Sometimes we remember them when we sleep: the monster-men that lurk under treasured idylls, the regal women who suffer unjust curses and tribulations, the unsung commoners picked by fate and tested by adventure, and the matter-of-fact virtues that persist through every threat posed by nihilism and death. These are the stories that guide us into the world, tales refracted by our lives and choices, shimmering softly in the corners of our thoughts and dreams. And in our own pasts, in the bedrooms and blanket forts where we encountered our first heroes and chimeras, we see a reflection of humanity itself: people warmed as much by language as by fire, cultivating values and worldviews that will give their lives meaning. A Chauvet cave painting, captured in time by a chance of nature, preserves and evokes the same wonder as a bedside fairy tale because these conjurations of mere sounds and lines are much more than idle entertainments—they are our first homes.
And sometimes, when you are lucky enough, a story will come along that will remind you of all this. For me, that story was Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. Like its central metaphor, the film is simple enough on the surface: Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute custodian of a government laboratory in 1960s Baltimore, becomes enamoured with a wondrous yet caged Amazonian creature (Doug Jones). These two trapped, lonely beings find each other and decide to fight through the forces that conspire to keep them apart and confined in their respective spaces. It is a romance that might seem to have a predictable trajectory, but what emerges from this film is a lyrical tale of finding love and companionship amidst alienation, told with such a rigorous devotion to its central value that an otherwise-saccharine story blooms into a resonant affirmation of empathy in the face of injustice. The Shape of Water is thus more than a perennial love story: it is a call to toss out any status quo that condemns people to invisibility and pain. (In short, it is a full-throated rejection of the ‘Make America Great Again’ worldview.) In del Toro’s own words, “it’s important that we choose love over fear, because love is the answer. Silly as it may sound, it is the fucking answer to everything.”
It may seem silly, but it’s the truth—a truth that is often etiolated by the dead language of cliché. Guillermo del Toro and storytellers like him (the Wachowskis come most immediately to mind) enthrall you with an honest optimism born from taking seriously the simple truths that glow behind silly sayings. Films like The Shape of Water radiate with this contagious belief in our better natures, and it is a joy that you can feel in every layer of the film: you feel the love for old monster movies, the love for the unbridled fantasy of musicals, the love for the emotive power of color, the love for the humanizing idiosyncrasies of characters, the love for the silent and the powerless, and the love for moviegoing itself.
And yet the film is not without its fears. Confinement is the central motif of the film, and each character reflects the plight of the nameless amphibian-man, isolated and incarcerated in an aquarium of their own: Eliza is trapped in her silence (no one can look at her without seeing the voice she lacks), her elderly neighbor and companion Giles (Richard Jenkins) is trapped in his preferred form of love (his attempt at a same-sex romance ends with brutal bigotry), and the sinister colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) is trapped by duties to his family and the military-industrial complex that he serves (he constantly avoids the noise of domesticity and strains under the pressure of his general’s orders). The aquarium motif almost becomes literal when you realize how much the film fixates on the rain that seems to be constantly running down the windows of both Eliza’s leaky apartment and the drab city bus she takes to work. These are windows that open onto an indifferent, hostile world that does not let you feel at home in your uniqueness. It is a world that makes sure you know that you are the other.
So what is there to be done when you are all but discarded by a system that refuses to recognize you? Unsurprisingly, the film’s answer is an exploration of the dichotomy between fear and love. Colonel Strickland, for all of his terrifyingly violent animus, shows us fear’s response to this existential dilemma: let your role within the American empire permeate your entire sense of self. If your usefulness to authority is the only metric by which you measure your worth, then you are able to brutalize your ‘enemy’ with a conscience cleared by an intractable sense of purpose. Likewise, when that usefulness evaporates (as it does when the amphibian-man inevitably escapes and Strickland is unable to find him), you will employ any means necessary to reacquire it. Strickland is at his most precarious (and thus most dangerous) when he fails his general because it threatens his position in the military hierarchy, a position that has come to define his very personhood. This is what makes Michael Shannon’s casting so perfect: Strickland is a villain who has not only a shocking capacity for violence, but also an immutable righteousness that makes his capacity for violence endless. del Toro’s villains have always been deeply unsettling precisely because he understands that they are not simply moral monsters, but human beings who have given in to fear, unfortunate cowards who feel as if they are left no other options. For Strickland, relinquishing his identity as a competent colonel would be a form of suicide.
If the colonel presents us with a cautionary (and relevant) tale about the moral corrosion caused by fear, the relationship between the Creature and Eliza shows us the emancipatory power of love. Through a strange alchemical mixture with compassion and desire, Eliza’s leaky apartment and drab bus ride become infused with warmth and meaning. She gazes anew, with wonder, at the patterns of raindrops on the bus window, and a dingy bathroom with a cracked wall transforms from a space kept only for Eliza’s hurried onanism (she masturbates each morning before the alarm of an egg-timer) to a space for lovemaking that luxuriates in its timelessness. Her aquarium prison becomes a love nest, and the unhurried, limber movements of two bodies under water make the moment seem eternal. Even the eggs themselves reflect this transition: while the entire egg-boiling procedure is initially a rush to masturbate, eat and get out the door to the tune of a frantically ticking egg-timer, the boiled eggs become the means by which Eliza is able to establish her relationship to this beautiful other being. A meal she has made for herself countless times becomes a meal now made selflessly, for a person whose world has become defined by selfish cruelty. It is important that Eliza’s settings and the material details of her life do not change, because they don’t have to – their love is enough. They become one another’s home in a world that has condemned them to silence and suffering.
This conflict between fear and love are thus shown to be the two primary responses to the feeling that Martin Heidegger called geworfenheit, or a sense of having-been-thrown into the world, a world that you care about but also one that brings with it forms of alienation, suffering, conflict and dissonance that predate and outlast you. The Shape of Water never gives us a sense that its characters chose their current positions; rather, its focus is in how these characters respond to the world they find themselves in, and the tension between the two approaches embodied by Strickland and Eliza (accompanied by all of the attendant characters) propels the film towards its painfully intimate climax. The thematic clarity that emerges from this struggle makes The Shape of Water more than one of the most affecting screen stories of the last few years. It makes the film a necessary folktale for our current political climate.
Folktales are curious things, in that they overlap with a culture’s myths and legends (laboring with them to maintain an ethos) but are more intimately tied to their localities. Instead of the grand cosmologies of myths and the epic histories of legends, folktales provide the stories that can be whispered between neighbours and generations, narratives that are shared along with recipes and dialects to make a place seem like home. Child-eating kappas, blood-sucking yara-ma-yha-whos, capricious baba yagas and shapeshifting nøkken personify and warn the listeners of the potential dangers that surround them, just as mischievous fairies, hairy pookas, rejuvenating vision serpents and benevolent djinn represent the blessings hidden behind familiar environments.
In addition to their intimate connection to time and place, folktales are also uniquely perennial and polyphonic: each telling of a tale arrives to its listeners on the crest of countless other voices who have enthralled audiences with unique variations, and this oral delivery of folktales (the norm for most human history) gives narrative power to the speaker instead of a text. Without an urtext acting as a kind of unalterable authority, folktales acquire an organic mutability that storytellers can use to adapt their stories to their listeners – each version can change to (literally) speak to the experiences of its audience. Folktales are thus ways we can simultaneously connect to people separated from us by time, place and dialect while also make sense of our own unique worlds. These stories provide, in short, a way to create our own homes within an already existing tradition.
The Shape of Water preserves this oral tradition by having Giles, one of Eliza’s two close companions, bookend its story with his affectionate narration. This helps imbue the film’s universal themes and lessons about humanism, acceptance and empathy with an intimacy that pushes you to apply the story to your own experiences and contexts. The act of narration also provides a certain distance that allows for reflection, as the tale is a memory being shared with us, infused with an understanding that comes after the initial experience. The desire to tell this story comes partly from what Joyce Carol Oates (in reference to the brilliant, folkloric writer Alistair MacLeod) called the “urge to sanctify, to memorialize.” And like all good folktales, this memory is being preserved for us for a reason: in a time of unparalleled technological advancement and material plenitude, we are still complicit in ostracizing, demonizing, hurting and killing other people. By framing its tale as a memory being actively shared with us, The Shape of Water makes a structural critique of injustice deeply personal, causing us to reflect both on our own complicity in the continuous suffering of others and on our ability to help end it. We probably know Elizas in our own lives, people living adjacent to us who we can reach out to in compassion and solidarity. And like Giles, we have to decide how far our commitment to equality, our commitment to the wellbeing of our fellow human beings, will go.
Like most folktales, The Shape of Water is also heir to the previous iterations of its story, but its use of the flexible folk mode means that the familiar genre archetypes are made painfully relevant for us. The amphibian-man is himself a creature who emerges out of folklore, a literalization of the tales and movies the characters themselves grew up with. (Creature from the Black Lagoon being the most obvious source of inspiration.) This monster-man is a manifestation of humanity’s dark fears, a specter reaching out from our child-minds to trouble our conceptions of justice and personhood. And just as the film shows us the humanity in a ‘monster’, we find monstrosity in the familiar, treasured idyll: the film’s Cold War Baltimore milieu. The old cars, government labs, quaint diners and Soviet spies (all awash in either dark rain or glaring neon) give the film an air of American regionalism, referring to a post-World War II America that we usually think of as the world’s righteous guarantor of freedom and democracy. Yet this golden era of American ‘greatness’ is and always has been built upon the inflicted pain of those kept from sharing in the dream that they make possible; the film troubles our romanticized past by imbuing these warm, familiar spaces with the cold hostility of xenophobic hatred: the quaint diner viscously excludes black and queer people, and the government lab and its leaders inflict countless horrors on their innocent captives. The Soviet spy bogeyman isn’t immune to these archetypal inversions, either, as he becomes an ally in the struggle for justice. del Toro liberates these archetypes from their previous stories by telling his own version of a well-known tale, and by doing so he achieves what is probably the greatest purpose of folklore and narrative in general: using fiction as a means to find and celebrate truth.
In this way, del Toro again celebrates storytelling as a craft: tall tales, blockbuster movies and fantastical books are not just forms of escapism, but a means to discover new things about yourself and the world around you. Even the characters of The Shape of Water use old stories to comfort themselves and envision a future of love and freedom. In a distinctly American fashion, musicals like Hello, Frisco, Hello and That Night in Rio form the bedrock of Eliza’s imagination, and her apartment’s location above an old movie theater physically maps the importance of ‘escapist’ tales and ideals have in combatting isolation, hatred and destitution. In a capitalist system that tells us who we are to one another, a system where Eliza is merely a mute janitor and the creature a military asset, tall tales can give us a new lexicon, one that will allow us to imagine and articulate a new future. And in an era where a president can attack a football player who dares to draw attention to racial injustice, where people can find their rights as citizens and human beings destroyed because of their religion, and where weapons of mass death are indiscriminately used by people against one another, we need all the help we can get in rebuilding our sense of mutual compassion and purpose. So while stories like The Shape of Water don’t even begin solve the mass of injustices people are forced to suffer anew each day, they do provide a quiet, helpful reminder of the simple truths that we often forget in the face of these problems: that a lot of hatred comes from fear, that kindness is a constant exercise, that and that love, to borrow the words of the badass anarchist Emma Goldman, is “the strongest and deepest element in all life, […] the defier of all laws, of all conventions,” and “the freest, the most powerful moulder of human destiny.” And sometimes, in order to move forward, to get up and face our world, we just need to hear someone remind us that love is out there, and it matters.
Featured Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures