Note To Readers: This review contains a frank investigation of a perverse film, and necessarily must describe some its perverse content and ideas. Given the film’s import and influence, the editor commends this review to readers who are old enough to have seen it. Younger readers who have not seen the film will not likely benefit from proceeding.
“Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find you all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with Your love. It humbles my heart, for You are everywhere.”
– Guillermo Del Toro (paraphrasing an Islamic poet, probably Rumi)
“Man would rather will nothing, than not will.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
Water is, by definition, shapeless. It is the liquid form of dihydrogen monoxide – the perfect molecule for the sustenance of life – and a liquid is defined as being that which has a fixed volume but not a fixed shape. The transformation from solid (shaped) to liquid (shaped) form happens when either enough energy is transferred to the molecules within the solid to break apart the intramolecular bonds in the form of heat, or when the pressure on the solid is reduced such that the intramolecular bonds are no longer enough to hold the molecules together in a rigid structure (or its a combination of the two). This process is called melting.
I explain all of the above, not because I do not understand metaphor, in this case the likening of the shapelessness of the water Del Toro seems so enamored by with the incorporeality of emotion, but because the meaninglessness of the title, Shape of Water, creates a perfect metaphor for the exact problem the film has. There is a push towards the ephemeral moment, the subjective now rather than the objective past, present, and future of our lives. It is a rejection of the search for authenticity. To put it in terms more culturally relevant, it is the choice to take Morpheus’ blue pill.
The film begins underwater, the camera panning down to what appears to be the hallway of an apartment building at the bottom. We push through the hallway and enter one of the apartments to see a woman, our protagonist Elisa (Sally Hawkins), floating in the water, asleep, above her couch below. A narrator frames the story, telling the audience it is about people in love and about “her” in reference to Elisa. The scene switches from the dreamy underwater underworld to the real world. Elisa is asleep on the couch and awakes in the same apartment we just saw depicted underwater. This shows a clear understanding of water as the Jungian archetype of the unconscious, the land of dreams and our deeper, often more base desires. The narration also adds an element of fairy tale – something used to inform the conscious through the unconscious, a type of storytelling that uses the archetypes to strengthen an objective morality in those who heed them.
The middle-aged woman wakes up, prepares a bath, masturbates in said bath, boils some eggs, and takes the bus to her place of work. This routine is shown consistently throughout the first half of the film, though fortunately with less gratuity after the first repetition. She works at night as a custodian for an aeronautics laboratory that does research for the U.S. government during the Cold War. At the lab her only friend is an African-American woman named Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who acts as her interpreter since Elisa is mute. She is also close with her next door neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), an elderly white homosexual male working as a freelance artist for an advertising agency. It turns out that the narrator’s voice from the beginning is Giles’; this is important because he consistently makes thematic points throughout the film, acting as a stand in for Del Toro: “I think this is some of my best work,” he says multiple times, and when he is asked to make the family in his work happier, he responds by saying he could not see how they could be any happier. But more on that later.
A special delivery is made to Elisa’s place of work, a crate containing something only referred to as “the asset” (Doug Jones). With it comes the antagonist, the white heterosexual American Christian male veteran, Mr. Strickland (Michael Shannon). One night while cleaning the location where the asset is kept, Elisa discovers that it is a mermaid-like being and becomes enamored by it. Soon she brings it food and tries communicating with it, eventually falling in love with the creature. Mr. Strickland, however, hates the creature, torturing it with a suspiciously phallic stun stick repeatedly. Once it becomes clear that nothing of value to the U.S. government can be obtained from the creature while it lives, Mr. Strickland wants the creature dissected, but a scientist going by the name of Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) is against this idea. It turns out he is a Soviet spy, unbeknownst to anyone else, and wants to study the creature for the motherland.
This is all well and good as the set up to a decent melodrama, but a closer look reveals the rotting emptiness beneath the surface. Firstly, the apparent goodness of the characters is completely defined by their identity: Elisa is good because she is a single middle-aged female with a disability. Giles is good because he is a homosexual struggling to hide his identity in a world not ready to accept him. Zelda’s good because she’s a black woman and Elisa’s friend, and Dr. Hoffstetler (whose actual name is Dmitri) is good because he is a communist who has to keep his beliefs a secret. Positive morality is completely defined by the audience’s ability to sympathize with a character, and has nothing to do with that characters ethics. The portrayal of negative morality in the film is slightly more concrete, being centered around both Mr. Strickland’s identity as a successful straight white male, as well as his sadistic attitude towards the creature, but this only serves as a straw man of Christianity and American traditionalism. He paraphrases the Bible, and in so doing shows his obviously inherent sexism and racism, saying that God looks “maybe a little more like me” to Zelda, implying that what God meant when He said “created in our image,” was that he looked like a white man. Strickland is supposed to represent the traditional American man, the patriarchal bogeyman – Satan for the religion of intersectional feminism.
By virtue of being a work of art with an entire world within it, Del Toro manages to turn identity politics into what I am going to call identity morality, a world where the entire morality of the characters is defined by their outward identity first and foremost, and any action they take is moral or not based on their identity. Yes, Mr. Strickland says bad things and tortures this creature that he captured, but to him the creature is nothing more than a wild animal; he has no idea it is sentient. The good guys, however, kill an MP simply for getting in their way when trying to get the creature out of the lab. This is, of course, a good thing, because they need to save this creature that Elisa loves. Too bad for that MP and his family.
Beyond this identity morality, Shape of Water still points towards an emptiness: lack of family values, particularly in regards to sex and marriage. Giles remarks early on in the film, “If I could live my life over I’d take better care of my teeth and fuck a lot more.” This is indicative of the larger problem. Sex is only for the pleasure of the individual, born out of what the characters would call love, but what is in reality only a deep lust. This philosophy is made plain when Elisa saves the creature and brings him back to her apartment, only to have sex with him multiple times. Zelda also gives insight into how marriage is viewed, saying, “You’ve gotta lie a lot to keep a marriage goin’.” She and her husband Brewster are constantly arguing, and he is portrayed as the typical lazy male who “wouldn’t understand, couldn’t understand even if [he] tried,” as Zelda puts it, in reference to why she was trying to protect Elisa and the asset from Mr. Strickland at the end of the film.
There is not a single positive example of family in the film, but there is a negative one: the Stricklands. They are your typical traditional American family, a boy, a girl, a lovely blonde wife, and of course the family patriarch Mr. Strickland himself. You only see the family twice, once in the first half of the film, and once in the second half (this is a common feature of the film as it is structured fairly chiastically). The first time they appear, the children are going off to school and Mr. and Mrs. Strickland go upstairs to engage in intercourse. Cut to them in the missionary position, and Mr. Strickland covers his wife’s mouth, telling her that he wants her mute, just like Elisa. More light is shed on this scene when Giles defends his work to his connection at the ad agency. When told to make the family happier, he says, “Happier? How could they be happier? The father looks like he just discovered the missionary position.” Yet despite the obvious connection, Mr. Strickland is not happy, because in Shape of Water, family does not bring happiness – not even intercourse with one’s spouse.
The parallel between the family in Giles’ ad artwork and the Stricklands becomes even more blatant when Giles is told to change the color of the gelatin in the picture from red to green, and later the Stricklands are seen eating green gelatin that looks exactly the same as the one on Giles’ artwork. This means two things: the first is that Giles is definitely a stand in for Guillermo Del Toro, with Giles’ artwork being a metaphor for the film itself. The second is that the traditional American family is nothing more than an extension of capitalism, mindless sheep who try to buy happiness. It is rather disgusting. If it were a foil to some other family unit that was portrayed more positively – even if it was not a traditional family – I might view this aspect of the film with more favor, but none is offered, so we must assume that family is a negative entity in the world of Shape of Water.
Neither the identity morality of the film nor the negative portrayal of family is the worst aspect of Del Toro’s latest effort; those things can be expected considering the zeitgeist in Hollywood. Rather, the biggest offense Shape of Water commits is the way it twists the fairy tale genre for its own nefarious purposes. The film is obviously an adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, with a little bit of The Little Mermaid thrown in to make it interesting, but the great thing about Beauty and the Beast was that both the characters who fell in love actually changed. Belle was at first afraid of the Beast, and he was angry and stubborn, almost animalistic in his behavior. The arcs of the characters coincide so that Belle’s slow change in her ability to look past the Beast’s animalistic facade causes (quite literally) his return to humanity. It is the hero’s journey for the female: civilizing man.
In Shape of Water, Elisa is Belle and the Asset is the Beast, but they do not change. They just fall in lust. To be fair, this works as a melodrama (though their relationship is not particularly affecting). However, it is clear from the framing device in the beginning (as well as from Del Toro’s past work) that this film is supposed to be like a fairy tale. Elisa is in love with the creature and when she brings him home, saving him from the evil Mr. Strickland, he manages to sneak into Giles’ apartment and eat one of his cats, tearing its head off. When Elisa gets back from work to discover what happened, Giles simply says, “He’s a wild creature, we can’t expect him to be anything else.” But that’s the point! If Elisa loves him, and he loves her, then his wildness should be tamed – not eradicated, but domesticated.
The real clincher, though, comes at the end of the film. Mr. Strickland tortures Dimitri and frightens Zelda to find out where the asset is. The creature is dying, and must be set free in the ocean in order to survive, so Elisa and Giles have taken him to the dock and are saying their goodbyes when Mr. Strickland comes in and shoots the creature and Elisa. The creature, however, can heal itself, and comes straight at Strickland. Early in the film it is mentioned that the South American tribe near where the asset was found worshipped it like a god, and Strickland remembers this when he sees the creature heal himself, saying “Fuck, you are a god,” before being killed. The creature grabs Elisa and jumps into the water where Giles recites the lines written above (beginning “Unable to perceive …”) in voiceover, mirroring his introduction as the narrator.
Thus we return to the unconscious with our protagonist and the creature she lusts after. She did not learn anything; the only thing that changed is that she now has a lover. The only thing the audience learned was that sex is good, and consensual sex is the highest form of love. The poem Giles recites does not give a name to the “You” that is perceived, but considering its origin in Islamic poetry it can be safely assumed to be Allah, and thus it ponders the mysteries of a higher power, some good beyond the self and beyond human understanding, but Shape of Water recontextualizes that and changes the “You” to mean water. It moves the meaning back to the unconscious and the baser of human desires. The highest good in this film is not beyond man, it is in him (or her), and it is not even some conception of the ego or superego; rather, it is the id, and nothing more. Humans are animals, and they cannot be expected to act as anything more. Furthermore, Strickland’s final words can be interpreted as meaning that sex is in fact the god he should have served instead of the God of Christianity.
This thesis is disgusting, low even for the current year, and that is why this film gets such a low score in accord with the definition of our fishy rating system. This is not to discredit the craft of the film – it is excellent. The symbolism and allegory are very thorough, more than I had time to describe here, and the atmosphere is excellent. It is for this reason that I strongly suspect this film will win Best Picture tonight, and if it does it will be nothing new. One only has to look to another director who has been recognized for works that stand for nothing other than themselves (Birdman, The Revenant) – but at least in the case of Iñarrítu’s films, they hold a certain reverence for the higher parts of man, his ability to create art, and not only for man’s lowest parts.