'The Shape of Water' Is a Dreamy, Delightful Masterpiece

Guillermo del Toro's latest uses music to help others speak when they simply can't.

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Dec 20 2017, 3:57pm

Fox Searchlight

The main characters in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water may be mute, the film is anything but. Through music, The Shape of Water most clearly asserts itself as a romance and, in del Toro’s words, “a love letter to love and cinema.”

The film takes place in the early 1960s prior to John F. Kennedy’s assassination, centered around a woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) who was rendered mute as an infant and now works as a janitor at a government facility. When the facility becomes home to an amphibious creature (Doug Jones), she finds a kindred spirit and, what’s more, begins to fall in love. The creature doesn’t speak any human language, but he and Elisa slowly come to understand each other through other means.

As Elisa, Hawkins is a mesmerizing presence, and even though she’s primarily a land-dweller, Alexandre Desplat’s score—along with the set design’s dreamy greens and blues— practically sets her afloat. The music is constantly moving, be it a series of arpeggios or other patterns mimicking the constant movement and rippling of water. The orchestration further drives home this aquatic sensibility with dreamy harp threads and flutes woven throughout the score.

Through his orchestration, Desplat also gives Elisa a voice, practically speaking in Desplat’s score through whistling. The Amphibian Man, similarly, sneaks into the score via the accordion. At first, it would seem he’s present through foreboding staccato strings, but it’s just an initial impression; that darkness is what the world chooses to perceive in him, not who he truly is. The more Elisa comes to know and care for him, the more something else—something beautiful—comes to light.

And it’s not just the music in the score that informs the tone of The Shape of Water—it’s also the music the characters listen to. One of the ways that Elisa establishes communication with the Amphibian Man is through music, as she plays jazz records for him while cleaning the laboratory. Then there are the old musicals that Elisa watches with Giles (Richard Jenkins), who lives next door to her above a movie theater (where, later, she finds the Amphibian Man transfixed by The Story of Ruth). We catch glimpses of various movies and TV shows, including The Little Colonel, Coney Island, and Mister Ed—the last one particularly fitting, given the talking animal at its center. But the one film that really transfixes Elisa is Hello, Frisco, Hello. “You'll never know just how much I miss you,” sings Alice Faye, “You'll never know just how much I care.”

The feeling of love is impossible to capture in words, but Faye’s song holds a dual meaning for Elisa, who’ll literally never be able to communicate to the Amphibian Man exactly how she feels for him. It’s this knowledge that makes the film’s dream sequence so devastating: Sitting across from the Amphibian Man, and knowing that she must return him to the water despite the bond between them, she opens her mouth and—improbably—begins to sing.

At first, the words are a rasp in Elisa’s throat—but as she continues, her voice grows clearer and the palette of the movie falls away, transporting her into a black-and-white world pulled straight from the films she watches. Suddenly, Elisa and the Amphibian Man are Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, dancing in front of a full orchestra as she sings to him. The vision is short-lived, but it’s easily the most striking sequence in the film.

When Elisa describes her relationship with the Amphibian Man to Giles, she signs to him, “The way he looks at me, he doesn’t know what I lack, or how I am incomplete.” But in the world of cinema, she is no longer “incomplete;” she no longer lacks her voice. Ultimately, however, the only thing she is lacking is love, and she finds that by the movie’s end. That the loss of her voice should be seen as an insufficiency is only something that the monsters of her world have ingrained in her.

The fact that The Shape of Water’s two leads are both incapable of speech doesn’t render it any less capable of forging an emotional connection with its audience. There’s still plenty to listen to, and akin to a silent film, the movie's emotions are telegraphed via music, both in terms of the score and with the slivers of other films that are woven throughout. To wit, only Elisa and the Amphibian Man are afforded distinct musical voices and themes, and the third musical motif in the movie is simply a combination of the two. The Shape of Water is unquestionably a love story, and the interplay of film and music both within the movie and in its construction make it impossible not to fall in love with it.

Follow Karen Han on Twitter.

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