On the face of it, The Shape of Water is one of the mildest and gentlest films of Guillermo del Toro’s career – a love film that reminds you just how difficult it is to make a love film in an era when Hollywood often seems to have approached and exhausted love from just about every conceivable angle. Set in the 1950s, it’s a somewhat retrofuturist parable in which Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaner played by Sally Hawkins, develops a strange and wondrous romance with a mermaid recovered from the Amazon, and imprisoned at the oceanographic research facility where she works. While she has a connection with the older gay man who rooms with her, played by Richard Jenkins, and her fellow cleaner, played by Octavia Spencer, it’s only by befriending this mercurial creature – and helping him escape the nefarious facilitator of the institute, played by Michael Shannon – that she’s able to develop a sense of purpose and fully-fledged, comprehensive selfhood. Moving between a variety of 50s film genre cues, Del Toro anchors the story in a predominantly green palette, suffusing his mise-en-scenes with a submerged, amphibious, aqueous lighting scheme that often recalls the bathymetric palettes of sandbox gaming, evoking a viscous, eerie world that’s perpetually oozing liquid, and that has to be perpetually wiped down and maintained.
More specifically, The Shape of Water imagines and fantasises the 50s as the very peak of visual culture, presenting it as an era in which everything has been designed for maximum visual appeal, and in which everything is on display, from cakes to scientific equipment. In this world, the omniscience of advertising has raised even the most disposable, mass-produced items – even waste itself – into an object of aesthetic and scientific contemplation, and a product capable of being marketed to the right audience and demographic. Like so many of Del Toro’s films, then, The Shape of Water details a beautifully realised and embroidered world – with a particular fetish for period bathymetric equipment – except that this time around there’s a sense that this very aesthetic comprehensiveness, and taste for stylistic minutiae, has itself somehow become a source of claustrophobia and oppression. After all, in a world in which even waste has been co-opted as a marketable aesthetic commodity, and invested with a fungible affective value, it’s very hard to construe of a space outside or beyond the norm, which is perhaps why so much of the film takes place at the interface between this perfectly realised consumer culture and the one thing that seems really capable of disrupting, decaying and destroying it – water.
As a result, Elisa’s job as a cleaner is critical to the ambience of the film as a whole, not merely because some of the most crucial plot developments occur during her cleaning scenes, but because her detailed, sensuous and minute attention to the surface of things mirrors the aesthetic fetishism of the film itself, only to reiterate how much that surface needs to be maintained and polished to avoid slipping into immediate decay. Continually scrubbing surfaces with liquid to prevent the destructive abrasion of other forms of liquid, Elisa’s profession is gradually folded into a wider junction between water and technology, in which every space feels waterlogged and every object feels waterstained, even or especially those spaces and objects – such as the oceanographic institute – that have been expressly designed to keep the anarchic potential of water at bay. Functioning as a chaotic and anarchic potential at the fringes of Del Toro’s perfectly manicured mise-en-scenes, these gurgling, creaking, sensuous interfaces feel peculiarly suited to a digital era in which even the most advanced devices can’t fully withstand the destructive impact of water, even as digital technology itself grows ever more liquid and fluid in its ambitions.
While his palettes are always vivid, then, no colour has been quite so thematised in Del Toro’s work as green is here, where it functions as the anchor for nearly every scene, and is pervasively associated with a future that depends precisely upon containing and aestheticising the abject fringes, excesses and spillage that Elisa is tasked with cleaning. Perpetually reminding us “that’s the future now – green,” The Shape of Water largely proceeds by unifying a series of voiceless characters who don’t quite gel with the immaculate aestheticism and so can’t quite reconcile themselves to the film’s green palette – or otherwise identify with it too fully, as in the case of Jenkins’ character, who buys lurid key lime pie after lurid key lime pie in order to make advances on the handsome young man who runs the diner. At the heart of it all is the mermaid himself, who’s presented as the prismatic epicentre of this emerald universe, but also the point at which it solidifies into crystal, trapping and freezing him in its sight lines, as the centrepiece of the oceanographic institute’s prestigious research program. Within that program, those in power are able to brand themselves as green in just the right way and with no apparent effort, especially Shannon’s character, who purchases a tourmaline Cadillac in the single most stylised space in the entire film, and who continually uses greenness as a point of pontificating departure.
While the film may be suffused with every shade of green imaginable, then, green is also – somewhat provocatively and counter-intuitively – presented as a source of oppression; a form of reproductive futurity that’s defined against blackness, queerness and bodies that refuse to conform to the normative standards established by the oceanographic institute and its ken. In particular, greenness is associated with the regimentation of time and space (one of the first green anchors we see is the timesheet that Elisa is always rushing to clock), and becomes so omniscient in the film’s palette that beyond a certain point it ceases to ramify as a specific tone or colour, and instead folds itself into the sheen given off by a consumer culture in which everything has its exact and precise place. Not unlike the otherworldly greens that suffuse some of John Carpenter’s films, green here – and especially lurid, fluorescent green – represents a horizon beyond which the aestheticisation of mass culture, and its implications, are no longer directly visible or discernible to the individual consumer, instead only existing as an emanation whose source cannot be directly perceived. Eventually an epiphenomenon of the film’s world more than a feature of its conscious palette, the predominance of green reaches a point at which it makes everything around it fade into black and white, or gives the impression of a black and white world that may have been richly tinted, but is unable to fully disavow its inherent sameness and pallor.
Yet while green might be associated with oppression, water is associated with liberation, since it’s what dampens, stains and dilutes Del Toro’s immaculate aesthetic, imbuing the film with a wonderfully limpid and liquid dynamism that makes every mise-en-scene quiver with revolutionary and revelatory immanence. The Shape of Water is therefore quite different from comparable retrofuturist exercises in that it’s not haunted by lost futures per se, but instead focused on those people who were never part of the future to begin with, at least as it was defined at this particular time. On the face of it, that makes it anti-futurist in its refusal to register nostalgia for the future as a category and experience, but as the film’s coalition of anti-futurists gradually reveals, that very refusal is itself more radically invested in the future than the nostalgic fantasies that Del Toro establishes only to slyly and gradually jettison. And it is a coalition, since while it initially seems as if Elisa’s muteness, and her communion with the mermaid, will be at the centre of it all, her physical difference isn’t foregrounded that much more than her companions’ queerness or blackness, which is to say that Del Toro never milks it, but never quite discards or denies its difference either.
The result, then, is a taste for the future that plays, somewhat paradoxically, as an auto-erotic taste for the here and now, along with a sense that auto-eroticism can breed its own kind of fecundity. Starting her day by masturbating in the bath and then boiling an egg for her breakfast, Elisa’s existence – like that of both of her friends – is a direct contradiction to reproductive futurity. In another kind of film, love might “rescue” or “redeem” her from that, but the singularity of the mermaid, the lack of any potential for speciation between them, and the ambivalent ending, all serve to turn that on its head, instead allowing Elisa to embrace and indulge in the more emergent and profound sense of futurity that ensues when the future itself is dissociated from the endless reproduction of the social norms constricting her. In that gesture, Del Toro makes one of his most beautiful films, as well as a compelling continuation of the here and now of the Spanish Civil War so critical to his earlier pieces, along with one of the most dextrously and deftly provocative films to court Oscars attention and contention in the last twenty years.