Why Oscars 2018 front-runner, Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water, speaks to us all

Karan Mujoo

Mar,03 2018 14:40:24 IST

On the surface, The Shape of Water is a love story between a mute girl and an amphibious creature. Set during the Cold War era, it has all the elements of a typical potboiler: There is a scientific facility. There are evil Russian spies. There is a scripture-quoting American agent. And there is a monster from the Amazon. But all these elements, individually cliched, come together to create a cinematic melody which is anything but cliched. Del Toro’s latest is, in fact, a meditation on love and loneliness, on good and evil, on monsters and men.

We all want, rather naively, to find someone who will understand us perfectly. An oracular lover who will divine our troubles and tribulations with a mere glance; even if we are quiet and reticent.

Silence, however, is not an option for Elisa. It is her life. Mute by birth, she is a cleaner at a Occam Aerospace research facility in Baltimore. Del Toro brings 1960s America to life masterfully. Using everything from street lights, electricity poles, shop fonts, cinemas, old TV shows and gleaming Cadillacs recreate the past.

Still from The Shape of Water

Still from The Shape of Water

The movie is bathed in a gorgeous colour palette, all blues and greens. The ‘asset’ brought into the facility also has similar shades. He is a creature who intrigues, scares and repels in equal measure. Seen as an abomination by some and as beautiful by others, he is housed in a metal water tank, behind closed doors. During one of her cleaning gigs, Elisa somehow manages to communicate with the creature. Neither can speak each other’s language. But syntax and grammar are replaced by food and music. Elisa smuggles in boiled eggs and plays records on a portable turntable for the amphibian creature. Language is rendered useless. An auxiliary in their relationship. For once in her life Elisa is not seen as incomplete. As handicapped. As someone who deserves scorn or pity. She is seen as an equal.

Everyone in The Shape of Water is looking for love, in one form or the other. Elisa and the creature find each other, but others are not so lucky. Giles, an ageing illustrator who is Eliza’s neighbour and partner-in-crime, is smitten by the handsome proprietor of Dixie Doug’s Pie shop. But when he expresses his fondness, it is summarily dismissed. Zelda, Elisa’s co-worker and friend, is stuck in a dour marriage. She tries to reignite the flame by cooking hearty meals for her husband. Strickland wants to win the affections of his boss, General Hoyt. All the characters are propelled forward by desire. The desire to be wanted by someone. The same desire with which the world burns daily.

Guillermo Del Toro, for a long time now, has been fascinated by monsters. He explored the idea in Pan’s Labyrinth, HellBoy and now in The Shape of Water. The most important question he raises through these films is, ‘Who or what is a monster?’

Del Toro’s monsters are metaphors for imperfect men and women. Physical appearance is just a distraction, a sly ploy to fool those who want to believe the obvious. A red monkey with a devil's rail and horns? The freak who can summon fire at will? A scaly, slimy creature from the Amazon? Surely, the Lord can't approve of these abominations!

Who is the monster in The Shape of Water? Is it the amphibious creature who bites a cat’s head off, or is it Strickland with his cattle prod and gun, torturing and pumping bullets into everyone? Is the the white man with the perfect family (blonde wife, two kids) or is it the freaks on the margins of the society (the mute girl, the old gay artist, the creature from Amazon)?
Actions matter more than mere appearances Del Toro suggests. So Del Toro's ‘monsters’ save the world, fall in love, triumph and fail. And by doing so they somehow turn out to be more human than the humans around them.

Movies, books and art have often been accused of filling our heads with unrealistic love stories. Romances which simply aren’t possible in real life. Del Toro suspends this reality masterfully in The Shape of Water. He makes the hardest of cynics believe. So much so that he even pulls off a ludicrous ballroom dance with Elisa and the amphibious creature. Although life is mostly unfair and cruel, Del Toro leaves you with a ray of hope. Suspended in an aquamarine haze, Elisa is transformed because of love — something we all hope will happen to us.

Updated Date: Mar 03, 2018 14:54 PM