Synopsis: Woman finds love with man-fish
The Shape of Water is my choice for best movie title of the year; it is very poetic. And like all good poetry it is beautiful and no one knows what it means. The Shape of Water is also my choice for best woman and man-fish love story of all time.
Director and screenwriter Guillermo del Toro reports that as a child he was intrigued by the 1954 film, Creature from the Black Lagoon. In the movie, the homely creature is brutish and the beautiful woman he’s crushing on is very shriekful whenever he appears. Del Toro’s movie, accompanied by Alexandre Desplat’s magical score, crafts his story as a fairy tale. Leagues more enlightened than its inspiration, the film’s creature is an intelligent and sexy merman. The woman, Elisa, is no one-dimensional hottie, but a complex and open-minded person.
We meet the couple at a government facility, Baltimore circa 1962, where Elisa is a cleaning woman. She’s hobbled in society because she is mute. But she does have two friends: her artist neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her colleague, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). The former is isolated because of his homosexuality and the latter is marginalized because she’s black.
The creature is played by Doug Jones — excellent here, as he was in del Toro’s masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth. (He was the really skinny monster who had eyeballs on the palms of his hands.) It seems that the poor amphibian was kidnapped from the Amazon River where people are said to “worship him like a god.” But in Baltimore, he’s shackled in a tank and readied for experimentation.
The enterprise is presided over by “Richard Strickland” who is portrayed by Michael Shannon, so you know that this means bad news for the gilled humanoid. Filmmakers should just dispense with naming Michael Shannon’s characters and just refer to him thusly “…and starring Michael Shannon as the Psycho.”
The Psycho bullies everyone, including Elisa, and tortures the creature. Our finned hero is sharp of tooth and claw and looks very strong and athletic with washboard abs. So even though he is chained, one day he gets the better of his tormentor and rips off one of Psycho’s fingers. Good!
Once in a while Psycho has to take a break from his bloody Inquisitorial work to do actual office work. At these times Elisa slips into the lab with her mop. Curious and soft-hearted, she befriends the river beast. She shares her boiled egg lunches with him and they begin to communicate. She starts playing records for him too and he gracefully swim-dances to the music. Before long, they are falling in love.
She is a lusty woman and he is a handsome man-fish; they’ve both been lonely for too long. I don’t want to give anything away, but they do have an opportunity to consummate their revolutionary love when Elisa floods a room. I got the impression that having sex in, say, a bathtub wouldn’t allow him to fully unleash his watery passions. I was happy for them, but I shuddered to think of the possible zoonotic transfer of diseases between the two. Like gill rot or swamp syphilis. What if she gave him a yeast infection? It could kill him for all we know!
Oh, yes, I should probably mention that there is a subplot about the Soviets trying to abduct the creature. Something about the Space Race. But outer space is the last place a fishy amphibian would be equipped to live! Also the Psycho is shown at home having gross sex with his wife. But what he really likes to do is beat Elisa’s piscine boyfriend. She has to get him out of there! She implores her friends Zelda and Giles to help with her escape plan. Elisa wants to catch and release him off the shores of Baltimore.
What follows is suspenseful, romantic and waterlogged. Can they escape Psycho? Can the creature survive a swim from Baltimore to the Amazon? After all, it’s a looong way. I would tell Elisa to pilot a boat beside him. That way, he could clamber into the boat for shared boiled egg lunches and then they could dive overboard for vigorous lovemaking. But they didn’t ask me. You’ll just have to see what Guillermo del Toro decided for our lovebirds.
Cut to the Chase: Imaginative and thought-provoking. Could’ve used more scenes of the lovers’ budding relationship and fewer scenes of their monstrous nemesis chewing the scenery
Comedy Gold: Octavia Spencer’s Zelda, with her running commentary to Elisa about her no-good husband