I missed The shape of water when it was released, months ago. Sometimes I deliberately wait for the dvd, because of the curse of dubbing: I want to be able to hear the voice of the actors I am watching. Yet The shape of water is one of those films which really needs to be seen on the large screen. Anyway I was too busy when it came out- and also, I was worried that it would be sad, I didn’t want to see something that would make me weep for days, so I waited until I could ask someone I trusted to reassure me it wouldn’t be too depressing. (I have a rule, a kind of test, which I first formulated when I saw Edward Scissorhands ages ago: the sadder a story is, the better it has to be. Tim Burton’s fairy tale failed the test, and I never watched it again.)
I got the dvd when it was released and finally the day before yesterday I watched it. I regretted the small screen and the wrong lights (I am going to try and find some summer show, maybe open- air) but I liked the film very much – so much that I watched it again yesterday.
A story with an alien creature is expected to be science fiction, but that depends on how it is told: science must have a role in the plot at some level, and characters will usually include explorers who find the creature and scientists who give explanations about it. Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, who co-wrote the script, took an entirely different approach and produced a fairy tale in which an unusual young woman falls in love with the creature – a merman from South America – and strives to save him from inprisonment, pain and death.
(I do not own the rights to this picture)
Most traditional fairy tales are either yarns about children in danger, or coming-of-age stories about young women. In both types there will be villains who wish to destroy the protagonist or at least prevent her/him from becoming a happy adult, and one or more figures (usually magical) who may give advice or practical help, in the form of talismans, ball gowns or bed and board.
In The shape of water the villain is the U.S. Army; the role of the main evil character who torments the captive creature, while being horrible to everybody else except a five-star general, belongs to Mr. Strickland, who claims he captured the “thing” in the Amazon and took it to the facility where it is kept. In a realistic story he would be too starkly black and white (mostly black), but he fits perfectly as a fiend here. We can start loathing him from the beginning, and we do so increasingly, with every single word he speaks. He and the military embody the western approach to nature at its worst: you take what you want and destroy what stands in the way. Seeing how he treats the women around him, if I were a certain type of feminist I would use the expression “toxic masculinity” to describe Strickland.
The main helper is a scientist, a Soviet spy torn between loyalty to his mother country and to science. He is disgusted by the disrespect his American employers show to a sentient creature , and moved to pity towards it, while he proves unable to protect it from violence. Dr. Hoffsteller does not fulfill the role a scientist would have in science fiction, he does not illustrate the nature of the merman except for some details which he hopes will save the creature’s life; he keeps the explanations to a minimum: he is a modern equivalent of the magician, or the fairy godmother, and his role is to give the heroine help in her adventure, not a course in amphybian physiology. Not only: some of his realizations on the nature of the creature (that is capable of thought and recognizes beauty) only take place when he accidentally sees the amphibian interact with the heroine.
Her name is Eliza, and she is unusual in more than one way.
In many traditional fairy tales where the protagonist is a young woman she either remains passive, waiting for help to come, or runs away from the villain. This being the 21st century, Eliza is not passive at all. While her life goes on, day in day out, cleaning an army facility with her friend Zelda, she dreams. It is one of her dreams that opens the film, and I only realized that it was a prophetic dream when I watched the film for the second time. We learn from the start that she manages to project a layer of dreaminess on her life that keeps her alive. Like Cinderella in the Disney film, we see her dancing while she works (and like Cinderella she lives in an attic, although it is a rather charming one). This is crucial: daydreaming is a way to imagine a different world, a different life.
We are told she is special by a short voice-over, but we need to understand in what way. We learn that she cannot speak, and we see that she is marginal. She is resourceful, also. We need to go on with the film to see that the stuff of heroism is in her, but we witness her empathy from the start; she can feel someone else’s pain, and she feels she has to do something about it. We are not surprised when she is struck by the beautiful, blue-green and gold merman.
(I do not own the rights to this picture)
It is said that in the Amazon forest he was worshipped as a god. All we know is that this amphibian does possess some powers: notably, he can heal very fast if he is hurt, but when we meet him he is in chains, and for most of the film he is vulnerable and unable to escape from the laboratory where he seems to be subjected to torture rather than experiments, though when you think about it, whether a procedure is research or torture depends on whether you ask the scientist or the lab rat. I was reminded of some sets in Lang’s Metropolis.
When Eliza sees him and follows her impulse to be kind to him, he looks more like a child than like a monster or a god: a lonely child who goes over what his new friend taught him, and who tries to communicate with chirps and glottal sounds that reminds you that he is not human. There is something feline in him: he hisses when angry or scared, and looks at the world with the curiosity and caution of a young cat.
This is a crucial difference to other tales of love between a woman and a monster or animal: in classic fairy tales, whether folkloric or literary, the Beast is really a human being, and the task of “Beauty”, the heroine, is to acknowledge that a male , with his different body and his imperious desire, is still a human being.
But Eliza’s beloved (for she falls for him quite quickly) is not human at all: on this, at least, Strickland is right. He is The Other, the alien, the amphibian. A carnivore, ad we learn at the expense of a cat. He needs saving, and Eliza is destined to save him, marked as the merman’s saviour by her being dumb, a mute. Her being different isn’t simply being disabled (defective, lacking: that is how she knows people perceive her). It is not, either, just an obstacle that makes Eliza’s struggle more difficult and our sympathy for her greater: being deprived of speech makes her suitable to the object of her love. A potential mermaid , who likes to spend time in her tub. Unlike Andersen’s Little mermaid, who ends her days weeping and dissolves in the waves, Eliza, we said, is resourceful. She also receives help when she needs it, from Dr. Hoffsteller and from her friends, who are just as marginal as she is: a mature gay man and a black woman.
(Talking about marks, we are shown the scars on the woman’s neck, which she has had since she was a child. Again, a realistic detail – possibly hinting at a difficult childhood – which will find its reason, not its cause, as the story proceeds. )
The script is very carefully written, so that as the plot moves on the spectator is gradually prepared to what is to come: even though we are outside the realm of realism quite from the start (or from the moment we learn about the amphybian’s existence) we will need more suspension of disbelief than average, and the way we are warned (which I won’t say, it is such a brilliant surprise) is absolutely fantastic – in more than one sense.
I will conclude by observing that The shape of water stands to the tradition of monster movies (especially the line including the King Kong movies and, of course, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, of which it is a rewriting) the way Coppola’s Dracula stands to vampire movies: starting from tales of dangerous monsters and the havoc they wreak, they change them into stories on the redeeming, even liberating power of love and on the need to acknowledge our bond with nature. I was also reminded of Angela Carter’s The tiger’s bride, in which the protagonist must discover her own animal nature to be happy with the Beast. Then they can live happily ever after.