects of the film as well. Both the plot and the imagery of the movie captured the essence of poetry on film, and in one sequence combine innovative special effects with spoken poetry. There is a utilization of color symbolism which emphasizes the clash of two very distinct worlds.

“The Shape of Water” is unlike any movie I’ve ever seen before, a completely unique take on a seemingly unrealistic story. It has elements that are simply out of this world, blending realism with the surrealism that our reality has to offer. As of this article, the film was nominated for seven Golden Globes and won the award for Best Director and Best Original Score. Del Toro’s speech at the Golden Globes demonstrated how time and time again, he places his faith in monstrous things to tell a beautiful story: “I have been saved and absolved by them. Monsters are our way of making sense of imperfection… for 25 years, I have handcrafted very strange little tales made of motion, color, light, and shadow. And in many of these instances — three precise instances — these little stories have saved my life.” (theverge.com)

Eccentric and strange movies like The Shape of Water are exactly what I look for when sifting through the same humdrum of recycled movie plots thrown at Hollywood, over and over again. This film is a testament that uniqueness in the entertainment industry is a commodity that many people do not consider when thinking about a film’s success.

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