The Shape of Water

by Alvin G. Burstein

My first reaction was to think of this film as a mash-up of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, with its fantastic and frightening monster, and Splash, with its mermaid romance.

But more complexity is promised by the beginning and ending epigraphs that frame it:

If I spoke about it – if I did – what would I tell you? I wonder. Would I tell you about the time? It happened a long time ago, it seems. In the last days of a fair prince’s reign. Or would I tell you about the place? A small city near the coast, but far from everything else. Or, I don’t know… Would I tell you about her? The princess without voice. Or perhaps I would just warn you, about the truth of these facts. And the tale of love and loss. And the monster, who tried to destroy it all.

And the afterword:

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.

The opening, with its uncertain ifs and references to fair princes and last days suggest something other than facticity despite the story’s purported setting in the 1950’s cold war and space race. It implies a truth that transcends history, the truth of myth or legend.

The central characters are a striking assortment: A possibly divine monster from the deep, capable of bloody wrath, magical healing and striking vulnerability; a totally mute scrubwoman, employed at a top-secret research facility; a closeted gay illustrator, her confidant; a federal agent who combines sadism and phallic narcissism.

As the story unfolds, one striking theme is the federal agent’s figuring himself as a Samson castrated by a wily Delilah. He suffers losing two fingers in his battle with the creature, and ultimately rips off the re-attached digits in a desperate effort to avoid being defeated by the woman protecting his captive. This sub-plot includes the agent’s trying to act on his urge to sexually assault the mute scrubwoman. When she rejects him, he reacts by having rough sex with his wife and buying a fancy new car—which gets wrecked in the course of the unfolding plot.

The major focus of the film, however, is on the “princess without a voice,” the scrubwoman. During the day, she mops floors and cleans urinals. At home, she luxuriates—and masturbates—in the tub of her decrepit bathroom, and fantasies while watching television movies with her illustrator neighbor. When she encounters the captured monster, she sees past his grotesque and frightening appearance. He, beset by alien humans, recognizes her as a savior—and princess.

That brings us to the closing epigraph. Our prince and princess avoid attending to apparent externalities. They choose to bathe in each other’s love.
Amor Omnia Vincit.

Is the mythic lesson of the film that love always wins? Or that love is most important? Or is it that the real monster is not the grotesque creature, but crass and dangerous appartchik functionaries ignorant of the meaning of love?

Or does writer/director Guillermo del Toro have all three in mind?

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