It feels wrong to analyze The Shape of Water.
Cinema is a widely varied medium of artistic expression. Some movies are meant to pick apart: earlier this year, Darren Aronofsky's mother! begged for dissection with its multi-layered Biblical allegory and practically academic approach to allusion. Others do not invite such examination, sometimes because they have little to nothing to say—an uninspired summer blockbuster, for example, or a romance with Nicholas Sparks' name attached like a litmus test for the discernment of the masses.
Then there are films that curb analytical tendencies with an air of enchantment immune to systematic scrutiny. Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water is this type of film—to dissect it would be to pull the wings off of a fairy.
The tale is deserving of such a magical moniker. Del Toro is keen on identifying the genre of his own works: he was the harshest critic of the marketing effort behind 2015's Crimson Peak, decrying its 'horror' label and saturating Twitter with calls of "it's a gothic romance!" But Crimson Peak was a showcase of tonal confusion; a handsome but hollow experience wary of any genre commitment. Thankfully, The Shape of Water is more along the lines of del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, in tone and in quality. It's a fairy tale that finds the fantastical in soul as much as it does in myth.
Central to its pathos is Elisa, a withdrawn woman working as a janitor at the Occam Aerospace Research Center. Her timidity isn't the only thing that distances her from her coworkers: she's mute, communicating through gesture and Sally Hawkins' breathtakingly expressive body language. Her sole friend at the Center is Zelda, the only African-American woman grinding through the 1960s setting, aided by her Octavia Spencer demeanor. Elisa's neighbor—Richard Jenkins, surviving The Cabin in the Woods to act alongside monsters again—is a gay artist struggling with the lonely existence inherent to that life at that time.
Fairy tales aren't purveyors of subtlety, as they teach via an act of emotional affect. The Shape of Water's primary players are clear embodiments of "the Other": disabled, feminine, black, homosexual, isolated bodies, removed from the community of normalcy due to standards set by bodies powerful, masculine, white, heterosexual, Christian. The broad strokes of the film's villain, acted viciously into reality by Michael Shannon, synthesize these qualities of the oppressor into one being. The encapsulation of the Other? An amphibious, humanoid, misunderstood water creature.
The chess pieces are blatant—it's the gracefulness of their movements and the gorgeous design of the board that bring The Shape of Water to shimmering life. Production design and lighting intricately echo the film's themes: the toxic construct of normalcy that Shannon represents is given a bright yellow treatment (sharing a reference with mother! to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper); the rest of the film is awash with teal green locales and muddy lighting, in order to enunciate the contrast of life's grey areas within the movie's context.
This context is empathy with and love for the Other: written beautifully, acted with resonance, and underlined by an affectionate score. Through the magic of Elisa's Other falling in love with the creature's Other, The Shape of Water finds truth in gazing longingly at defiant connections in the face of power. The plot plays out just as you'd expect and the film's heart rarely swims below surface level, but this is a fairy tale—the only constructive complaint I have is that spending more time with Elisa and the creature as they fall for one another would've done wonders for the rest of the film. The sweet obviousness is here to splash water in your eyes, not spur your mind to analyze.
The Shape of Water is a stunning ode to what filmmaking can make you feel. See it to believe it.