"The Shape of Water" and the Loneliness of 'Other'
From Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro comes the Academy Award winning film, The Shape of Water, starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, and Octavia Spencer.
The film follows the story of Elisa Esposito, a mute janitor who lives life on a routine that begins with a ringing alarm clock, a self-pleasuring bath, a pot of boiled eggs, and a dash out the door to a job working nights at a large, mysterious government facility during the height of the Cold War.
The film centers around the discovery of a captured aquatic creature being examined and experimented on in one of the facilities many labs. After the creature violently lashes out at one of its captors, Elisa and her friend and fellow janitor, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are called in to clean up the carnage.
Elisa becomes captivated by the creature, sneaking in to the lab on her lunch break to expose the creature to human things like music and hard-boiled eggs. Though verbal language is impossible for them—she, because she is mute, and he because he is not human—the two form a bond that transcends the limits of verbal language, growing in trust through action. They become so attached to one another that Elisa risks her job (and life) to rescue the creature from being put to death, sneaking him out of the facility in a bin of damp rags, with some help from Zelda and her eccentric next door neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins.)
Though many things stand out about this film, from the visuals to its treatment of sexuality, one of the most prominent themes of The Shape of Water is the isolated reality that exists for those who find themselves in the category of “other.”
Those whom society have deemed “other” are any whose nature or appearance does not conform to the status quo, either because of inherent attributes they have no control over or a stubborn refusal to conform. The difficulty had by those who dare to walk a different path, by fate or by choice, is well chronicled in literature and film, and far too often in real, waking lives. Singled out as targets, those who live their lives under the label of “other” swim upstream in a tide that is mercilessly against them from the outset, struggling against the current every day of their lives.
Elisa, the protagonist of the film, is “other” because she is mute. Her best friend and neighbor, Giles, is “other” because he is well in to middle age, unemployed and closeted in a time when homosexuality was viewed as a criminal offense. Giles spends his days doing freelance artwork in hopes of earning his old job back, and occasionally heading down to the diner for some terrible key lime pie just to talk to the young man behind the counter that he is painfully attracted to. Giles and Elisa share an endearing friendship forged in the existential panic of feeling completely alone in a hostile world, each realizing that without the other, they would have nothing and no one.
Perhaps the most obvious misfit in the film is the captive aquatic creature, taken prisoner by what he can only believe to be a hostile specious, tortured and locked up for committing the unforgivable crime of being what he is; different, unknowable, and therefore threatening. The friends he does eventually find in the strange new world he finds himself in are also outcasts. And like him, they are outcasts through no fault of their own. They do not have gills or come from the Sea, yet they embody attributes that the status quo can’t accept and won’t contain. It isn’t terribly surprising, given their label as “other” that the sea creature and Elisa become fascinated with one another quickly. Out of that fascination, a fragile trust blooms, then a gentle affection, then at last, love.
While audiences may find it squeamish and endlessly comedic to consider a human being falling in love with what is essentially a man-sized fish, the point stands that a living being, aquatic or not, mute or not, employed or not, gay or not, is whole and complete inside themselves; a place the world doesn’t see. And far, far too often it takes another in the category of “other” to see the completeness in someone the rest of the world has cast off. They are together in their loneliness and so are more open to accepting one another as whole because they know themselves to be whole, if also unacceptable to the larger world because of their differences.
The Shape of Water teaches us that in a world where those who are different are often threatened, marginalized, treated violently, or simply ignored for being “other”, there is community, humor, friendship, loyalty, passion, beauty and love off of the beaten path of normalcy. If the world can open its eyes to it, there is a beautiful world in the land of “other,” as vast and varied as the deepest depths of water.