Anyways, the movie. The Shape of Water. I knew virtually nothing about this walking into the cinema apart from what I’d absorbed through osmosis. Oscar season is one of those few joys I get really excited for throughout the year because I know that every movie I go see will be one I can think about for a long time afterwards, regardless of how I feel about it getting nominated or not. It’s like Christmas time for good movies. So when I found out The Shape of Water’s release date was going to correspond in Ireland with Oscar season, I was both hyped to the high heavens and so mad I’d have to wait even longer to go see a movie that critics have been fawning over since it premiered. I’ve finally seen it now, and there’s so much I want to dive into so I’ll just start that now.
The Shape of Water is a monster movie. It’s a movie where, off screen, a creature that was worshipped as a god has been captured from some far away mystical land, in this case South America, and brought back to the States to be studied by scientists. It’s nothing new in the world of monster movies, hell you’ve probably seen twenty movies like it before from that plot synopsis. The thing is, it’s also a love story. It’s the story of a mute girl finding love in a creature that everyone else has decided is evil just for appearing different. It’s the classic Beauty and the Beast ideology being placed into what could have easily been a horror film, but isn’t. It’s so simple an idea that transcends it’s basic premise through exploring what the concept of love truly is, and it’s so beautiful and touching that it works fantastically well for all of the right reasons.
There really is such a fantastical atmosphere to The Shape of Water. The film has such a mystical and magical feeling. There’s an ever present hue of blue on screen at all times, either from the lighting or the clothes, that really adds to the ambience of each shot. Water stands in for a lot of the symbolism throughout the film. Even our protagonists love of musicals just feels like it adds so much to why she acts the way she does around those she loves, from the little dance moment she has with her neighbour to her bursting into song towards her beloved much later in the movie. There’s such a beautiful undercurrent of a classic Hollywood movie of a time gone by. Even the soundtrack reflects this, with the score being weird but in an elegant and familiar way. Like a dream we’re slowly beginning to remember. Due to the era it’s set in, an early 1960’s, the setting is a vital part of developing and grasping an understanding of the actions of the characters as much as anything else is. One of the best examples would be our protagonist Eliza’s neighbour Giles. He’s a struggling artist who also happens to be gay in a time where that’s horribly shunned, but still at his older age desperately seeking love and not knowing where or how to find it. Eliza's best friend, Zelda, shows us a woman stuck in a marriage of necessity, where if love once existed, it's barely there anymore. All she does for the entirety of the movie when talking about her husband is moan about how little he does for her, which is truly sad when you stop to think about how many families must have been like that back in those days.
Wait, let me… Let me focus on that. The Shape of Water is a movie about love. It’s a movie about the social interactions and tiny things that people can do to showcase that love for one another, as well as all of the ways an absence of love or a rejection of it can destroy you. At its core it’s a love story between a woman and a fish man, but it’s all of the tiny details of every other characters relationships that really make it so much more than that. No one questions Eliza’s love for the Creature. It’s such a simple thing that it was only after walking out of the movie and began thinking about it did I realise there’s almost no judgement of any of the love on display between characters who care for one another. Even Eliza’s best friend, when wondering about how she and the Creature had sex, never judges her for doing the deed in the first place. It’s just accepted that she loves this Creature and he loves her. It’s a Disney level of purity in a love story where you instantly know that these two people were made for one another and you never really stop to question the fact that he has gills because of the minuscule details Del Toro adds to show this love.
From the look on Eliza’s face when she begins feeding the Creature eggs, like a schoolgirl embarrassed about talking to her first crush, to the way they hold one another, like nothing in the world is more important than the person they’re holding in their arms, the movie truly understands what love is. The first time we see Strickland, played by the wonderful;y menacing Michael Shannon, in his family home, you can feel the coldness he has for them through the screen. When his wife brings him upstairs to have sex there’s no… love there. He sees her as an objects, and buying things for him and her and the rest of the family will help fill the hole that’s been left in him by not being able to actually express love to them in the first place. The villain of the movie is so material that the only time he seems genuinely happy over the course of the entire run time is when he buys himself a new car. Contrast this with Eliza, who’s genuinely just happy to spend time with her beloved at all, and you begin to understand the simple depth we’re constantly presented with. The movie firmly understands that it’s the little things in a relationship that really make it strong and lasting.
The reason I brought up seeing Coco earlier is because I wanted to talk about what really gets to me in art, be it books or movies or TV or whatever. The things that always stick with me are the little human moments, the moments I can point at and go “that’s too real”. As ridiculous as it sounds, one of the lines from the original Twilight book has stuck with me since I read it when I was eleven, and it’s “I didn’t sleep well that night, even after I was done crying”. I’ve no idea why, because I vehemently despise that franchise, but even in garbage like that it stood out to me and has stayed with me through all of these years. There’s a moment in Call Me By Your Name that stuck with me hard as well. That moment is when Elio goes to reach for the hand of Oliver and gets his hand brushed away. On paper this doesn’t sound like anything too painful, but it’s the context of this rejection of love that makes it so painful and real. The scene I always go back to in my head is from 500 Days of Summer, where he explains all of the tiny things he loves about Summer, that after they break up turn into all of the things he hates about her. It’s still one of my absolute favourite moments in any form of media because of how insanely real it is. The idea of falling in love with someone for their imperfections then turning around and hating them for all of those exact same reasons is so human. The film Coco, even for it just being a pretty okay movie by Pixar standards, has an ending I won’t spoil because it got to me in a way that very few movies can, because it felt real. It showcases the love a father can have towards his daughter, how much the love a family can provide and how that really matters above everything else. It felt like regardless of how preposterous the plot and all that was happening around it was, it was a beautiful moment because of the sheer rawness of it. Like The Shape Of Water, it's a ridiculous idea executed with such finesse and beauty that if you've ever felt even a modicum of love at any point in your life you'll relate with this film.
Love is being there. Love is showing you care. Love is an abstract and oh so complex idea that it’s so hard to nail down in a quantifiable manner what love truly is. Yes, love is also messy and awkward, but not between Eliza and the Creature. Here The Shape of Water really tries, and succeeds, at showcasing love in its purest and most distilled form that only a fantasy movie could really capture. Falling in love is easy, but capturing that… Essence. That realness. Those little moments, like dancing with someone you care about, or holding them close. Those brief, fleeting moments that you never really give much thought to. That content feeling of being in someone’s company, without saying a single word. Those pure, human moment’s… That’s love.
The Shape of Water is a movie about love. I truly, wholeheartedly loved it.