*This article assumes that you have watched Guillermo Del Toro’s film, The Shape of Water, and will be discussing and exploring many of its themes, storytelling choices and secrets. If you haven’t seen the movie yet then please be aware that what follows will be packed with “spoilers”, I highly recommend you stop reading and go watch Del Toro’s beautiful and deceptively simple fairy tale before reading any further.
And then come back. We’ve got a lot to unpack.
The Shape of Water is a film overflowing with symbolism, hidden meanings and, above all, love. It is a story of unfulfilled lives, prejudice, hope, entitlement and placing our faith in such fragile things as the future. It is a fantasy, a fairy tale, a love story, an allegory and, like the amphibious creature around which the tale rotates, it is a marvel, a one-off, both beautiful and terrifying, capable of touching our hearts and souls, and yet seemingly unknowable.
I have heard – and read – critiques of The Shape of Water describing it variously as slight, ridden with cliche, even “Twee”. How you feel about the film, I believe, comes down to understanding the viewpoint from which it is told and, yes, it can be read as a rather simple fairy tale if seen as a straight narrative; if we, the viewer, watch as a fly-on-the-wall, accepting everything we see as a literal truth. What many seem to ignore, though, is that the story is told to us via Giles, Elisa’s closeted neighbour. We know this because it is Giles’ narration that bookends the movie; that he cannot help embellishing the story with visual flourishes and language drawn directly from the movies he watches constantly on television (such as the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers dance sequence) and the near-comical passwords and phrases used by the Russian spies; that he shies away from ugly truths (television news repels him; he hides his baldness beneath a ridiculous, obvious toupee; fantasizes about the guy in the pie shop; refuses to understand that his art is redundant in an advertising industry turning increasingly to photographic truth). Ask yourself, is The Shape of Water really a tale told by a reliable narrator?
Elisa confides everything in Giles but there are unknowable parts of the story that he elaborates upon, specifically Dr. Hoffstetler and his espionage associates. In all probability Hoffstetler is simply a scientist who helps Eliza, Giles and Zelda break the creature out of the government facility because he genuinely does not want to see such a unique and beautiful caprice dissected in the name of the future. Yes, Baltimore has (and had) a large Russian population (around 20% of the city’s entire population in 1963), so it is not an inconceivable assumption that there might have been an element of espionage embedded within but not inevitable. Believing there to be a fifth columnist dimension within the Russian community taps into one of the major themes of The Shape of Water, that of discrimination or prejudice, but it is not a supported theory and, therefore, we should treat it as decoration to the main story rather than an irrefutable truth.
There is no way that Giles can know what occurs when the creature disappears with Elisa’s lifeless body at the end of the film and how you read the final scene depends on whether or not you want an optimistic ending. Yes, he could be right and the creature transforms the scars on Elisa’s neck into gills and the two swim away and live happily ever after and you get to leave the theater with a full heart. Or (and here comes the depressing reading) you could pay attention to the shoe slowly falling away and interpret a much sadder finale – shoes are a symbol of journeys, spiritual as well as physical. We see Elisa cleaning her shoes at the start of the film as part of her daily routine, this points toward her optimism, that she is always ready to begin a new adventure, to find something new. Does the shoe falling from her foot symbolise journey’s end?
The film is, in fact, littered with symbolism: The movie theater Elisa and Giles live above, the dreams of cinema seep up through the floorboards just as the water leaks down through them when Elisa floods her bathroom – the theater is called The Orpheum, surely no coincidence then that Elisa and the creature are doomed when they stop to look back, their journey ending in water like Orpheus and Eurydice in the Euphrates; that same cinema is showing The Story of Ruth – a biblical epic about a Moabite girl who turns to monotheism, the most famous lines from the film (and the bible) are, “For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” A declaration of love most commonly heard at weddings which can be interpreted as a love that transcends the speaker’s home, family and beliefs and is a distillation of giving oneself completely; colours always play a large part in Del Toro’s movies and here it is no different, most importantly green which represents the future, though that future may be unappealing, mass produced and tasteless (as in the pie) or fragile and breakable or easily crushed (like Strickland’s car and, by turns, his dreams).
The film features a host of religious references, most notably the stories of Ruth and Samson and Delilah but there is also an oblique reference to Babylonian myth: Elisa is referred to has having been found by the river as a child and the creature having been found in the Amazon. This points toward the marriage of Tiamat (the goddess of the salt sea – one assumes the river where Elisa was found being one of Baltimore’s tidal estuaries) and Abzu (the god of fresh water). This, in turn, equates to Tehom (derived from Tiamat) which is translated as The Deep in Genesis 1:2, “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters”. It was from Tehom that the waters of Noah’s flood came, wiping clean the face of the Earth. Yet despite the immense destructive power of water it is also one of the symbols of life in Judaism, its cleansing abilities used in the Mikveh (a bath used for immersion by the Jewish faith for ritual purity, be it after a woman’s period, after a man’s ejaculation or in the preparation for burial).
Guillermo Del Toro said, in an interview, that, “Water is like love, it has no shape. It takes the shape of whatever it inhabits. It’s the most powerful element in the universe. It’s gentle, flexible, but breaks through every barrier.” One could relate this observation to Plato’s geometry of the elements, water being an icosahedron – a polyhedron with twenty faces – and that love, in The Shape of Water, has many faces, many facets: there is the pure love and fulfillment between Elisa and the creature; love of power; love of position; love of the self; of art; platonic love; marital love; love of one’s country; love of property and many more. I like to think about of the the films central theme of love as a balloon filled with water with the outside elements, the obstacles that faces, as increasingly sharp instruments try to puncture it to the point that, like one of those slow motion videos of water balloons being shot, a bullet pierces its skin and the water hangs momentarily, held together by its own meniscus, before soaking the floor beneath as gravity wreaks its inevitable toll.
Ultimately, though, The Shape of Water is a film about a love that allows us to both abandon and discover ourselves in the same moment, that to love another we not only have to see the way we are profoundly the same but to cherish those things that are totally alien. It’s a film in which empathy wins, shows us the way ahead and blind loyalty destroys all it touches.