“On Water’s Shape”
At first glance, Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece, The Shape of Water (2017) appears to be a straightforward intertextual reworking of The Creature from the Black Lagoon (Jack Arnold, 1954). In the earlier film, a group of American scientists discover an aquatic monster in the Amazon. After his lair is disturbed by the expedition, the creature begins killing crew members. When the creature abducts a female scientist, Kay, the remaining men hunt it down and shoot it, allowing its bullet-ridden corpse to sink to the bottom of the river, having successfully rescued Kay from danger.
The Shape of Water inverts all the narrative propositions of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. In the early 1960s, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) has abducted an amphibious man from parts unknown, keeping him in a tank in a secret military facility. One of the cleaning women, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) falls in love with the creature and helps him escape. As the creature is about to jump into a canal leading to the ocean, Strickland shoots both Elisa and him. However, the creature heals himself with extraordinary recuperative abilities, slashes Strickland’s throat, and rescues Elisa by hurling them both into the water. The creature heals Elisa’s unexplained childhood wounds, turning the scars on her neck, the result of some horrible abuse in the film’s backstory, into gills. In the film’s final shot, the lovers embrace while suspended in the water.
Unlike The Creature from the Black Lagoon, where the monster terrorized Americans and kidnapped the film’s female protagonist, The Shape of Water vilifies Cold War America, siding with those oppressed by its repressive politics. Not only is the creature a hero in The Shape of Water, so are the marginalized victims terrorized by the post-war American consensus: Sally, a mute cleaning woman; the narrator Giles, an illustrator cast aside because of his queer identity; and Zelda Fuller, Elisa’s African-American co-worker.
The Shape of Water is something more than a mere critique of a 1950s horror film. It is interested not just in the artistic shape of water, but also in the ideological significance of water. In his book, Liquid Modernity, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman suggests fluidity as the apt description of a modernity dominated by American industrial culture. In his most compelling example, Bauman argues that the robber barons of the 19th century, who made obscene amounts of money off their factories, railroads, and oilrigs, represent a proto-modernity of solidity. Manufacturing capitalism built things to last.
On the contrary, contemporary civilization features the fleeting, the ephemeral, the liquid. Bauman argues: “Bill Gates… feels no regret when parting with possessions in which he took pride yesterday; it is the mind-boggling speed of circulation, of recycling, ageing, dumping and replacement which brings profit today—not the durability and lasting reliability of the product.”
Bauman’s definition of the late 20th century as liquid modernity allows us to answer a question begged by the film’s title: What exactly is the shape of water? Normatively, because it is liquid, water has no shape; it is instead sculpted by force (for example, gravity) or by the materiality of solid objects (say, a bathtub). Bauman’s complex analysis of our way of being at the turn of the century—his book was published in 2001—is interrogated in The Shape of Water’s return to the Cold War America of the 1960s.
Del Toro’s film views the post-World War II past’s liquidizing of modernity from the point of view of our present, an ephemeral era of information culture, defined by the disposable objects of Bill Gates and his ilk. For Bauman, modernity is shapeless, defined by its liquidity. Del Toro expresses his critique of that modernity by sculpting the water in his film, deliberately as an artist, replicating the deformities created by forces such as gravity and objects like bathtubs.
The film begins with solidity already lost; we see furniture suspended in a watery realm. This sequence of shapeless water turns out to be merely the dream of the central character, Elisa, confined by an industrial realm of solidity. She lives a solitary existence in a run-down apartment building, and works mopping up a sterile military facility. Her release from this drudgery is masturbating in the bathtub, her rapid hand gestures frantically splashing in and out of the water, the loud sound of which contrasts sharply to Elisa’s status as mute.
Del Toro matches the confined shape of the bathtub water with the space surrounding the tank at the military facility that Elisa cleans every night. In that watery prison, an amphibious creature is also forced to live a solitary existence. The creature is cruelly prodded by the evil Colonel Strickland, who hopes to use his discovery to win the Cold War against the Russians.
Little does Strickland know, spies have penetrated his facility just as easily as water finds its way through seemingly solid surfaces. His world is so porous, Elisa and her accomplices are in one night easily able to sneak the creature out of the heavily guarded facility.
Del Toro’s film obsessively returns to the inability of industrial modernity to contain water in controlled shapes. Elisa lives above a movie theater. She prepares her entire bathroom, now no longer the space containing her lonely masturbation in the tub, into a habitat for the creature with whom she has fallen in love. As Elisa fills the room with water so that she and the creature may make love, the water, driven by the force of gravity, gushes into the movie theater below. Elisa fails to transform the space confining her, even her most private realm where she is most liberated. Water threatens to liberate, but instead renders public her secret relationship with the creature.
Even though Elisa and the creature share a moment of ecstasy in the bathroom, Elisa’s shaping water into a cube fails as a permanent, or solid protective barrier against Strickland’s prodding of the secrets of nature. The film’s solution instead allows Elisa and the creature to find everlasting love by escaping industrial modernity altogether. In the film’s final images, we see the lovers suspended in shapeless water, finally free from the confines of abusive solidity.
Only the massive shape of the Earth now confines them. In a fairy tale ending, Elisa and the creature escape into the open ocean. What began the film as Elisa’s lonely dream of freedom has become a beautiful reality. Del Toro leaves us with a celebration of love, the only force capable of transcending Bauman’s all-encompassing, and equally constricting fluidity of contemporary social life.
In voiceover, Elisa’s neighbor Giles offers an exquisite poetic commentary at the film’s end, modeled on pre-modern, 13th century Sufi mystic poetry. Our world confines water, and love, but in the fairy tale Del Toro, through Giles, has spun, the lovers find a shapelessness which transcends the boundaries of time: “Unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with your love. It humbles my heart, for you are everywhere.” In liquid modernity, we are promised liberation, but instead end up nowhere. In Del Toro’s fairytale, water takes on the shape of love.
— Walter Metz