While in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Guillermo del Toro evocatively engages with Victorian fin-de-siècle Gothic tales (especially those of Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood), the creative wellspring for his newest film, The Shape of Water (2017), pours from the Romantic period. It is Frankenstein meets melodrama (Thomas Holcroft’s A Tale of Mystery comes to mind), and it’s absolutely brilliant. Romantic Romanticists, this is definitely the movie you want to see for Valentine’s Day.
The story takes place in Baltimore in 1962, where a young mute woman, Elisa Esposito, works as a nighttime cleaner in a secret government lab for Cold War operations. The exposition reveals Elisa’s daily routine, which, although boring and somewhat lonely, is perforated with warmth by her friendships with Zelda, another cleaner at the lab, and her neighbor Giles, an aging gay advertisement illustrator. Suddenly, Elisa’s routine is disrupted when she witnesses the military bring a strange tank to the lab. She discovers it contains an amphibious humanoid creature, which the officials—especially Colonel Richard Strickland—are willing (and quite eager) to torture in an effort to gain advantage in the Space Race.
You can predict the rest of the story. But in case you can’t, SPOILER WARNING: woman sees entrapped and abused monster; woman and monster fall in love; woman saves monster and monster saves woman in turn. To reduce the film to these brief words, however, is agonizing, because the viewing experience of The Shape of Water utterly transcends plot and language. What we witness, to profound effect, is a poetics of silence. Elisa’s sororal rapport with Zelda, filial amity with Giles, and romantic intimacy with the thalassic prisoner is entirely developed through facial expression, gesture, music, and dance. It is truly extraordinary how actress Sally Hawkins manages to distinguish these different kinds of relationships without a single word. While Zelda and Giles provide dialogue to humorous, heart-warming, and harrowing effect, it is Elisa’s silence that always says the most.
Yet even while we are deeply affected by Elisa’s soundless poetics, the film seduces us to believe an ableist resolution is coming, where Elisa will be cured of her disability. Halfway through the film we learn the creature has magical healing powers. Subsequently, we are led to expect that, in time, he will caress Elisa’s neck and give her the power of speech. Surprisingly and delightfully, the actual ending does nothing of the kind. Indeed, the pelagic being does tenderly touch his beloved’s neck, but gives her gills instead of functioning vocal cords. The final shot features the two sensually touching underwater. Their intimacy, which had elegantly progressed up to this point with strictly corporeal communication, reaches its climax with permanent submarine silence. It is the ineffable at its finest.
Like the mute characters on the melodramatic stage in the early nineteenth century, Elisa participates in an archetypical figure of truth, innocence, and justice. But she is the very best of these things: idealistic without naïveté, honest without meekness, and virtuous without repressive prudery. Thank you, Guillermo del Toro for imbibing the great conventions of Romantic melodrama with a twenty-first century ethos.