SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t seen The Shape of Water yet, stop everything and run to the theater! Then come back and we’ll talk about its breathtaking color palette.
From the very first shots of Guillermo del Toro’s gorgeous The Shape of the Water, the film evokes a lush palette of seafaring bluish greens, amid the occasional jolt of red. And on numerous instances, the characters in the film comment about these very same colors, in allusion to things that don’t seem to have much to do with the love story at the film’s heart, but upon closer examination undoubtedly reveal more.
The gorgeous film starts with a beautifully lit, mysteriously magical, underwater dream sequence, sublime in its seafaring greens. After the credits drip away, Sally Hawkins’ Elisa Esposito wakes up, her apartment and herself bathed in the very same greens and blues of the dream. As she comes to, a flash of red lights up outside the window, accompanying the sound of a siren.
After some egg making and masturbating, Elisa delivers food and company to her next-door neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), who’s busy painting a Norman Rockwell-looking advertisement of a woman in an apron displaying a very red Jell-O mold, along with the slogan “The Future Is Here.” Giles tells Elisa the reason for the alarm is a fire at the chocolate factory, which we see in the fiery red background as she makes her way to work, stopping off to admire some very red pumps before sitting on the bus stop adorned with green and blue balloons.
At work, where the “monster” is housed, aside from the red hotline phone and entry light to the lab, it’s all sea greens and blues, until the real monster of the film, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), spills bright red blood all over the place.
Later, when Giles tries to sell his painting, his former ad-man boss says the Jell-O folks want the mold green, since green is the “future now.” And just after Elisa tells Giles that they aren’t human if they don’t help the creature, he shrugs her off and goes to meet the ad-man again for his “second chance,” with a painted Jell-O mold “as green as can be.” But Giles soon discovers he’s “not as good as a photograph,” and not good enough for the job.
Giles heads straight to the pie shop, drenched in neon green, which serves the greenest damn key lime pie you’ve ever seen. But he’s summarily kicked out after trying to express his early ‘60s’ taboo love for the pie-tender.
But perhaps most revealing, at the Cadillac dealership, Strickland sizes up a De Ville, which the slick salesman calls a “Taj Mahal on wheels.”
“I’m not sure about the green,” says Strickland.
“It’s not green, my friend, teal,” says the salesman.
“Well, teal looks green to me.”
“But it isn’t, see. It’s a limited edition, 12 coats of paint, always by hand, all authentic chrome detailing, 4 out 5 successful men in America drive a Cadillac.”
“Is that a fact?”
“This here is the future, and you strike me as a man who is headed there.”
“Why, the future. You’re a man of the future. You belong in this car.”
That’s twice now that Guillermo tells us that green is the future. Well, teal on this occasion, but still, set against the red scare of communist Russia, it must mean something, right?
Indeed, according to IndieWire, which spoke with del Toro and his design team about the film’s unique look, the film was originally intended to be black and white. But upon deciding on color, he created a palette that served as an important storytelling device, where red was "used sparingly to hit notes of love and cinema," while green represented “an unwelcoming, unromantic future as seen in the lab, cars and Jello gelatin." Interestingly, the creature was designed to "have every color of the film except green.”
But in the end, it’s back to the green for both the creature and Elisa as they submerge themselves away from the monster, into the murky depths of the deep blue/green sea, and toward a most romantic future. So who knows for sure what the color palette means, other than that I love it.