My Fair Amphibian-Man: The Music of "The Shape of Water"

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There is a style to Guillermo del Toro’s films that is simultaneously recognizable and elusive. Indeed, there are certain design aesthetics he favors, often letting the story dictate the production design rather than adapting the story to conform to a certain look.

Del Toro moves from smaller, more independent films like “Chronos”, “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” to big budget Hollywood features such as “Blade II”, the “Hellboy” movies and “Pacific Rim” with seemingly little effort. His camera work and reliance on practical sets, costumes, and props rather than CGI all contribute to the verisimilitude of each work.

One of the key differentiating factors of his films has been the composer he chooses for each.

In “Pan’s Labyrinth” Javier Navarrete’s delicate score carries much of the emotional weight of the film even when listening independently. Conversely, Ramin Djawadi’s score to “Pacific Rim” is big and brash.  Electronic instruments combine with the orchestral to reinforce the juxtaposition between the mechanical and the organic, as human pilots physically join with robotic avatars to fight giant monsters.

With all that in mind, I went into “The Shape of Water” as much a fan of del Toro as a filmmaker and storyteller, as I was of the music within his films. I was thrilled to see that Alexandre Desplat (“Godzilla”, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) was scoring the film as I have become a fan of his in recent years. I was so excited to see what the collaboration of these two artists would produce.

While I thought the film was wonderful, I left the theater disappointed that Desplat’s soundtrack seemed to be hidden among the musicals, jazz standards and torch songs contained within the world of the film. Unlike his other scores, nothing of Desplat’s own voice seemed stand out.

It wasn’t until after listening to my colleagues’ review of the film and their discussion of how all the nonverbal communication in the film the counted as dialogue, that I realized I may have missed something. It occurred to me then that I hadn’t listened to the soundtrack independent of the movie, and maybe I should.

After the first minute of listening, I realized Desplat’s score had integrated itself into the superstructure of the film. It had been there the whole time hiding in plain sight, creating a bridge between songs the characters themselves were hearing..

Sally Hawkins’ character, Elisa--no doubt named for Elisa Doolittle from “My Fair Lady”--is a mute who communicates to the other characters through sign language. Translated in-world verbally by her friend, Zelda (played by Octavia Spencer) and her friend and next door neighbor, Giles (played by Richard Jenkins). Additionally, Elisa and Giles often mimic the steps and the physical movements from the films--mostly musicals--they continuously watch. The dance-step call and response between them as they watch television conveys their own brand of sign language.

In the film, Elisa’s movements are graceful, gliding through each scene as though she--like the audience--can hear Desplat’s score. Each step conveying that she is living in a world of her own and hearing music no one in her world can hear.

The establishment of these various forms of nonverbal communication, whether or not accompanied by music, is then applied to her attempts at communication with—fellow mute--the Amphibian Man, played by Doug Jones. She first teaches him to eat a hardboiled egg and to sign the word “egg.” She sneaks records into the lab to play for him. They dance both independently and together, she in the lab and he in his tank.

I want to say now that I have purposefully not read any articles by del Toro or Desplat before writing this blog so as not to influence my own interpretation of what I saw onscreen. Based on what I saw it seems that del Toro and Desplat have created a musical of sorts.

“The Shape of Water” is sort of amalgam of “My Fair Lady”, “Frankenstein” and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Except in this telling, it is Elisa who is the instructor of etiquette, for lack of a better term. It is she who steals the monster--in keeping with the analogy--releasing him from his bonds rather than him breaking out of them.

She brings him to her apartment and floods the bathroom to create a pocket of his world in hers where they dance and--yes--have sex. This abnormal situation she tries to work into a normal life culminates in a fantasy dance number to the Irving Berlin song “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from the movie “Follow the Fleet” while they are having breakfast at her kitchen table.

It should be noted that within the movie, “Follow the Fleet”, Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers engage in a sweeping, nonverbal movements reminiscent of those of Elisa both with and without the Amphibian Man.

Full disclosure, while I didn’t do any research on Desplat or del Toro, I did revisit the soundtracks to “My Fair Lady” and the other films referenced within “The Shape of Water.” I wanted specificity to my deductions as I was somewhat, but not entirely familiar with many of the older musicals to which this film was paying homage.

As a fan of science fiction and horror, I am familiar with those movies of old and in my research I neglected revisit the soundtracks of those films. Beyond the intense strings and horns that accompanied the action elements, there was a very clever Easter egg, at least to my ears.

In the opening music of the soundtrack and movie—also titled “The Shape of Water”--Alexandre Desplat himself whistles the melody that accompanies the bandoneon, strings and glockenspiel. The latter are instruments which are common in older romantic movies and musicals.

As first I thought the whistling paid homage to the song, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” from “My Fair Lady.” Upon further listening it occurred to me—that given the Cold War era of the movie—that his whistling paid homage to something else, the Theremin.

The Theremin is an electronic instrument that was really popular and was most definitely a staple in early science fiction films, from which, ”The Shape of Water” also draws its inspiration. It should also be noted that the Theremin is played by moving one’s hand between one or two metal antenna, never actually touching the instrument itself. In effect the musician is using sign language to control the pitch of the instrument.

Whether all these references were intentional or not, Desplat was successful in evoking them, a least for me. In my mind, Alexandre Desplat has written the perfect soundtrack for the science-fiction-romantic-musical-fantasy movie that he and Guillermo del Toro have created with ‘The Shape of Water’.