‘The Shape of Water’: beauty, the beast and the Zurich Manatee

Text: Reto Baer

In Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, the beautiful Sally Hawkins finds herself drawn to a scaly fish man – and the whole world is charmed. The film has been nominated for an incredible 13 Oscars. Our film critic Reto Baer goes on the hunt for the proverbial fly in the ointment.

As a film critic, I’ve had to resign myself to the fact that the USA is where the action is – particularly so at the moment, as everyone’s obsessed with the amphibious man from The Shape of Water. Lake Zurich’s own aquatic monster, the Manatee weed harvester, is unlikely to ever merit a film of its own. Typically for Switzerland, it’s a useful monster – but keeping the harbours free of plants doesn’t hold much appeal for Hollywood.

So it doesn't surprise me that the amphibious creature in The Shape of Water is locked up in a secret US laboratory rather than Oerlikon’s swimming pool. These Hollywood egotists just think everything should be about them!


‘I’ve had to admit – if only through gritted teeth – that the film really is a masterpiece.’

To make matters worse, the film has also been showered with adulation and awards: a Golden Lion, two Golden Globes and a preposterous 13 Oscar nominations. It’s enough to send a film critic rushing to the cinema just to find the proverbial fly in the ointment. But ultimately I’ve had to admit – if only through gritted teeth – that the film really is a masterpiece. Even if the amphibious creature doesn’t come from Lake Zurich.


Elisa (Sally Hawkins, left) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) clean the laboratory.


Agent Strickland (Michael Shannon) suspects that Elisa (Sally Hawkins, centre) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are up to something.

It comes instead from the mind of Guillermo del Toro: the writer-director has been introducing us to unusual new monsters since Hellboy (2004) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Now, in The Shape of Water, he tells a new kind of beauty-and-the-beast story. The chemistry between Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who cleans the aforementioned secret US laboratory, and the captive monster (Doug Jones) is electric – perhaps because she herself is as mute as a fish.


Oscar nominations

We have del Toro’s childhood trauma to thank for the romance: as a boy, the Mexican filmmaker watched The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and was distraught that the beautiful Kay and the slippery ‘Gill-man’ didn’t get their happy ending.


Neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) helps the mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins).


Elisa (Sally Hawkins) daydreams about her fish man while on the bus.

‘Del Toro demonstrates that people are the true monsters.’

In The Shape of Water, del Toro works through his trauma in poetic style – and demonstrates that people are the true monsters, with the imposing Michael Shannon as a splendidly nasty villain. But there are also enough heartwarming moments to put anyone prone to tears at risk of drowning unless they bring plenty of tissues.

The Shape of Water is playing in the following Zurich cinemas:

Arena Cinemas
Arthouse Alba


And the smart Filmpodium organisers are showing The Creature from the Black Lagoon, del Toro’s inspiration, in 3D black-and-white.


The Creature from the Black Lagoon served as Guillermo del Toro’s inspiration. His fish man is almost identical to the one from the 1954 film.


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