So, I took my wife to see this movie the other day, and while I couldn’t get into the whole ‘sex with an amphibian’ idea I did find the whole thing interesting as a thought project. After reading Guillermo del Toro’s article on the film and what it meant to him to create it, I find myself still not quite reaching the same conclusions. I believe that is the beauty of a well crafted film or story, we can all relate to it in different ways. The events I’m about to cover are not necessarily chronological so please don’t spam me over the way I’m presenting things.
In my world, a place filled with ghosts and psychics and tarot cards, water is a significant symbol for emotions and longing; a dream for something that is not already present. The title of the movie is a huge indicator for me that what I am about to see is not a reality in its most literal form. The opening scene backs this up by showing a home filled with water and all the contents are floating. As the credits fade out, the floating furniture begins to assemble itself properly; lamps and photos come together with tables, chairs align within the kitchen, and a sleeping woman lands gently upon the couch as oxygen separates from hydrogen and the sentient creatures of the planet begin to go about their day.
1962 is the year. The first character we see is a woman who we learn is named Elisa. She is mute. She also has a strong attraction to hard boiled eggs and masturbating in her bath water to a literal egg timer. I’m thinking of a three minute egg here. How is that even possible? Elisa lives in one side of a split apartment next to Giles. We meet him after the egg timer goes off. She slaps two of the four eggs she just boiled onto a plate with half of the sandwich she prepares and takes it to him. The other two eggs and the rest of the sandwich are packed into a brown lunch bag that goes with her to her job.
This is where I begin to think the movie isn’t about Elisa at all, but rather Giles himself. He is the voice of the narrator. He is the artist who is starving. He is a recovering alcoholic and… Giles is gay! Evidently everything is forgivable but the last one.
As a mute, Elisa uses sign language and her lines are captioned on the screen. There are only two people in the entire movie who actually talk with her, Giles and Zelda. Zelda, played by actress Octavia Spencer, appears to be Elisa’s only female friend. I spent more than a few minutes waiting for her deliver another victoriously brutal line that I could whip out at a moments notice to impress my friends and family with. I was disappointed. Of course Octavia wasn’t the lead role here so I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up in the first place. Still, her role as Elisa’s interpreter at their job in a super secret government laboratory was quite meaningful to me in the end.
In this super secret government laboratory (in my mind I’m pronouncing that as lah-bore-a-tor-ee because it’s fun to say it that way) we meet several males in various positions of importance. Elisa and Zelda are part of the janitorial crew for the facility. Evidently Elisa is habitually late for work, a fact that is pointed out by another of the ladies on the crew who is irritated by Zelda holding up the line to the time clock so Elisa can take cuts and punch in. While our social climate is riddled with people being offended I cannot pull gloss over a few facts of the movie here. The angry lady is black, Zelda is black, Elisa is not black and she’s a mute. The angry lady calls Elisa a dummy and talks down to Zelda for coddling her. Why is this important? The socio economic climate of this film makes a few biting statements regarding race and sexual preference. To have the main character despised and coddled by members of a different race places her at the bottom of the human totem pole. This is driven home later in the film by a weird diner scene. It’s not as weird as the water filled bathroom scene, but it’s still weird.
The super secret government laboratory gets a new toy. It’s surrounded by armed guards and mystery and it’s kept in a tank filled with water. Elisa is drawn to the tank like a fish is drawn to water… oops, I may have given something away there. The creature in the tank turns out to be The Creature From The Black Lagoon from 1954. He looks great! Man, this guy has aged fabulously. As it turns out, there’s a reason he looks so good, he’s actually been living in a south american river all this time and being worshipped as a god. He has some killer regenerative abilities. He also has some pheremones that seep through heavy glass and iron. Elisa gets one look at this monster and sets her egg timer.
It’s valuable to note here the treatment of this creature. He is sentient and a very unwilling captive. He also lacks the ability to effectively communicate with his captors. He is chained, tortured and studied. He is also despised. Then he becomes coddled by Elisa. Despised and coddled. I believe I said those words before about something else.
As it turns out, Elisa is able to secretly teach the creature some sign language and get him to eat her eggs. Of course the language of sexual attraction doesn’t need words so a lot of things go unsaid. And before you beat yourself senseless with what I’m implying here, the answer is YES! I know, I was astounded at it too, but who am I to judge? The creature is clearly sentient and made its choice. It’s not like Elisa busted out a jar of peanut butter and coerced him. She was even kind enough to provide a visual to Zelda on exactly how the amphibious penis was accessible.
Let’s drift back to Giles now. In my mind, he is the real main character of this story. While Elisa is making googly eyes at the gilman, Giles is doing his best to get work as an advertising artist. He is working furiously on an picture of a lovely American family being happy about a ring of red jello. He thinks it’s some of his best work. When he tries to sell the piece to an agency that he’s obviously worked for in the past he is told to make the family in the picture happier with bigger smiles and to make the jello green instead of red. He is also reminded that he is an alcoholic. The whole scene leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Whatever trouble Giles’ drinking caused him in the past it’s not going to go away quietly. You get the sense he is banging his head on a locked door.
Now we can talk about the diner. Giles takes Elisa to a small diner to get some key lime pie. This pie is the color of green that you would find on an aerial photo of the ocean. The color is beautiful in its natural setting, but looks deeply traumatic as pie. As it turns out, it’s not really the pie that has attracted Giles to the diner, it’s the man working the counter. This is where we find out that Giles is homosexual. He wants this man in a big way and has an entire refrigerator full of slices of sea green key lime pie to prove it.
On a solo return trip to the diner Giles tries to open a door between himself and the man behind the counter. He is instantly shot down and there is nothing gentle about it. The only saving grace for Giles is the black couple who enter and try to sit at the counter to order. The man behind the counter is savage to them about not sitting down and they leave the diner. Once they’re gone he tells Giles, who has been sitting at the counter all this time, to get out also, that the diner is a family place. I guess by waiting until the couple were already gone the man behind the counter was acknowledging that gay white guys deserve a bit more respect than black people even though they are equally undesirable inside the diner and at the counter.
While Giles is being abused both professionally and personally, Elisa is plotting to steal her amphibious lover away from the super secret government laboratory and hide it in her bathtub. Giles agrees to drive the getaway van and applies his artistic talent to faking an ID that will get him through the gate. He thinks it’s some of his best work. Elisa finds surprise assistance from Zelda who is never far away from her friend at work, and is gifted with a box of bath beads from a secret Russian scientist named Hoffstetler who is hiding his true identity because – Cold War, eh? The bath beads are evidently necessary to properly condition the water in Elisa’s bathtub so the gilman doesn’t die. I encourage you to really think about this scenario for a moment. The gilman is easily six feet tall. He is broad shouldered and aggressive. He has gills and fins and webbed toes and hands. Elisa is going to put him in her bathtub and keep him there for a specified amount of time that spans several days. It’s not like he’s a guppy. The gilman is muscular and needs to eat something other than hard boiled eggs. He’s also sentient. Living in a small bathtub is going to bore the crap out of him. And I don’t believe that Elisa can afford to keep this creature for more than a couple days or it will starve to death once it has worked its way through Giles’ many cats. One becomes an hors devour early on but that doesn’t seem to bother anyone too much. Maybe the snack cat was a bitch?
In the end, Elisa and Giles manage to get the creature down to the local canal that swelled tremendously in size due to some heavy rainfall. I believe the canal leads out to the ocean and the plan is for the creature to just make a getaway. The problem is the super secret government facility has been looking for it. They find it just before it jumps into the canal and everyone gets shot a few times. The creature looks dead for a couple minutes, then uses its amphibian super power of regeneration to heal itself. It stands up, wipes off the bullet holes, then slashes the throat of the jackass that shot it. While Giles watches, the gilman then picks up the shot (and maybe dead) Elisa and jumps into the canal with her. We are then treated to the sight of her neck opening into gills so she can breathe and her eyes open. She gets to live happily ever after with the gilman.
Obviously I’ve left a few things out here. Let me clarify about Elisa’s gills. She was an orphan who was found in water with three cuts on both sides of her neck that healed over into scars. I think we are supposed to make the association that she is a crossbreed. This would explain her inability to speak and her egg timer fixation. However, it also brings up the question about her father. Wouldn’t it be the gilman himself? He seems to be the only one of his kind. My wife insists that there might be other gilmen out there. Just because we only see one doesn’t mean there aren’t others. I see the point, but I still want to be appalled.
Incest aside, let me lay out what I think the film is really about. I’ve already stated that Giles is the narrator of this tale. He doesn’t narrate a lot, but it’s enough to let you know that he’s the one telling it. The apartment he lives in is literally cut in half, each half with its own door. Elisa lives in one half and he in the other. I see Elisa as the manifestation of his homosexual needs. He can’t speak of them and he must act on them in secret or risk being ridiculed and abused by his fellow man. I believe what Giles wants is a family. He longs for a white picket fence world with kids and a husband, someone to love and respect him and who will sit down to dinner at a table like a real family would. All those eggs and the timer are a symbol for his own biological clock that is ticking futilely away. By paring Eisa with Zelda you can see exactly where Giles feels his innermost desire rates on the social scale.
Our human brains have a root brain that comes from the amphibian days of our evolution, back when we first crawled out of the sea and began to breath air. Nowadays it is referred to as the reptilian brain, but without the amphibian beginning we would all still be bottom feeders. Giles has reached a point in his isolated misery when his sentience is breaking down. He is losing his ability to think like a human and has become trapped by his own reactions. Elisa has become his silent voice of freedom.
Whether Guillermo del Toro intended the things I have taken from his film is anybody’s guess. As I said at the beginning, in my world water is a symbol for emotion and desire and that is clearly what I see in every aspect of this film. I feel ill equipped to view this story as a fairy tale. To me it will never be some reptilian form of Beauty and the Beast. Still, I found a lot to like about this story despite my aversion to some of the elements. And my wife absolutely loved it. If she is happy then I am happy. All is right in the world.
Peace out my peeps!