When I first heard about the concept for Guillermo Del Toro's Shape of Water, I thought it was a joke.
A woman falling in love with a humanoid fish man? And having sex with him? I guess I'll watch it for the memes. But it was honestly one of my favorite films of the year. I had the pleasure of going to a screening that included a Q and A with Del Toro, Octavia Spencer, and Doug Jones, and from the way they all spoke about the film it became clear to me that the power of the film rested in its fearlessness in tackling its bizarre subject matter with grace and a surprising amount of sensuality.
The story revolves around Elisa, a member of the janitorial staff at a secretive government agency during the Cold War who happens to be mute, and her love affair with "Amphibian Man," who is wanted by both the Soviet and American governments for nefarious purposes.
Throughout the film, Elisa and Amphibian Man's relationship and outsider status serves as an allegory for homophobia, racism, and other prejudices and barriers humans create between each other.
Del Toro mentioned that his inspiration for the film came from a desire for a movie like The Creature from the Black Lagoon to include a love story between the frightening creature and the helpless woman. In Shape of Water, Elisa is far from helpless, and is in fact the creator of her own destiny.
Lacking the power and status of many of the men in the film, as well as the ability to speak, she still manages to save Amphibian Man, and is the one who instigates their romantic and sexual relationship. Her sexual agency was one of the most striking aspects of the film for me, and I would classify the film as quite feminist. Her wonderful friendship with Zelda, Octavia Spencer's character, amplified this.
Another inspiration for the film cited was Beauty and the Beast, though Shape of Water does not follow this film's commonly criticized flaw of depicting a "romantic" relationship that has many characteristics of Stockholm syndrome. It actually subverts this, as the romantic leads end up living in Elisa's apartment. Like the rest of the sets in the film, the apartment is beautifully designed, with every detail clearly hand-picked and agonized over. If nothing else, watch this movie for its visual design and cinematography.
If the film lacks anything, it would be the development of some of the characters, especially development of Amphibian Man's character and the relationship between him and Elisa. The film's fairytale-like quality lends it to some over-simplification of the love between the two of them, and their relationship seems to rest on the pair's isolation from the world and lack of verbal communication. This creates a beautiful sentiment about the ability for people to connect on a more primal level, but it does make the film somewhat cheesy at times.
But maybe I just think that because I've lost the ability to believe in the fairytale-like love portrayed in the film. In this day and age, maybe we all need a bit more of old Hollywood sentimentality and hope in our lives, and this film will give you just that.