Of all the movies in which the female lead has a sexual relationship with an amphibian monster, The Shape of Water is the sweetest.
Not that there are many films in that specific sub-genre, which otherwise includes last year’s The Untamed and Andrzej Żuławski intense and disturbing 1981 video-nasty Possession. This is a far more mainstream and accessible film than these two oddities and it looks destined to sweep up at the awards season. It’s nominated for thirteen Oscars, twelve BAFTAs, seven Golden Globes (it won two including Best Director), and it won the Golden Lion at Venice.
The Shape of Water is a love story and fantasy drama directed, produced and co-written by Guillermo del Toro. The film stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaner at a government research laboratory. Elisa befriends, and then falls in love with a captured amphibian man-monster, played by Doug Jones. The creature is being held for scientific study, and is treated cruelly by scientists and particularly by head of security Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). The Russians are also interested in this discovery, and there’s at least one embedded spy in the facility – the film is set in 1962 at the height of the Cold War.
Elisa and the creature develop a bond, and when it transpires that the monster is destined for vivisection she and her friends attempt to rescue it from captivity. The relationship soon becomes a full-blown, sexual love affair. However, the US military and the Russians both want the creature back – will the creature escape to the ocean or will he be recaptured?
This film is very warm and sweet, a quirky feelgood film with charm. The film is a fantasy with richly colourful fairy-tale cinematography and set in a world far removed from our complicated modern times. It’s a romance, it’s about love. The heroes are kind everyday individuals and they prevail against the cruel military-industrial institutions. It’s very accessible with a strong moral message about the power of love and acceptance. Oscar-winning crowd-pleasing material, and a little dull.
On the other hand it has some shocking aspects. It is surprisingly violent in places. And the lead character has sex with a monster. These elements give the film an uneasy edge. It’s not that this is an extreme film – many films have far more explicit violence and sex, and that isn’t the problem in itself. It’s just that these elements threaten the escapist fantasy tone of this film, they feel mildly gratuitous in this context. The film tries to be tastefully lurid and that contradiction doesn’t quite work. The Shape of Water is an A-movie pretending to be a B-movie, but it doesn’t have the rebellious, enthusiastic sensationalism that makes B-movies so much fun.
The plot lines and minor incidents are a little too predictable, a little too signposted. To pick a small example, Strickland buys a shiny new Cadillac and this is admired and coveted; he’s loves the attention. Later the front fender of his parked car is smashed by a van during the escape. Finally, we are shown Strickland inspect the destroyed fender, wincing and enraged. It’s just too obvious . Scenes like this make the film drag. Similarly, Elisa has gil-like scars on both sides of her neck, in the opening scene she dreams of being underwater – her affinity to the amphibian man-monster is obvious, and so the ending is not at all surprising.
Despite this, the film is sexually bold. Elisa is single, she lives a celibate but not asexual life. A busy practical woman, she lives a simple life of routine, wakes up each morning to her alarm, and has exactly seven minutes to masturbate in the bath while her egg boils (she also later entices the creature by offering it eggs, is this a fertility metaphor?). Sex and water is equated: in addition to her morning bathing habits, the monster sex scenes take place in water and the courtship occurs next to the laboratory pool. Del Toro has said that the film is about the mystery of love, its shapelessness. Love appears in many forms. It is the shape of water.
Sally Hawkins is very good as the mute Elisa. She has a mixture of charisma and everyday charm. She is effortlessly expressive a non-speaking lead role. Until now, she’s probably still best known for her talkative lead role in Happy Go-Lucky and more recently for the Paddington films. The film is centred around her performance, and the script was written with Hawkins in mind.
In interviews, Del Toro has stated that he wanted the film to be deliberately optimistic. He wanted the audience to feel positive despite all the bad news in today’s world, a world that is more divisive than ever, where sexist, racist, bigoted views are normalised. When people react to the slogan ‘make America great again’ Del Toro contends that they’re thinking back to the 1960s. But that time, in which the film is set, is actually deeply conservative and illiberal.
Like many period or sci-fi films, The Shape of Water is a commentary on our times. All the heroes are social outsiders, oppressed in one way or another by American society. Perhaps the film’s characters are a little too stereotypical: the black, hardworking female cleaner, the mute with a sensitive heart of gold, the elderly artistic gay sad-sack. They’re all pleasant characters to spend time with, though, albeit a little predictable.
Michael Shannon’s villain Strickland is also a ‘type’ – an evil, sadistic, controlling authority figure. There seems to be a similar character in most of del Toro’s films and Shannon plays sociopaths exceptionally well. He is an archetypical baddie, but his character has a some complexity and tragedy. He craves esteem – a shiny Cadillac to impress, his toadying to his boss General Hoyt, and he seems insecure, disgusted and frustrated at the world. He has deeply held conservative values, perhaps these are the values of the times. He’s threatened by liberal morality, and reacts with outrage, anger and violence. However, General Hoyt’s pragmatism makes it clear that his conservative sense of ‘decency’ and ‘values’ are themselves merely props, they are ‘export goods only’ to reinforce the image of ‘America’ overseas. And he detests Strickland for his weaknesses, for believing in these hollow virtues.
Most of the film’s violence involves Strickland or the creature. Early in the film, the creature bites off two of Shannon’s fingers. The fingers are recovered and sewn back on, but the surgery doesn’t take. The reattached fingers become a metaphor for his moral malaise. They become increasingly infected, blackened, pus-filled as his cruelty gets more and more extreme. Finally, he tears the infected fingers off and throws them away.
The violence of the creature is also faced head on; the creature is part man, part wild animal and part god. Elisa is attracted to his human characteristics, but the wildness is more of a challenge for her. Nevertheless, when he bites the head of the neighbours cat (a genuinely unexpected moment) our heroes forgive him because they acknowledge his wildness and that he doesn’t know any better.
The creature is played magnificently by Doug Jones, whose subtle physical acting evokes the sensitivity, wildness and dignity of this strange creature. He recalls the Universal Pictures monster classic The Creature from the Black Lagoon, it’s very clearly a man in a costume rather than a sophisticated CGI creation like, say, the Lord of the Rings‘s Gollum. In our fantasy world, this works and makes the creature more affecting.
The cinematography is uniformly beautiful, with rich colours and lighting. It feels nostalgic and fantastic. The water sequences are particularly impressive. In the opening scene, Elisa is asleep, dreaming that she and her furniture are floating in her water-filled bedroom. This, and the evocative final sequences are both filmed ‘wet-for-dry’. In contrast, a central sex scene in a flooded bathroom was filmed in real water.
The film has been hit by charges of plagiarism. The plot is extremely reminiscent of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Zimmer’s ‘Let Me Here You Whisper’. In that play, a female cleaner who works in a science lab in the cold war discovers a captive dolphin who can speak. She falls in love with the dolphin and helps it escape when she discovers it is scheduled for vivisection by sneaking it out in a laundry cart and releasing it into the ocean. It also reminded me of the shockingly true story of Margaret Lovatt, the US scientist who flooded her house and kept a dolphin in her basement, and was found to be sexually pleasuring the creature.
In its visuals and incidents, it is also very reminiscent of the films of Jeunet and Caro – it has the look of The City of Lost Children and lifts scenes directly from Delicatessen including one where a couple dance with their feet whilst sitting on a sofa. The tone echoes Jeunet’s hit Amelie particularly at the start which has a painter, apartment and a sweet and naive girl.
The Shape of Water a beautifully shot, warm-hearted feel-good film. It reflects today’s political concerns, but does so with a light touch. At its heart it celebrates love and liberal acceptance. It should be a crowd-pleaser, although it felt a little unoriginal, predictable and dull in places. The Shape of Water may be shallow, but it has a charming sweetness and it’s heart is in the right place.