“Say what I sign”: The Languages of Love in “The Shape of Water”

(There be spoilers below.)

What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be inhuman? These are two questions that Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, “The Shape of Water,” explores like, well, like the great sea itself. And as with the sea, there are many forms, both frightening and beautiful, that the film has found in its plummet-sounding of the monstrous and less common deeps.

If there were one all-encompassing theme that could sum up (but never label) “The Shape’s” answer to what makes a human human, I think it would be language. To borrow a scientific definition, human beings are language-making animals. As Dr. Hoffstetler points out at the beginning of the film, it is the creature’s capability for language that renders him “intelligent,” and therefore worthy of careful study and consideration. But film’s focus goes even deeper and wider than these terms. It presents a wide array of vessels designed to hold and convey the human shape. But just how truly these vessels hold, and to what end they actually convey, the fuller figure of the human being—this, I think, is what the film most wants to fathom.


The film is full of languages, some of them shallow, and some of them deep. Some of them are confining, restrictive, and denigrating, and some are validating, enlivening, and liberating.

Occupying a kind of middle level are the neutral mechanics of verbal and non-verbal language: the American English of most characters and the Russian of Dr. Hoffstetler (whose real name is Dimitri); the sign language of Elisa and her closest friends; the many meanings of body language, which can be inscrutable or threatening, happily perspicuous (as in a smile, or a certain stare) or clearly perilous (as in a sneer, or another kind of stare); and the simple potency of touch, which can be used for brutality or tenderness. Also in this middle ground, I would say, is the language of science, which can in its testing find realities deeper than sentience or else dissect bodies down to their raw materials, as well as the language of food, which can be a vehicle for connection (Elisa’s “egg” to the creature; what Giles’ “pie” hopes and appears to be) or an instrument for suppression and estrangement (the purported anaphrodisiac properties of Cornflakes; what the “Pie Guy’s” supposed service really means for the marginalized).

Toward the shallower end is the language of cliché and catchphrase, which tends to maintain the hunky-dory façade of Cold War hegemony, from the false and derivative affectations of the “Pie Guy” (his “Y’all come back now, y’hear?” from the Beverly Hillbillies—false and derivative itself) to the advertisements lining the highways that feature the artificial flavor of families beaming over green gelatin parfait.

There is also the cheap language of labeling, which comes out of the currency of assumption: for instance, Giles’ dismissal of the Amphibian Man as “inhuman,” or the frequent perfunctory references to Elisa as “mute” and the implicit treatment of her as sub-intelligent, when she is, in fact, far from speechless and dumb.

Even shallower is the language of authority, which for all its big bold all-caps mandates says very little: “IT’S EVERYONE’S REPSONSIBILITY TO KEEP THIS AREA SAFE AND CLEAN.” A subset of this is the language of prohibition, the morally rigid restriction of certain acts, including those of speech, as in the swearing and “blasphemy” decried by the ever-nervous Fleming. And still shallower, but also more unsettled by covert violence, is the language of bigotry, such as the “Pie Guy’s” homophobic use of the term “family” to ban Giles from the restaurant after his hapless self-outing, or Strickland’s backhanded comment to Zelda that she is unusual for being one of two children, as “your people” usually come from crowded families.

And finally, at the roughest end of this language spectrum, there is the language of coercion, of oppressive power, which regards the Amphibian Man merely to be an “Asset” for its uses in the Cold War and considers true “decency” to be winning wars over other peoples no matter the cost—the common kind being a mere “export” for lesser beings to grow weak off of. In short, this language goes beyond those of the subtly suppressive status quo—it goes further by making being in any form less than it is. It is the negative pole to possibility. It is the slightly more sophisticated expression of brute contest.

The language of coercion forms the great antagonistic force in “The Shape of Water,” and it is most fully manifest in the character of Strickland. Indeed, what makes his character so imposing is not just his violent action, but also the violent rhetoric with which he compounds it. (His cherished cattle prod is his swinging exclamation point.) Arguably, his words take on the hardest shape in the movie, colder and crueler and more absolutely implacable even than his touch.

He turns pop-psychological platitudes of The Power of Positive Thinking toward the service of negative power. He bends and sharpens the rod of moralizing into a scythe to cut down the dispensable identities around him, giving an aggressively sententious lesson to Zelda and Elisa about the meaning of the word “affront,” and claiming with categorical certainty that the creature he has caught fits squarely in this metaphysical caste. He twists the language of scripture into a cord to bind others to his limited literal idea of what the image of God looks like: himself.[1] Like his mentor in coercion, General Hoyt, Strickland ends up manipulating the more neutral, functional language in the process of manipulating others to do his will. In abusing the Amphibian Man both physically and verbally, he has “tamed” him. In intimidating and hypothetically (and therefore rhetorically) assaulting Elisa, he has attempted to make her “squawk.”

In these instances, Strickland’s language quite strikingly represents a form of thought that might be called the grotesque of playing God. He is superior to all—Zelda is less of a likeness to the divine than he, and the “Asset” is damned to deviant dissimilarity. He is the sole owner of scriptural interpretation. He is the nightmare version of Adam, subduing creation down to next to nothing. He is the idol of God’s ossified masculinity, a creator in his self-asserted sovereign right over the feminine, inspiring a voice where there was (supposedly) no voice through the throttling of his words.

But even deeper than this, and almost unbeknownst to him but clearly seen in the film, is Strickland’s state of himself being coerced. In the process of the film, we witness the immense pressure of the force behind his forcefulness, the hand pressing his hand. His admired mentor masters him maybe even more ruthlessly than he himself does his subordinates—for Hoyt promises a Strickland-shaped hole in the universe should he fail. Within this conversation, we see, for a moment, the face and words of the implacable Strickland turn to placating. This is one of the film’s great depths, that it sees in the figures of power the master will that most makes slaves of those who most closely identify with it. Though his language, like all language, represents his own personal thought and will, Strickland’s thought and will in turn are possessed by the impersonal force that he serves. Even his penchant for stupefying obscenity represents a pure, unsublimated drive in his society—put one way, it is the survival instinct now risen to the spiritual level, the hunger urge convinced that only total control is the truest food. Thus, Strickland stuns his victims with swearing not merely because he is an asshole, but because he desperately needs to eat.

It soon becomes clear just how infelicitous this devilish logos is inside the human form. The self-asserted God always dies in demonic utterances. Strickland harangues himself with his own blunt, repetitive language, as if the parlance of his position has possessed him. He gives himself a demented pep-talk about his one bare purpose, to “deliver”—a cliché twisted by a society’s frenzied urge for control, powered by an impossible and therefore monstrous manliness. For Strickland, in seeking to apprehend the supposed weapon insanely purported to win the war, strives like a mad father to provide an impossible permanent prosperity not only for his own family, but for the national nuclear family as well. Within this unforgiving grip, he loses his sometime iron grip on the situation, now literally tearing his own hand apart to grasp himself again. Even his name is evocative of the constricting country that he comes from—a strict land, strict coming from the Latin strictus for “to tighten.” He is the gnarled shape come out of an overly fixed ontology.


So far I have only gone from what I have metaphorically termed the “middle level” to the “shallow” end of the “language spectrum,” from the kind that performs basic functions to that which diminishes and dominates. In more mathematical terms, these language types range from the median to the lowest value in “The Shape of Water.” But the film’s moral gauge is not a circular meter—the dial does not spin closest to the highest value when it reaches its farthest opposite. It is not a flat gauge but instead a deep sense—namely, of desire, which is an instinctual surging toward something vast and pulling, a flowing out and a drawing in to some largely unknown and perhaps ultimately unlimited space. The film’s potentially infinite qualitative difference is the language of love, in all its dialects, both realized and not quite.

This language, unlike that of power, is entirely positive. Where the other negates, this affirms. Where the other restricts, this unleashes, and even enlarges.

The most common type of love in the film is platonic—that is, love as friendship, love as acceptance and appreciation. However, this is not to say that acceptance and appreciation are widespread. Rather, in “The Shape of Water,” friendship forms a close and often hidden community within the alienating society at large, and its languages present a more effective if covert communication between private personalities and experiences. Giles can safely confide his deepest desires unashamedly to Elisa. Zelda can voice her grievances and tell her stories and find an open ear—a silence no longer enforced on her, but rather given to her by a content listener. And with both Giles and Zelda, Elisa can speak her own sign language, and find ready interpreters of her socially muted self. These friends are to each other the rarest things in their respective worlds: partners fluent in each other’s particular languages.

(Similarly, Elisa bears a kind of receptive fluency for hearing the Amphibian Man’s songs as more than mere sound, more than the accident of an animal nature.)

But there are other shared signs besides signing, stories, and confession. For the film’s friends, food is a sign of intentional community. Between Elisa and Giles, there is a greater significance behind sandwiches—namely, the kind of daily care that makes Elisa a Ruth to Giles’ Naomi, a kinsman redeemer of the family for him who has no family. (Sadly, Dr. Hoffstetler/Dimitri’s butter cake stands as a tragically ironic instance of this.) Between Elisa and the Amphibian man, there is something far more fecund inside a hardboiled egg than sustenance—it is the hatching of an extravagant romance with otherness, and the birth of a form of communication that reaches further than words.

These languages are all expressive of found love—happy satisfactions of the basic human need for connection; but they do not articulate the profounder yearning of Elisa for the erotic—that state of love that is scarily ecstatic, that dangerous change that destroys the sad safety of separation to make wild new unions.

The language of color begins to express this yearning. Living cloistered in a world of overbearing green—classically symbolic of envy and lust—Elisa gradually acquires vivid red clothing—classically symbolic of romantic love generally and sexually desire particularly.[2] Through her shoes, coat, handbag and headband, she begins to stand out against her sickly, power-jealous backdrop. Contrary to Strickland’s only relationship to red—that of wrung blood—Elisa’s color represents the vital selfhood she has found in finding the Amphibian Man.

(Not coincidentally, it is after she has crowned herself in her red headband that Elisa takes up swearing in sign language—at Strickland, who is none the wiser, and furious at knowing so—and practically swims in the private power of her subversive love.)

The language of color spreads out into the language of visual art. Indeed, as many have noticed, the film is on a certain level a “love letter to old Hollywood,” to cinema generally, to creativity itself—and to the peculiar creativity of monsters.[3]

Throughout the film pictures, both still and moving, pop up as vivacious portals through which the characters can escape their dispiriting surroundings. Giles’ paintings are windows into a classic if confounded ideal of American happiness—and a compensatory way for him to relate to the society in which he has to hide. Likewise, his apartment is also filled with historical black and white photography, and his television plays movies from old Hollywood. The pictorial and filmic arts have given Giles a vicarious way to belong to a nonexistent golden age. And yet, these arts have a more purely positive power, for they are capable of gathering widely dissimilar people into a shared experience: the theater below Elisa’s apartment sits as an ample, if under-attended, venue for diverse ethnicities (and even a gill-man) to witness grand story and spectacle; sitting on a couch watching a Shirley Temple tap dance number, Giles and Elisa communicate fleeter than speech with only their feet; by the end of the movie, Giles has gone from the clean and safe commercial illustrations of the cheery all-white American family to a series of vigorous chiaroscuro portraits of the wild Amphibian man—his pictures in form and content now holding an actual, personal relevance for him, a passionate, fantastic reality to which he truly belongs. Even more so, Elisa’s donning of red, serves both to connect her with fairy tale and cinematic mythos and to compound these troubled traditions with her individual story of happy love. Through her red shoes alone, she rewrites a previous narrative of the tragic pursuit of impossible perfection with a quiet posture of actualized enjoyment.

Of course, visual art is not the only form that desire for common life takes. There is also that quickening art, music. The film shows that special strength of song to insinuate itself into the tightest environments, creating a swooning, swimming atmosphere even in a stifling bunker.

Elisa in particular uses music as a means for expanding her private longings for happy romance. In the middle of her menial and sometimes gruesome tasks—such as mopping up blood and other bodily fluids, or just generally cleaning up after boyishly hideous men—she smoothly slips into dance, turning her tool into a partner. After indulging her curiosity about the creature—that he may not in fact be a savage beast at all—and finding it true, she begins her first communications with the Amphibian Man by sneaking her records and turntable into the restricted area and playing titles like Glenn Miller’s “I know Why (And So Do you).” In this song in particular, the film, through the marriage of melody and lyric, conveys the still-submerged, not-yet-surfaced status of the erotic in life, and the special understanding of this that can occur between two people: “Why do robins sing in December? / Long before the springtime is due? / And even though it’s snowing the violets are growing. / I know why and so do you.” Indeed, music makes for much of the implicit bond that becomes the private world between Elisa and the Amphibian Man. When the threat of the outside world proves imminent to this privacy, Elisa still indulges in music as a kind of consolation, imagining a movie scene in which she and the creature can share one last dance, and in which she can finally have the voice to sing what can never fully be said.

And at last it is love’s communicable indescribability, its fluid shapelessness, that powers so much of “The Shape of Water.” This is the meaning that moves beneath the forms of character and reference, of politics and art, and rises up to crest resplendently in the figures of Elisa and the Amphibian Man.

How do these two convey this shapeable shapelessness? On a more surface level, but with profound effect, they do so through that seemingly primitive vessel, the body. When Elisa touches the purported monster, gently and affectionately, as if he were no monster, the creature’s skin begins to glow with blue bioluminescence. His skin shows the trails of her tenderness—a wondrous image for how one being can become a new creation because of another. And when the Amphibian Man touches Elisa, she awakens in more senses than one—she is not only healed and whole, but augmented. By giving her gills where there were once scars, the monster redeems the human, the Amphibian Man creates the Amphibian Woman—a being finally able to live where she feels most at home, not in the harsh dry air of the earth, but in the free-flowing boundlessness of the deep.

Indeed, it is in the image of the monster as a figure of romance that the film lifts up a symbol for human love. For it is in loving that human beings can best expand their realities. It is in loving that human beings can become one with otherness.[4]

The reckless love-making of Elisa and the Amphibian Man explodes and floods the lonely norm (literally speaking, her bathroom and apartment building). Indeed, it is in the nature of love to spread and reshape. Giles himself learns to communicate with the creature on his own terms—each holding the other’s bowed head in a kind of primordial communion, a strange, beautiful bond of trust. The cause of love rushes further outward than the original couple, encircling characters across rock hard identities of race and gender, across even warring nationalities and embattled species. The union of love creates communion for others, a common life where once only estrangement lived.

“Say what I sign,” Elisa tells Giles, and her friend listens. “When he looks at me, the way he look at me . . . He does not know, what I lack . . . Or—how—I am incomplete. He sees me, for what I—am, as I am.” Perhaps it is no accident that the creature’s initials spell “AM.” It is certainly no accident that it is Giles who confesses Elisa’s love, or that it is her friend who tells her story. It is not in the nature of love to be alone.

It is in the nature of love to do more than inhabit: in merely speaking, in merely appearing, it creates new worlds. It is a meaning too deep and wide to relate fully, or even closely. You have to resort to grand, outlandish gestures to try and touch on it.[5] At the end of the film, Giles resorts to the language of poetry: “Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find You all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with Your love, it humbles my heart, for You are everywhere.” The film itself, through its fulsome logos of word and image, of sight and sound, of scale and sea, seeks to incarnate a wonderful, if all too often fantastic claim: that human beings, for all their monstrousness, can be most like the image of God when they love.

(All photos: Fox Searchlight Pictures)


[1] Not to mention his close but anxious identification with the figure of Samson, and his thrusting of the ignominious character of Delilah onto Zelda.

[2] For discussions of the cinematic significance of green and red in “Vertigo” and “The Red Shoes” and del Toro’s intentional use of this, see: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/12/the-shape-of-water-production-design; https://filmschoolrejects.com/vertigo-color-and-identity-32a2f013616c/

[3]http://collider.com/the-shape-of-water-interview-sally-hawkins-octavia-spencer/; http://www.horror-movies.ca/2017/12/review-shape-water-mesmerizing-love-letter-monsters/


[5] Perhaps it is the deepest and widest meaning of all—a reality so thoroughly below us and around us, and perhaps already so largely in us, that we forget that we would not exist in the first place without it. Perhaps, as water is to the earth, as water is to the body, so is love the preconditioned majority of our being. (If only we did not ignore ourselves to thirst. If only we knew how to fill ourselves—but then what would such a flood look like.)


Pocket Picking

Pocket Pic

“They tell us that on the last day the sea will give up its dead; and I suppose that on the same occasion long strings of extraordinary things will come out of my pockets” (G.K. Chesterton, “What I Found in my Pocket”).

This is what I found in my pockets this week: keys, a pen, a wallet (mine), my cell phone, two bark chips, several wrung out flower petals (of unknown origin), a blue plastic bead, a ladybug hairclip (not mine), a Lego hand, and two broken pieces of white sea glass.

Who thinks about pockets these days? We take these poor, repressed, underpantsed things for granted.

When I stop to think about it, my pockets have always served me well. Without them, I would not be literally going places; without them I would not get home. I am convinced that on innumerable occasions they have saved my brow from the sweat of remembering, just as they have saved my mouth from admitting my poverty. I actually trust in my pockets. (In the case of money, of course, I trust my wallet as well. It is a double-coverage kind of faith.)[1] After all, a pair of pockets is a steadfast second set of hands.

But over the past several years, my pockets have begun to surprise me. In them I have noticed a new dual-importance growing. The first is vocational; the second is technological; both, you might say, are trans-personal. My pockets are connecting me to people.

The first is this: my work has involved my pockets in carrying more than my own personal effects. In teaching preschool- and kindergarten-age children, my pockets have become a veritable treasury of trinkets. Many’s the time I get an importunate hand pressing on my arm, with two round eyes leaning ever closer to me, and a little voice urging, “Hold this for me . . . Hold-this-for-me-please.” I only accept these miniscule burdens if the child doesn’t have any pockets of their own—if they are wearing a dress or sweatpants, or have those shallow, sewn-in flaps that hardly count (so why bother, Gymboree?)—or if the gewgaw in question would be safer with me—especially if it turns out to be Johnny’s mommy’s credit card, or Jane’s dad’s Masonic ring. But most of the time, when I take these tiny things upon myself, it is for the good grown-up reason that they are not appropriate in the activity or at school at all.

But lately—in truth, over the past decade or so—I have also noticed a presence in my pockets even more importunate—and, if it can be believed, even more imperious—than the nimbuses flaring from the children’s treasures. It has been burgeoning to a great concern, beyond an ingrained habit or a necessary evil, to the point of actual bodily care. It is my cell phone.

It rests in my pocket, but it emanates such an aura of utter relevance and necessity that I forget my very personal attachment to my pants. If I were to plunge into a lake, my heart would cry out for my phone, not my clothes or my life. Certainly not my hair. Were I to fall from a bridge, I am certain I would use the duration of the plummet to check if my phone was indeed woefully trapped in my pocket. I cannot completely disavow that the thought wouldn’t cross my mind of flinging it to the safety of dry land.[2]

(It’s not just me, of course. Whenever someone drops their phone the room gasps and flinches. The world watches in silent hopes of survival. If we happen to misplace our device, we sense the phantom phone inside our pocket or purse, despite what our fingers say. Sometimes it seems to me that the seat of my pocket, that place on my leg where a pocket has always resided, has now grown a mass in the shape of a phone. A sensory tumor.)

But it would be false to talk about my cell phone as a presence in my pocket without discussing what it really represents: people. Or, people of a certain sort. Indeed, I act as if I hold many people in my pocket. Some of them I communicate with directly, over literally long distances, as if they were virtually in the room; most of them I merely watch and scrutinize, or read as literal proofs of human errancy. To my mind they are manifestations of our “current situation,” which is always changing and ever increasingly urgent, sometimes doomsdayish. Whenever I have a free moment—even if it’s only an idle minute better spent staring into some suggestive texture on the wall—I pull these people out and try to “keep up.” Most of the time, when I am working or with real enfleshed people, I feel my cell phone’s clutches on me—a kind of vague and unwitting obsession with a thing that is merely sitting inside my pocket, yet a screen that is always promising to show me sign-people and threaded wonders. Continue reading “Pocket Picking”