It’s about an amphibian creature dredged from a river in South America. It’s a fairy tale about a princess who falls in love with a monster. It’s science-fiction fantasy about a gigantic scaly Merman who learns to communicate and to love. It’s about a God made flesh who’s killed by the state, but then rises from the dead and gives eternal life to his devotee. It’s about an alien trying to get back home.
Put otherwise, The Shape of Water is science fiction, fantasy, fairy tale, myth, and story of humans’ doomed attempts to effect the death of God. It’s entirely redolent of Creature from the Black Lagoon, Beauty and the Beast, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, ET, and the Jesus Myth.
And for that reason, plus its artistic excellence The Shape of Water has struck a chord with viewers subconsciously hungry for meaning. They’ve called it tender, elegant and mesmerizing. It has been nominated for 13 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
For what it’s worth, I agree. Sally Hawkins‘ performance as Elisa Esposito, the mute janitor-princess who falls in love with the Creature, is nothing short of magnificent. She deserves her Best Actress nomination – and the Oscar.
The film’s central theme is conveyed in its beautiful, mysterious title that invites its audience to imagine the impossible. The shape of water? Of course, it has none at all. Water takes the contours of its container.
And that’s the point imagistically asserted at the very beginning of the picture. There the story’s world is portrayed as filled with the medium of life itself. As the movie unfolds, it’s hard to miss that theological point: the world is full of possibilities for realizing the presence of the divine. The patriarchal establishment can’t see that. Only the social misfits do – a mute janitor, her African-American friend, an aging gay unemployed artist, a Russian enemy of the state.
There are plenty of references that suggest such meaning:
– Biblical themes of the Great Flood and Crossing the Sea, as well as purgative baptismal images of are all evoked by the film’s water-world.
– More than once, we’re told that the film’s androgynous monster is worshipped as a god by primitives in its place of origin.
– It has powers to heal.
– And resurrect from the dead.
– Near the story’s beginning, the fish-human’s demented antagonist, Richard Strickland, discusses specifically his own idea of God. In doing so, he reveals why recognizing the divine in such unexpected form is impossible for him. He’s looking for someone made in Strickland’s own image. God’s actual incarnation is anything but.
– The central character’s apartment is located above a movie theater showing a biblical film, The Story of Ruth who discovers and embraces God in a foreign and unexpected form.
– A supporting character’s name is Delilah, and the story of Samson and Delilah is told twice.
– Meanwhile Giles (the aging unemployed artist) grows back his hair as, like Samson, he owns his ability to help destroy the enemies of the alien god he’s come to love.
– Like the Roman soldier at the foot of Jesus’ cross, Strickland as representative of the patriarchal military, finally recognizes and confesses that the monster is indeed god.
Yes, this film is about our experience of the divine, about God’s shape, and omnipresence. It’s about baptism, cleansing, and salvific intercourse with the divine. It’s about death and resurrection and making it possible for the divine to manifest itself. It’s about the work of misfits (and especially women) that enables the divine to fit into a world created by men – specifically by a military committed to the death of God. It’s about females cleaning up the messes that men create everywhere, from their bathrooms to the battlefield and the world at large.
As Sally Hawkins clutches her Oscar, watch for those feminist and perhaps even theological themes in her acceptance speech.
In the end, however, The Shape of Water is about the total commitment that the discovery of God provokes. For a moment, as the film concludes, Elisa recovers her voice. She gazes at the monstrous but fascinating object of her love and prays the haunting words of the picture’s central air, “You’ll Never Know.” She whispers:
If I can do one thing more
To prove that I love you,
I swear I don’t know how.
You’ll never know
If you don’t know now.
Would that we could all make that prayer our own!