On ‘The Shape of Water,’ Loneliness, and the Purpose of Sexual Intimacy

In Featured, Media and Culture by Sam Hendrian

– By Sam Hendrian –

Well, the Academy has spoken, and Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water has been declared the best movie of 2017. Whether or not you agree with the Academy’s decision– I myself would have chosen Phantom Thread— it is undeniable that The Shape of Water is a beautifully filmed and thought-provoking piece of cinema despite its flawed storytelling and morality. Del Toro’s film offers a poignant and much-needed (if incomplete) glimpse of the enigma of loneliness, and it raises compelling questions about the role sexual intimacy plays in fulfilling a person’s natural human desire to love and be loved.

It may be easy to quickly pass judgment on the mute janitor Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) when we see her pleasuring herself in the bathtub within the first few scenes of the film. After all, masturbation is an unchaste and ultimately self-demeaning act, so it is troubling to see the hero of our story conduct this act so freely and nonchalantly. But while we can’t condone what Elisa is doing, we should at least attempt to understand her human motivation behind the act. As we quickly learn, Elisa is a deeply lonely soul, and while she has two solid friends in her landlord Giles (Richard Jenkins) and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), she longs to have someone in her life who really understands her on a three-dimensional level and is willing to give entirely of himself to her physically, spiritually, and emotionally. She has become immensely discouraged about ever finding such intimacy with a person, and she attempts to numb the pain of this discouragement through her bathtub routine.

When Elisa meets a humanoid sea creature with god-like powers who is being held captive for research at the facility where she works, she quickly sees in him a fellow lonely soul who can perhaps give her the intimacy she has always craved. She sneaks him out of the facility and into the apartment where she lives, and it is here that their relationship takes on a brief but passionate level of intimacy. Now, many people may be quick to flinch at this demonstration of bestiality (the creature is human-like but also quite amphibious), but let us put such flinching aside for a moment and simply examine what Elisa and the creature hope to receive from their sexual relationship.

Unable to speak for all of her life due to scars cruelly inflicted upon her as a baby, Elisa has been ostracized and mistreated by a majority of the human beings she has come in contact with over the years, and she longs more than anything to know that there is someone out there who deeply and unconditionally loves her. The creature, too, has experienced much ostracizing and mistreatment– he is tortured in the research facility at the hands of the sadistic Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon)– and it is safe to bet that, although not entirely human, he also has a burning desire to be loved on a deep and intimate level. In this regard, Elisa and the creature are truly soulmates, and in giving entirely of themselves to each other, they find a deep peace and fulfillment that they have never known before.

Of course, sexual intimacy can only achieve its fullest and noblest purpose within the lifelong bond of marriage, and even in a progressive culture, it is highly unlikely that Elisa and the creature would ever be able to legally or sacramentally tie the knot. Nevertheless, the transcendental consolation and unity they find in each other is a beautiful if flawed representation of what sexual intimacy is largely about, and as the film concludes with the insinuation that they will be spending the rest of their lives together, one cannot help but feel emotionally satisfied and happy for them.

The Shape of Water may not have really been the best movie of 2017, but it is definitely one of the most memorable, and it provides rich food for thought about the deep yearnings of lonely souls and the purpose of sexual intimacy in human lives. Fortunately, as Catholics we know that whether we are married or single, lonely or abounding with friends, misunderstood or respected by all, we are each called to an eternal intimacy with the One who loved us first, an intimacy that will satisfy us more than any human relationship ever could. 

About the Author

Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.