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When Guillermo del Toro called his award-winning film THE SHAPE OF WATER a “fairy tale for troubled times,” I was expecting something entirely sweet. I don’t know why. When I was a child, I read every fairytale in our public library and not one was entirely sweet. Fairytales are, of course, parables of their times. Times are never entirely sweet, except perhaps, in clouded memory. Our current times are exquisitely troubled because our troubles come from within.
Del Toro deliberately set his story in a dark and hateful era (1962) when many so-called successful white American men looked in the mirror and thought they saw the universe. Thus, an amphibious man from South America (played by Doug Jones) who is captive to a cruel minion (Michael Shannon) of a heartless military can expect nothing but pain—until he is approached by a young cleaning woman who happens to be mute. Being mute, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) identifies with being different. She is, in fact, very different. Being female, she understands being treated as less-than—as does her best friend and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) who is not only female but also black.
Elisa has insisted on being joyful in her life, although she’s achingly lonely. Her heart hears the music of the mer-man’s being, so she sets about building an increasingly intimate relationship with him. In comparison, Zelda’s relationship with her insensitive husband feels awkward and unsatisfying, less human in a way. The story of the film reminds us that women have long been treated as creatures apart, inferior in spite of their ability to heal and connect. We can predict the way in which the vicious captor will approach Elisa, as we can often predict how victims of sexual assault will be treated. Likewise, the captor values the amphibious man only as an object.
Elisa is not afraid to act on her instincts, unlike many women of the time who were schooled to look nice and fit in. She displays raw courage and defiance that inspire her friend to match her. The amphibious man is depicted as open-hearted, yet still traditionally wild enough to be capable of violence and revenge.
Del Toro carefully uses shapes and colors in his settings to whisper to the viewers, telling tales and setting values that are probably more important than the plot. The Shape of Water is a poetic, artistic film to be experienced, not watched blankly as one watches heroes dispatching villains.