As a fan of both Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, I made sure to see Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water in theaters to fully submerge myself in his masterful juxtaposition of gorgeous and grotesque imagery. But even though I expected to enjoy the visual experience of this film, I was quite skeptical of a few elements of this story: 1.) the Michael Shannon villain; 2.) the portrayal of muteness; and 3.) of course, weird creature-human sex.
I came into the theater expecting to think nothing of Richard Strickland, played by Michael Shannon, after hearing criticism that the villain was just a one-note bad guy in all the ways. Boy was I surprised. Okay, yeah, Strickland is pretty terrible in every way, but that actually isn’t a problem. Shannon makes a meal of his dialogue/monologues, delivering a level of intensity that only he can give us. Plus, there’s a depth to his villainy. His cruel obsession with torturing the fish creature is driven by fear steeped in traditional notions of power and masculinity, as conveyed through phallic symbolism and his interactions with the general, his equally cruel boss. Sure, the imagery of Strickland’s rotting fingers and baton is a pretty heavy-handed tactic to exploring masculinity, but it’s done well. And, let’s be real, I included Mother! in my top 10 list, so I’m okay with over-the-top symbolism.
So the bad guy turned out to be captivating, but I’m less of a fan of the portrayal of muteness in the film. At times, I was intrigued by what seemed to be an exploration of communication—the squawks of the fish creature thing, the crassness of Zelda (Octavia Spencer), Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and Giles’ (Richard Jenkins) shared love of the music and dancing of old Hollywood musicals, and of course, Elisa’s body language. The shape of water—get ready to have your mind blown—is not a solid, defined thing but a fluid, ever-changing element. The film attempts to challenge our concrete notions of sexuality, communication and even what defines a human by using water as its central image. It’s a beautiful sentiment that’s difficult not to respond positively to; however, some flaws in the film’s portrayal of disability hindered the message.
Sally Hawkins proves both a terrible and perfect choice for the movie. Yet again, a nondisabled actor portrays someone with a disability, further buttressing the film industry’s failure to employ actors with disability while also relying on disability as a thematic or emotional crutch. Having said that, Hawkins delivers a lovely performance. I don’t think I will ever put together a sentence that is as eloquent or graceful as anything Hawkins says in this film through her body. But despite her body language, Elisa is still under the impression that she is “incomplete” because of her disability, which is the main reason she is drawn to the fish-monster-dude-thing, who she claims is the only living thing that doesn’t view her as inadequate. At one point while having dinner with her aquatic lover, she imagines herself belting out a musical number to express her love to him, as if she hasn’t already expressed love to him a million times over through saving his life and flooding the bathroom to have weird fish sex with him. Yes, it’s a big deal to have a disabled character in sexual, romantic situations and defined by more than disability, but her muteness is still portrayed as a lack throughout the film.
Let’s get to the kinky stuff. Of course, the point of fish-man-monster-whatever-thing is to subvert the stereotypical monster film and to offer a sentimental character who challenges what it means to be human. But dammit, he isn’t human. No matter how much Elisa loves him and has sex with him and tells Giles that he is just as human as she is, just about everything about this fish dude reads “not human.” He has the body of a sexy man, but his mannerisms are those of an adorable creature. Those big, curious fish eyes; the squawks; the magical powers; the blue scales; his sort of amphibiousness; the way he cocks his head; his claws; his cute little crawl to Giles after biting the head off of a cat. Pretty much everything about him is completely inhuman.
Sure, he certainly looks more like a man than some of the other monsters from 2017, such as the super pig of Okja and Stranger Things’ demodogs, but are their actions really that much different? There’s the same sweetness yet potential danger of the super pig, and one demodog also shares an appetite for cat meat. I know I’m supposed to consider fish-man-creature as human because of his love in contrast to Strickland whose hatred renders him monstrous, but what is the nature of this creature’s love? I can’t buy that it is truly romantic or sexual; he acts more like a pet that has been rescued from an abusive environment. I’m not saying that he should be tortured by Strickland or beaten by Steve and his spiked bat . . . but sex?
Ultimately, this film tries to tackle a lot of compelling, altruistic topics. Though it delivers on some of its points, the treatment of . . . fuck it, I’ll just call it a fish monster. Could they really not give it a name? Anyway, the treatment of the fish monster causes the film to fall short of its goal to challenge our notions of monstrosity and humanity. Del Toro’s subversion of film monsters or supernatural creatures has proven far more effective in some of his other films. Having said that, I made the right call in seeing this film in theaters. My own criticisms did not detract from my absorption in del Toro’s visual imagination, and I still found myself moved by superb performances and the exploration of its lofty themes. I would even watch this movie again, eyerolling heavily during some scenes but curious to probe some of the film’s commentary on progress and contradictory American values against the backdrop of the Cold War. The Shape of Water might have squeaked into our top 10 list if Stephanie and I had seen it sooner; even with its problems, it’s an immersive experience.
Cake Rating: Honestly, after seeing all those rancid pies and so many damn hardboiled eggs, I’m not sure if I have much of an appetite. Maybe I’ll just re-watch Call Me By Your Name to enjoy a better love story while eating some peach cobbler. Is that weird?
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