What Is “The Shape of Water?”

What is the shape of water, anyway? Liquid, right? No, wait, “liquid” isn’t a shape, it’s a quality, like “flighty” or “rambunctious” or “wildly imaginative,” isn’t it?

Or is liquid a sound, like that of rushing waters or the slurping of jello or the gurgly slip-slap of lovers deep in the rhythms of coitus mellifluous?

The beautiful sound and sight and feel of liquid’s most essential and satisfying form is everywhere in Guillermo del Toro’s current, compulsively watchable movie, “The Shape of Water.” del Toro both wrote and directed it in the kind of creative project control that gets all artists giddy with anticipation and all critics sharpening their knives to pierce the artist’s overreach.

What emerges from his fertile imagination sometimes feels as liquid and ungraspable as the water that seems to slosh everywhere but onto the theater seat one is sitting in, while it hews at other times to archetypal thematic devices as solid and hoary as a marble monument.

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It’s all here as del Toro’s water—in bathtubs, bays, holding tanks, whole apartments, and falling relentlessly from the skies—finds its own multiple levels in this fable of good vs. evil, beauty and the beast, innocence vs. rapaciousness, Christ and those who would vivisect him. The first half-hour is a pastiche of fast-moving jumps that gives its audience little to hold onto, just like the water, yes, the water, that flows from one scene to the next, its context liquid and shapeless, its course surprising, its ultimate destination unknown.

And just when you get visions of a manic modernist sensibility that will not bestow any favors on your linear thought that tries to make sense of what you’re seeing and how it ties into what you just saw a moment before, the whole tale settles into the kind of convention-and-tension filled narrative arc that has you wondering: Is this more homage to “King Kong” or “Beauty and the Beast?” “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” or the far older story of Christ condemned by know-and-feel-nothings while his resurrection awaits another turn in the plot, attended all along by his faithful and kind Mary Magdalene?

The answer is all of these, of course. del Toro is a noted film and culture historian besotted with the long meandering rivers of his craft. In this singularly interesting movie that takes “interesting” far beyond any conventional usage of that term, he honors what has flowed through him while also serving a muse that conjures phantasmagoric imagery at nearly every turn.

Sly comedy intrudes throughout, helping to buffer occasional gruesome and queasy-making scenes while also adding distance to the movie’s own self-importance. The film’s tail will not be caught, its plot not dropped into any handy pigeonhole.

Big fable and drama and love story, dribs and drabs of comedy and musical, major dollops of morality tale. Villains and heroes and sex, the raw beastliness of humans and the refined innocence of beasts; this parental advisory says you’d better go elsewhere for a one-trick movie pony.

Life is too fantastic for any of that reductionist nonsense, the human imagination too vivid, the geography of desire too varied. The surprise lurking under every cover that we try to fold neatly and primly to the point of suffocation will spring out ever and again, drenching us every time we think we know what to expect and how it will play.

Wet and confused and shivering, we have a choice to make about how to respond. Everything in “The Shape of Water” suggests: If you’ve gone and gotten yourself wet for whatever reason, but especially for the cause of goodness and righteousness and love, head for the bay and call it a swim. The shape of its water awaits you.

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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. See more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Water droplet by Tim Geers https://www.flickr.com/photos/timypenburg/

 Water over stairs by Lynn Gardner https://www.flickr.com/photos/grandgrrl/

11 comments to What Is “The Shape of Water?”

  • Gerry Ausiello  says:

    I give it 8 on a scale of 1 to 10.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I think that’s about where I’d score it too, Gerry, though maybe a half-point higher. Makes me curious, though: think you could identify the source of your 2-point deduction?

  • Jay Helman  says:

    I came away from the film completely speechless: touched deeply, yet unable to articulate what I was feeling beyond being heart-touched, and a bit stunned. Fascinating experience.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      That’s exactly the reason I sat down to write this post, Jay. Lot of rumbling around inside while I was walking & thinking & being washed over by it; decided to explore what those rumbles were about. I encourage you to do the same and come back here to share!

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Well done my friend – the lovely flow of your prose – ” coitus mellifluous?” …”visions of a manic modernist sensibility” and many more – flows like, dare I say, water??!! Funny, our 23 yr old daughter didn’t like it, thought it was silly while my wife and I LOVED it… the delights of art I suppose, “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor” Paul Simon advises… My niece is the Director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art where they hosted a large exhibit of Del Toro’s (https://new.artsmia.org/del-toro/ – nice short video re: Del Toro’s muse)… she said he was an utterly delightful, if quirky, human being! Will send this to my daughter, but doubt it will change her mind! Thanks for the scrumptious post!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      You’re most welcome, Kevin. Would be great for your daughter to see it 10, 20, 40 years from now and see what became of the movie in her estimation. She’s right, of course—parts of it were indeed silly, but very purposely so. Sometimes I object as strongly as she apparently did here to “silly” in movies, and other times I give it a great big & wide pass…

  • Gerry Ausiello  says:

    First of all, Andrew, no 1/2 points available – I would have to go to a 9 or 10 in my movie rating system. Those are reserved for the truly momentous films (Shawshank Redemption, A Few Good Men, Don Juan DeMarco). My basis for the score of 8 – unique story line made believable by the acting and the script, beautifully filmed in a dark, foreboding sort of way, suspenseful.

  • kirk thill  says:

    I too am still reeling from the “gurgly slip-slap of lovers deep in the rhythms of coitus mellifluous”. Reminds me of forgotten hot nights on a sheetless waterbed. Maybe you should try a romance novel! :)

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Kirk, if I could keep it going for the requisite 200 pages or so and remember to use the words “bodice” and “heaving” a dozen or two times, I’d do it in a heartbeat to make my first million…

  • Jay Helman  says:

    OK, Mr. Andrew, you suggested I ponder a little more and then return and, so, here goes: The image of “shadowy” came to mind as another way of viewing the creature in the film. That then made me think of the unconscious and of Carl Jung. One thing has led to another and I find myself daily thinking about the shadow within, the beast within, and the importance of embracing all that the soul encompasses. I would now like to see the film again with this in mind. I heard Del Toro mention the significance of monsters in his life as he accepted his Golden Globe. This, I admit, prompted me to think of “monsters within,” which then translated into the shadow, the unconscious, and unfathomable depth and complexity of the soul.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Ah yes, Jung again, lurking damn near everywhere just below every surface! I’m struck that with all Jung’s urging that we meet and make peace with our inner monsters and demons, del Toro’s monster was just as sweet and peaceful as can be, and turned out to be a kind of Christ figure and ultimate healer for those with eyes to see. Not so my own inner monsters, I must say, although maybe they, too, are ultimately more gentle than I know. del Toro’s monster, after all, was pretty fierce and violent when not “seen” and accepted for who he was by those scientists and generals.

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