film review: the shape of water

By Zoe Buckton

Last week, third year Gender and Sexualities students headed down to CityScreen to see Guillermo Del Toro’s new, critically acclaimed movie The Shape of Water. If you’ve heard of The Shape of Water you’ll probably be aware of its key plot point: a romantic arc between a mute woman and what can best be described as a humanoid fish.

I was unsure about this film – trailers presented it as a Seaworld version of beauty and the beast – but it stands out for its characters, each of them missing something vital and having a drive towards something. This is just good writing, as it allows the audience to feel relief or frustration when characters are a step closer or further away from their goal. It also can’t go without mentioning that Del Toro’s staple visuals excel here. If you’ve played the video game Bioshock you’ll be surprised not to hear the words ‘would you kindly’ bouncing off the portholes.

The film is set in 1962, during the Cold War, in Baltimore, and takes place mostly in a government lab. We are introduced to mute protagonist Elisa as ‘the princess without a voice’, which establishes an expectation of a passive damsel-in-distress type. Fortunately, Elisa turns out to be the most active character in the film. As a cleaner in a secret government facility, she manages to sneak away time on her lunch breaks to sit with the creature next to its tank. She is the first to learn that the creature can communicate, and teaches it the sign for ‘egg’.

Whilst the montage of creature-Elisa bonding is endearing, I thought it could’ve been a little longer. Besides a mutual love for music and inability to speak, there is seemingly little the pair have in common. Whilst it is Elisa’s disdain for the abuse the creature undergoes at the facility that motivates her initially, it is her drive for companionship and love that drives the plot forward. This is all well and good, but given that her companion is much more fish than humanoid, I could’ve done with a little more in the sense of team bonding. Elisa’s friends are beautifully, if unrealistically, supportive. If a two-legged fish ate my cat I doubt I would forgive them. And if my co-worker told me she’d had sex with a two-legged fish I would be a lot more concerned than Elisa’s friend Zelda turns out to be.

There’s a question mark hanging over whether The Shape of Water passes the Bechdel test, on the basis that most conversations technically concern a fish. It may be of interest for Gender and Sexualities students to note that characters in the film immediately gender the fish as male, though it has very little in the way of characteristics that contribute to a gender identity. If anything, I’d argue that the fish is the real damsel-in-distress of the movie.

The prominent theme in this film is loneliness and the isolating nature of being different. Zelda is a cleaner and a woman of colour struggling in an unhappy marriage. Hostetler is a soviet spy posing as American, and finds himself caught between the preservation of life and the need to prevent America from winning the space race. The subplot of Elisa’s best friend, Giles, is the most poignant. Giles is our narrator, and lives next door to Elisa. Though he doesn’t sign, he can translate her sign language well. Del Toro often uses Giles’s reading of Elisa’s signs to provide her with a voice. Giles is a marketing illustrator, and we soon learn that he is gay: he has a fridge full of questionable pies he is ‘saving for later’ because he is in love with the store waiter. While there is never a clear explanation as to why Giles is being held back in his career, Toro hints at a past affair with his higher-up, who tells Giles ‘it’s not a good time’. It seems that for Giles, it is never a good time. He confides in the creature that he thinks he was born in the wrong era, and decides to help Elisa when he realises he cannot have what she has.

The most intriguing character in The Shape of Water is the villain, Colonel Richard Strickland. Strickland is vile: we are introduced to him in the men’s bathroom where Elisa and her friend Zelda are cleaning the floors. Strickland argues that washing your hands is a kind of weakness. He tells Elisa and Zelda about the phallic cattle prod he carries around at all times as it drips blood onto the just-cleaned sinks. Following this introduction I was pretty sure that Strickland was going to be evil for evil’s sake. Luckily he proves to be a little more complex.

Strickland’s most memorable trait is his fingers: bitten off by the creature and reattached after their discovery by Elisa, they slowly grow black and infected as the film goes on. Strickland is humanised subtly. We are shown his nuclear family: blonde wife, two loving children sat for breakfast. Then we are shown his grim sex life and need to silence women. The deliberateness of this scene isn’t quite clear until we see how sensitively Del Toro has handled sex between Elisa and the creature; making their cross-species relations seem more normal than Strickland’s ‘ideal’, wealthy, white family. Strickland’s attempts to be the perfect patriot all reveal how willing he is to buy into ideas. We frequently see him reading ‘Positive Thinking’ and applying its merits selectively. At a Cadillac dealership he is talked into buying a car immediately, a jump cut to him driving down the street and being waved at by groups of young women illustrating the farcical nature of his need for approval. For much of the film Strickland drives around in his broken symbol of wealth and fulfillment. His entitlement and privilege in arguing that the Lord ‘looks like me or you, but a little more like me’ ultimately backfires.

I’d warn potential viewers that the film is a little gorier than expected, but also a lot funnier. The Shape of Water combines romcom, spy thriller, horror, and even a scene of musical theatre to create a strange genre hybrid that keeps you second guessing where subplots will lead. Del Toro describes his film as ‘the marriage of the ordinary and the extraordinary’, and where this film excels is in juxtaposing the lives of cleaners with those of spies, scientists, artists and an aquatic god. The Shape of Water is a study of desire and emptiness, and if you can get over the initial queasiness of fish interrelations, then you’ll take a lot away from the experience.