The Shape of Water is ultimately a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Growing up, my feelings towards the tale were always torn. I liked the idea of their romance, the love that went beyond charm in a prince’s status or inevitable handsomeness. But I wasn’t sold on his temper, or his kidnapping tendencies, or the fact that he ended up being an inevitably handsome prince in the end after all.
Master director Guillermo del Toro’s (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hell Boy) The Shape of Water is the grown-up sci-fi Beauty and the Beast of the 20th century, and I’m not torn at all. It’s a remarkable and exquisitely portrayed testament to love, (with only a little bit of kidnapping).
Living in Baltimore during The Cold War era (1962), Beauty is Elisa (Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky, Godzilla). She’s a mute and sweet, but otherwise unremarkable member of the cleaning staff for a hidden American government lab. She seems to have lived a largely unnoticed life. When the latest experiment, “The Asset” (Doug Jones) shows up – a South American water creature that is astonishingly akin to a human, Elisa befriends him and formulates a plan to rescue him from the abusive treatment he endures at the lab.
Villain Strickland (Michael Shannon, Man of Steel) balances the love story. He’s chilling in his prejudice and classism. He believes in his own superiority because his society tells him that a man who is white and wealthy and drives a Cadillac is inevitably a “decent man.” And the world’s acceptance of this without any actual testament to compassion or decency is terrifying.
The tone of the movie is definitely eerie. Maybe I’m just squeamish, but The Shape of Water has moments that made me throw my hand over my mouth and squeeze my eyes shut. There is shock and 100% ick factor. But it is also sprinkled with lovely and hilarious human moments. The oddities of human habits and the desire for human connection cause the leads to act in such strange and quirky ways.
It makes a statement that love is normal. Sex is normal. And the things we pretend are ugly or perverse are normal. Del Toro said he wanted a beauty who “wakes up, makes three eggs in the morning, masturbates, and goes to work.” And that’s exactly what she does. The story veers away from the idea of picture-perfect Barbie and Ken – Because it’s Barbie and Ken that have something icky and unnatural about them. Nobody’s really like that.
The Shape of Water is an antidote to prejudice and loneliness. It’s a testament to good old, plain and simple love. And it is absolutely stunning.