They say life is a race, and there is a certain layered meaning to this. In a race, everyone is running the same course, towards the same destination, and success is measured by who reaches the finish line first. There is something triumphant about this view. It implies that life is a straight track towards an object of desire that can be easily understood. For most, this takes the form of a spouse, a family, a house, and a well-paying job. But there is also something claustrophobic about it. As the world becomes a more diverse place, defined by an intersectional global culture, humanity is beginning to realize that success and fulfillment do not have a universal meaning. So the question has to be posed: in a world with multiple definitions of fulfillment, what will you do? Will you give yourself fully to the definition of happiness you were given by your family and circumstances? Or will you allow yourself and those around you to pursue fulfillment wherever they may find it, in whatever strange and out of the way place? Into this ideological strain came this year’s “Best Picture” winner, The Shape of Water, another one of Guillermo Del Toro’s “Fairy Tales for Adults.” On the surface it seems like a simple, yet weird, concept for a film: a reimagining of The Creature from the Black Lagoon as a romantic drama, where the leading lady ends up with the fish monster, rather than your average dashing hero. If it sounds to you like fan fiction you would accidentally find while wandering through the distant corners of the internet late at night, I can hardly blame you. But what could very easily have been a straightforward Beauty and the Beast story ends up being a remarkably told and beautifully simple story about the way society treats its “Others,” or outsiders, and the multiplicity of ways humans have of forging their own happiness.
The lead cast is composed largely of a ragtag crew of Others, even putting aside the creature. The main character, Elisa Esposito, is a woman who has been mute since infancy, and communicates through sign language. Her two best friends are Giles, the gay next-door neighbor, and Zelda, an African American woman who works alongside Elisa as janitors in a secret government facility. To top it off, the story is set in Cold War America, a country deeply in the throes of race and sexuality related tensions.
Del Toro does not shy away from showing the ugly aspects of their society. Elisa is sexually harassed by her boss, and at times is talked down to because of her disability. Zelda is frequently the target of racist condescension. Giles is barred from a restaurant after misinterpreting a waiter’s sociability as invitational flirtation.
Yet while all of these characters command quite a bit of pathos, none of them are tragic. They are not defined or doomed by their Otherness. Rather, they are full characters, with strengths and triumphs and foibles. Elisa in particular is largely a complete person. We see her ordinary day-to-day life in the first act of the movie, and while it is mundane and clearly somewhat lonely, we never get the impression that she is deeply unhappy. She finds her own joys in life, has good relationships with her close friends, and seems content to keep to herself. Rather than the arrival of the fishman being portrayed as this advent of life, it appears to simply be another sweet and simple connection that she has formed.
What distinguishes the relationship is that the “asset,” (as the fishman is called at the research facility), does not see Elisa as others, even the well-intentioned, see her. He does not see her as incomplete, as she puts it, but rather, as she sees herself. She can find fulfillment with him in a world with where the lines have been dissolved, where land and ocean mingle and they can communicate without either ever speaking a word. Beauty and Beast tales are often about the transformative power of love, but neither Elisa or the creature necessarily need to change in order to be together. They simply exist as they are, in open and free connection with each other. They must strive for the relationship, but the strife comes from restrictive outside forces, not from any lack in each other. Fulfillment, then, is not the result of victory over odds, but of a true and meaningful connection with another person.
The film’s antagonist Strickland is the other side of this coin. From a purely objective standpoint, Strickland is clearly the more successful of the two for the majority of the film. Strickland is a white straight man, who has had apparent success in the military and who’s family could have been plucked straight from Leave It to Beaver. He believes in the power of positive thinking and the self-made man, and is firmly convinced that he is “made in the image of God.” If not for the framing, he would appear to be the all-American hero of yesteryear. But Del Toro is quick to poke holes in this. Strickland is both a product and a victim of the hypermasculine, results-oriented culture of the military. His fantasies are of domination. He silences his wife when they have sex, and is attracted to Elisa because of her inability to make a sound. The hypocrisy of his “image of God” quote is undermined almost immediately. When Zelda notes that she wouldn’t know what the Lord looks like, Strickland says, “Well. Human, Zelda. He looks like a human. Just like me… Or even you.” There is a quick and meaningful glance at her. “A little more like me, I guess…”
This limited view of the image of God could almost serve as a thesis statement for the film. For Strickland, the ultimate of humanity is one thing, and that thing bears a remarkable resemblance to him. For Elisa, Giles and Zelda, the face of God and of ultimate fulfillment is less certain, and is perhaps best described by the poem quoted at the close of the film. “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...”
Water holds no cohesive shape, it simply conforms to the container it is in, no matter how misshapen or bizarre. And ultimately, this film is about finding fulfillment and connection, about learning to love the monstrous, the unusual, and the unconforming within ourselves and others.