The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, is a fairy tale for adults, like–I was going to liken The Shape of Water to del Toro’s celebrated Pan’s Labyrinth here, but then I realized that “fairy tales for adults” is basically what del Toro does all the time. His more juvenile films—Blade 2, the Hellboy movies, and Pacific Rim—are the outliers. It is a sad commentary on contemporary cinema that the existence of superhero movies in a filmmaker’s filmography denotes that filmmaker as a maker of movies for teenagers. del Toro has made seven films for adults and only four for children. The Shape of Water is a del Toro film par excellence.
This means that it is an amalgam of mythological types and ideas tossed together as a kind of cinematic salad, but like a really good salad prepared by a master chef. There are no out-of-place ingredients here in the mix. The 1950s, nuclear-age, Cold War atmosphere is straight out of a b-monster movie or one of Hitchock’s pot-boilers. This kind of genre stuff doesn’t usually accompany the kind of sexual politics and societal mores found here. The strictures of society are typically reserved for more melodramatic fare like Douglas Sirk’s movies, but the combination in The Shape of Water is perfect. It all feels of a piece and more obviously substantial than monster movies and thrillers and more fun than the melodramas (though I’d argue those genre movies are more substantial than they appear on first glance; I’d bet del Toro would too).
Put simply, The Shape of Water is about love and how it, like water, has no natural shape. Sally Hawkins (magnificent, as always) plays “Elisa Esposito,” a mute janitor at an aquatic research center who falls in love with a man-like, aquatic creature played by Doug Jones (magnificent, as always) who is being contained in the research center by the U.S. government. The Shape of Water is this famous image from the 1954 monster movie classic The Creature From the Black Lagoon expanded to feature length, flipped to be from the swimmer’s perspective instead of the monster’s, and inundated with all the longing and desire this image suggests. Yes, this movie is a love story between a woman and a sea creature, but it’s about other loves that society sees as illegitimate as well.
In the mix along with the monster and Cold War movie tropes are a few references to the Biblical stories of Ruth and Samson. del Toro treats these stories as he does other narrative references in his mix. They’re flavoring. They highlight certain aspects of his characters including both how they function in the story and how they see themselves. For del Toro, stories themselves grant meaning. That’s why his movies are “stories about stories” and the way they function personally and societally to establish identity. I love when del Toro peppers in Biblical stories, because he prompts me to reconsider them from his perspective, and I usually understand them in ways I hadn’t before.
So in The Shape of Water, we have the story of Ruth literally rumbling underneath Elisa’s feet—she lives above a movie theater playing the 1960 film—and the monster has a moment of transcendence while watching the film. Central to the story of Ruth is the romance between Ruth and Boaz. Ruth is an outsider. Boaz is an Israelite. Their love is transgressive, but God uses it to bring David (and eventually Christ) into the world. I had never thought of the story of Ruth as a story of transgressive love before.
And The Shape of Water’s villain, government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, magnificent, as always), identifies with the story of Samson. That story, from the book of Judges, takes place in the same era in Israel’s history as the story of Ruth, but it presents an alternate perspective on transgressive love. Samson suffers mightily for allowing his romantic affections to drift outside the tribe and only regains his strength after he recommits himself to God. Strickland uses the story as a form of control over the romantic inclinations of others and himself.
Positioning the two stories side-by-side in this film brings into sharp contrast the key difference in the stories. Ruth and Boaz’s transgressive love welcomes in an outsider in service of a greater good – God’s redemptive plan for all humankind. it obeys a higher law. Samson’s transgressive love is in service of no one but himself. The way del Toro uses the stories is illuminating as well – Ruth’s story opens two people up to love; Samson’s tries to shut people down. del Toro’s film isn’t about these Biblical stories. They’re just two more ingredients in the mix, but I haven’t seen them used quite this way before. This opens up possibilities for how other storytellers could use these stories and others like them in the future.