There’s nothing like a good fairy tale, especially one with teeth — and Mexican writer/producer/director Guillermo del Toro has plenty of teeth to go around. Not to mention lovers, monsters and the overwhelming power stories have to connect.
The Shape of Water, del Toro’s latest, is a Beauty and the Beast story set in a sparsely populated, rain-soaked Baltimore during the Cold War. In this dreary world, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins, simply magnificent) lives more or less happy with everything around her. Esposito — Italian slang for orphan, one of the movie’s recurring themes — lives above an aging movie palace and begins each day like the last: spend five or so minutes masturbating in the tub, boil some eggs for lunch and then head off to work at a super-secret government facility.
A bit of backstory: when Esposito was young, her throat was slashed on both sides, leaving her mute. Her next door neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), and her co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), do the talking for her but, like most who’ve lost their abilities, Esposito has found a way to communicate: her expressive eyes and face. She can sign, but it isn’t really necessary. We need only to consider her face to understand everything about her.
Esposito and Zelda work as cleaning ladies in a facility that is perpetually wet — shiny as if the floor was either just mopped or in desperate need of it — spending each day toweling off and cleaning up whatever spills occur. The spills come tenfold when Strickland (Michael Shannon), a G-Man with a mean streak, shows up with an aquatic merman creature from South America for research purposes.
Esposito’s curiosity, and attraction, to the Amphibian Man (played by Doug Jones) sets the Beauty and the Beast motif in motion while del Toro fleshes out his world with side plots of Russian espionage, Giles’ difficulty fitting into American-hetero conformity and Strickland’s overwhelming need to be a dominant male in a world quickly slipping through his rotten fingers. Remarkably, these side stories do not distract from Esposito and the Amphibian Man’s relationship. They inform the world Esposito and the Amphibian Man are trying to make it in; a world quick to react and slow to understand.
Understanding is what makes Esposito and the Amphibian Man’s relationship so tender — a tenderness that develops almost instantly with their first interactions. You can barely believe nary a word is spoken between the two, yet there is an undeniable connection. To borrow a line from Heinrich Zimmer: “The best things in life cannot be told.” That’s what del Toro is driving at: truth not through declaration and proclamation, but through action and compassion; through eggs, sex, water and, most importantly, fantasy. A fantasy that is as present as oxygen to people who live above a movie theater and constantly have the TV on.
It’s no wonder that Esposito didn’t bat an eye when she first met the Amphibian Man; she’s been living in a fairy tale her entire life.