Throughout our Resilience film series we’ve enjoyed visually-stunning and emotionally-driven documentaries and fictional works. Our most recent screening featured the 2018 Academy award winner for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Score and Best Production Design, The Shape of Water (2017), directed by the well-known auteur Guillermo del Toro. This romantic dark fantasy was inspired by del Toro’s childhood memories of watching Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, dir. Jack Arnold), especially the romance between the Creature and a human woman, Kay (Julie Adams). How does the unlikely romance in The Shape of Water depict resilience? In at least three ways: Elisa’s challenges to communicate; her rebellion against the social conformity of the early 1960s; and her quest for a meaningful–if a bit non-normative!–romantic and sexual relationship.
The Shape of Water tells the story of a mute custodian–back then, called a “cleaning lady”–Elisa (Sally Hawkins) who befriends and longs to save an amphibian creature (Doug Jones) from the corrupt research facility where he is being contained by the cruel Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon). Elisa struggles to relate to everyone around her on the daily until she starts communicating with the creature through sign language as well as music and dance. With help and support from her best friend and roommate Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), she is able to find love.
As the creature–credited as “Amphibian Man”–Doug Jones is a favorite of del Toro’s and an iconic presence, mostly for his incredibly long fingers, lanky stature and towering height, perfect for any fantasy film. In The Shape of Water, his prosthetics and body suit glow with a blue shimmer when his powers engage. For his unusual appearance, he’s a commanding–and to Elisa, especially, an attractive–presence. In del Toro’s Hellboy (2004), Jones played Abe Sapien, an intelligent anthropomorphic being able to speak like a man but who must live in or around water, using his lanky body to swim. In Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), he played Fauno, again with the long fingers and lanky, stringy figure he has, as well as the Pale Man whose eyeballs appear in the palm of his hands, forming a grotesque face. Jones seems to bring to life these magical creatures from del Toro’s imagination.
While Jones is the film’s visual center, the narrative–and the theme of resilience–is all primarily about Elisa. She is as the “princess without voice,” one who cannot verbally communicate as well as one who has no say in her daily life, considering she is a lonely woman in a male-dominated society. She becomes agitated when she tries to convey her feelings, non-verbally, to Giles about being in love with the creature. In response, he leaves and refuses to listen. Medium close-ups help draw focus on how Hawkins’ character is feeling, along with quick subtitles that correspond to what she is signing. Elisa has lived with being mute her entire life and is ashamed of the scars around her neck, isolating her further from society. Instead of succumbing to stress, she depicts resilience by confronting her problem and making choices–despite the risks they entail.
The Shape of Water is set, specifically, in 1962. During this time, men are the breadwinners and are the models of masculinity. The women clean and care for the men as well as do what they say. Elisa is constantly harassed and ordered by Strickland in the workplace, both because she is a woman and she is mute. Strickland’s character is most often seen through close-ups and long shots: the close-ups show the character’s angry tension; the long shots depict his control over his environment. Despite being a period piece, the film will resonate with the #MeToo movement and contemporary cases of sexual harassment between men and women. Strickland is the antagonist that longs for control and power, but Elisa demonstrates the greater resilience when she plans to save the creature from abuse and experimentation.
The Shape of Water concludes with the bonding of a romantic and sexual relationship. In order for any of us to be resilient in the face of adversity, we need the people we love help and support us through life, especially in times of stress. The Shape of Water presents the idea that we all long to find that special–someone that is like us in so many ways. And the film is not shy about depicting Elisa’s sexual needs. Elisa fell in love after learning how the creature is isolated from society much like she is; in fact, he is the only one who can convey feelings and thoughts non-verbally, as she does, and who is as isolated as she is. A black-and-white fantasy sequence segues from the dark confiness of Elisa and Giles’ apartment to a ravishing, classic Hollywood musical set, presenting Elisa’s dream to sing (have a voice) and convey her romantic feelings as she croons Vera Lynn’s 1962 rendition of “You’ll Never Know.”
Del Toro has been accused of plagiarizing plot elements from Paul Zindel’s play Let Me Hear You Whisper, which focuses on a female janitor who works at a lab and gets romantically involved with the dolphin being experimented on without any suggestions of any sexual acts, and a short film, The Space Between Us. Ultimately, the case was dropped. The case did not seem to dampen viewers and critics’ response to the film, though, at the Academy Awards or on the year-end Top Ten lists, where The Shape of Water was consistently listed. Depicting challenges in communication, rebellion against social conformity, and the pursuit of romantic and sexual fulfillment, The Shape of Water is an unusual and breathtaking take on resilience.