Absence makes the heart grow fonder. You've heard this saying a million times, and you've probably frowned, slowly nodded your head side to side, shrugged your shoulders and let out a grumbly "yeah, that's pretty true".
What you may have not considered is that absence is a key ingredient in why romance stories work. Sure, you can use scalding hot chemistry to get people really invested in a romance, throwing in a good helping of two characters who push each other and make each other better. La La Land certainly uses this to great effect.
But absence is why stories about forbidden love, like Romeo and Juliet, are so timeless. You clearly and deeply understand that these two people love each other, and their situations want to rid the world of their love. You understand the absence of their love in the world and what that means, which makes you even more invested in their love.
Absence is the primary foundation of the romance at the heart of Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water. It's a film that seemingly picks up in the middle of the Cold War, in which the United States and Russia are engaged in a worldwide chess battle. It's a time where the greatest scientific achievements in human history, like putting a man in space and on the moon, were nothing more than propagandic chess moves.
It's a world filled with cynicism, and where the discovery of a new creature - the Amphibian Man - is nothing but another chance to stick one to the other side. It's on this tapestry that del Toro and his collaborators begin sketching in some of the finer details.
We're gradually introduced to different relationships in The Shape of Water, and each one is a darker underline on the romance between Sally Hawkins' Elisa Esposito and Amphibian Man.
Richard Jenkins' Giles is the first one up. He's an artist who works on ad campaigns and is in desperate need of a new job. There's a little diner down the road that serves pies, and Giles has taken a liking to the clerk there, only referred to as Pie Guy. Giles feels a connection with him, and he cutely goes to get a slice of pie every day, even though he can't stand the pie.
Octavia Spencer's Zelda and Michael Shannon's Richard are both married characters. Marriage, of course, is the logical end point of most romances. It's where love rides off in a carriage to live happily ever after. Even Michael Stuhlbarg's Dr. Robert Hoffstetler gets a relationship, though his is as a spy for the Soviet Union.
Yet as Elisa and Amphibian Man start to grow closer, the other relationships begin to fray. You see it early on in Richard's relationship with his wife. They're preparing to have sex, and things seem to be going along well until we're let in on a secret: Richard is not a faithful man. He puts his bloody, rotten fingers on his wife's mouth as they have sex, trying to silence her so he can fantasize about the mute Elisa.
Zelda talks about her husband several times in the beginning of the film, and while she complains you think their relationship is one of those cinematic tropes. A bickering couple that still genuinely loves each other - like a sitcom couple of some sort. But no, there's a genuine rot at the center of their relationship, which comes to a crossroads near the end when he sells out Elisa against his wife's wishes.
Even Hoffstetler's relationship with his KGB handlers starts fraying as he begins to push for a more scientific approach to studying the Amphibian Man, while the Soviets just want to keep the Americans from doing anything with any new knowledge they might gain from a being that's considered a god in South America and who can, apparently, heal people.
The most heartbreaking absence is definitely Giles', who finally makes a move on Pie Guy only to find out that he read the signs wrong. In fact, Pie Guy is a massive bigot who tells a sweet black couple they're not welcome at the diner moments before he tells the newly open Giles that gay people aren't welcome either.
Giles story is the one that has the most parallels to Elisa and Amphibian Man's romance, and that's because Giles is an outsider during the straight-laced American 1960s. Elisa is a mute, who relies on sign language to talk to people, while Giles is gay. They're both outsiders, and both of them embark on romances that are not only frowned upon, but discouraged.
Meanwhile, Zelda and Richard played by the rules. They both entered the relationships that seem "normal." Zelda, a black woman, marries a black man. Richard, a white man, marries a white woman. These normal relationships, however, have rotten cores. They are absent of the love that exudes from the relationship of Elisa and Amphibian Man, and they are absent of the giddiness that fills Giles' heart.
So when you see those relationships, the relationships you're "supposed" to be in, completely fail - yet you see the pure love shared between Elisa and Amphibian Man, you're broken down. Is a relationship between a human and a fish monster so wrong when you see how these "normal" relationships work out? When the real monster is a human being who cheats on his wife and abuses something he doesn't care to understand, outside of the cynicism as a play to win one over on the Soviets? When another man stops supporting his wife, goes out of his way to cross her and dooms her friends in the process? How could you stand in the way of Elisa and Amphibian Man? How can you not be swept away in their romance and root for them?
Once those gears have turned in The Shape of Water, the sweetness of Elisa and Amphibian Man really starts to click. Elisa is a woman who can't speak, who starts her days with a routine of boiling eggs, masturbating and sitting on a long bus ride to work, going home and doing the same thing over and over again. She's curious and friendly, but there's a large absence in her life that's only cured by a fish man who somehow, inexplicably, seems to understand her.
Amphibian Man is a creature from the waters of South America considered a god, captured by the United States government and tortured at will by the incredibly creepy and definitely sadistic Richard, shocked with a cattle prod with no hesitation. He's beaten, shocked and mistreated ad nauseum, then chained up and tossed in a tank to recover before he does it all again the next day. That is until a mute cleaning lady comes along and tries to really understand him, sharing her boiled eggs and playing her favorite music.
The contrast between that relationship and every other relationship in the film starts to bend you to the will of The Shape of Water. Then, just when you think you've fully turned over to the sweetness of the romance between Elisa and Amphibian Man, the movie clocks you in the head with a sweet poem that absolutely shattered me.
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.