Good morning! This week my co-author Achariya and I were able to attend an advance screening of The Shape of Water. We loved it and we had thoughts. The following are those thoughts. The section here is spoiler-free, but spoilers do appear in the discussions below the cut. Enjoy, and feel free to chime in!
JEN: Let me get this right out of the way – I loved it, I want people to support it, but I also recognize it’s not for everyone. Also there were three movies that I couldn’t help but think about: Amelie, for the love story, Splash, also for the love story, and The Creature From the Black Lagoon, mostly because of the Amphibian Man but also because that latter touched on concepts of loneliness.
ACHARIYA: Last night when I left the theater, I called my dad, a cinephile from way back. I told him the bare outlines of the plot, and he said, “Oh, obviously Guillermo Del Toro is a student of film, and has also seen Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein — he’s likely well versed in the genre of the relatable monster.” And yes, I also loved it.
JEN: Also I can’t help but think of this as Del Toro thumbing his nose at Universal’s failed attempt to launch a Dark Universe franchise; I read that he was offered the Dark Universe and turned it down. Had he taken it on we would be seeing a Creature From the Black Lagoon remake very like this, along with all the other well-loved monsters. Here’s a man who can’t write an unsympathetic monster, who will always see layers to every villain but most of all to the ugly, unloved, and broken. It’s a damned shame we won’t see those from him.
ACHA: I would argue that the introductory lines of the movie pointed to the true monster — and Del Toro was absolutely able to write an unsympathetic villain. It just wasn’t the one that you’d think. (More about that in spoilers!)
JEN: One more thing before we get into the spoilers – I found the movie brilliant because of the complete removal of its universe from reality, while still managing to feel believable. All the questions I had stemmed from situations that were created within the movie – there was never a moment where I thought ‘Well that can’t happen because X.’ The story had my complete buy-in.
ACHA: And I’d posit that this is in part because the audience has been given a perfect character through which to react to and question the movie, the main character’s best friend, Zelda (played by Octavia Spencer). Her responses throughout were exactly what mine were: “What?” “You did what??” “I — what?” And then, her ultimate sympathy and acceptance for the main character: “Okay, whatever works for you.”
JEN: Full disclosure: I grew up loving Creature from the Black Lagoon for a lot of reasons. To me, it was a movie about loneliness and breakdowns in communication. Yesterday a friend at work and I were chatting about The Shape of Water and he mentioned that he’d read it was Del Toro’s version of Creature from the Black Lagoon, which might have predisposed me toward falling madly in love with this movie, I don’t know. There’s a subtext to Creature that posits that because humans invaded the Creature’s lagoon, fooled with him, and killed him, that we might be the real monsters. That idea was expanded in this film, as it feels like a remake of a classic monster movie where the monster was really a psychotic white man. And let me tell you, Michael Shannon was scary.
ACHA: Yes, let’s dig right into that. The true monster of the movie, predicted by the narration at the beginning, is Strickland, a white man so immersed in toxic culture that he confuses power for love, and the praise of his superiors for acceptance.
JEN: The opening scene with narration goes a long way toward convincing viewers that what they see might not be entirely real – and that it’s okay. Sit back and enjoy.
ACHA: It’s important to me to point out that the main characters we felt the most sympathy for were Giles (older gay white man), Eliza Esposito (who is orphaned so we don’t know her background, but the name Esposito implies that she’s hispanic), Zelda (a black woman), and Amphibian Man (a male non-human). We’re rooting against the white man, here.
JEN: Strickland speaks at everyone, hearing no one but General Hoyt. His symphony of egoism begins when his torture of Amphibian Man results in his fingers being bitten off, crescendos when Eliza calmly and patiently signs ‘F U C K Y O U’ over and over at him and he can’t understand, and climaxes when he demands information about a ‘strike team’ from the heroically dying Hofstatler. The fact that his ideal woman can’t speaks volumes, or more accurately whole library systems, about what kind of man he is. Then again so does the gratuitous violence and general prickishness.
ACHA: It’s going to be fascinating to watch the more predictable Darkest Hour after watching this. Del Toro mixes genres like crazy in this movie — you mention that Strickland demands information about a Russian ‘strike team’ that extracted Amphibian Man, and what amuses me is that in normal Cold War genre movies (I’ve been watching a lot of them lately), the good guy is the Brit or the American, and there’s absolutely a Russian strike team. In this movie, the Russian scientist spy Hofstatler ends up being one of the sympathetic crew working to free Amphibian Man from the evil forces of the American government, and his strike team is made up of (as Hofstatler says) the cleaners.
JEN: Hofstatler, the Russian spy, has a statuette on his mantelpiece of a bullfighter and bull, symbolizing the dangerous game he is playing in Cold War America.
ACHA: I have to say that the Russians ended up not being very sympathetic either — Hofstatler’s two compatriots give him the instruction to kill Amphibian Man, so both sides are shown at their worst, while human compassion that rises above artificial boundaries is the true winner.
JEN: Speaking of genre, Del Toro does lots of things right, and one of those things is body horror. WHEW.
ACHA: When I went home, I kept thinking about Strickland’s fingers, which are bitten off by Amphibian Man and reattached, and how they bleed, become gangrenous, and rot on his very body, to the point where other characters call out his rotting stench. Symbolic much, Del Toro?
JEN: And in the genre of romance, my biggest takeaway right now is how two non-speaking characters manage to communicate in a way more purely and directly than their speaking counterparts, and through that, find intimacy. For example, Giles can speak, and yet he, as a gay man in 1950s America, is terribly alone. His attempt at reaching out to what he thinks is a fellow closeted man is rushed by his own pressing desperation – had he waited just a few minutes more he would have seen how racist the Pie Man was and been spared the embarrassment and even danger (And spared from eating more terrible pie).
ACHA: That reminds me of the quote I read in the book of essays you lent me, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth: Studies in the horror film. There’s a section in which Del Toro is discussing his own art. He says:
“I believe that all stories in the world are either love stories between men and women, fathers and sons, sons and mothers, or mothers and daughters. It’s very basic. I remember something Almodóvar said to me when we were starting to produce Devil’s Backbone. He said that your films and my films have something in common. And I asked, ‘What? What is it that you found?’ And he said, ‘Well in your films, everyone seems to either be family or they kill each other and in my films, everyone is either family or they fuck each other.’ I like that description very much.” (p. 398)
So, this seems like part of that overarching desire to find connection. The movie’s sympathetic characters feel it; Strickland does not. There’s an interesting parallel between Strickland’s relationship with his wife, which seems enormously disconnected and compartmentalized, and Zelda’s relationship with her husband.
JEN: Zelda’s relationship with her husband is clearly complex, and at one point she mentions something along the lines of ‘It takes a lot of lies to keep a marriage going.’ When we finally meet the long-mentioned Brewster, he’s more or less what I expected: inert, inconsiderate, and unsympathetic.
ACHA: And even through all that, Zelda tells him off, but at no point do we get the impression that she’ll leave him. There’s a level of comfortable intimacy they both have, despite how much of a lump Brewster is, and Zelda knows the good and bad of him and accepts it all. Circling back to Zelda, her enormous compassion gave shape to the emotional core of the film, for me — both in her love and acceptance for Eliza and Amphibian Man, and for her husband, and even for the ugly white man.
JEN: Rando thoughts from my scribbled notes:
- both Eliza and Amphibian Man have early scenes in tubs with very different outcomes
- Accordion music always makes a film seem surreal
So that is the end of our conversation about The Shape of Water. It’s absolutely beautiful, absolutely deserving of the awards it’s been nominated for and already won, and absolutely going to spark some interesting conversations among theatergoers. And probably a lot of jokes and memes from the peanut gallery. I will probably even laugh at a few, but more importantly, after this nightmarish year, this movie was like a perfectly refreshing dream.