By Preston Wilder
No girl wants her boyfriend to smell of fish – but what if he actually is a fish? There are many reasons why a romantic relationship between a human woman and a scaly aquatic creature might be problematic – but of course it’s easier when the creature is a regal Amazonian god with the power to heal, and even easier when the woman is a mute, ignored and marginalised in early-60s America. “I make no sound, just like him,” signs Elisa (Sally Hawkins), seeing a fellow freak in the captive fish-man.
The monster has been captured by US troops during an oil-drilling expedition in the Amazon; spear-wielding natives tried to resist, reports Strickland (Michael Shannon) with a chuckle, and were presumably slaughtered. Strickland, of course, is the true monster, a racist military man and probable misogynist who likes his wife to keep quiet during sex – and later comes on to Elisa precisely because he likes her silence. The Shape of Water has a similar dynamic to Pan’s Labyrinth by the same director, Guillermo del Toro: the outlandish horror of a fantastical Other dwarfed by the everyday horrors committed by authority and the Establishment. I should say right now that I’m no fan of Labyrinth, and like this new one even less, but I’m clearly in the minority: it’s a front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar, having amassed 13 nominations.
Del Toro works with archetypes. Strickland (like Vidal in Labyrinth) represents all things fascist and sadistic; Elisa is silent and sensual, a pure soul with a good heart. She’s aided by a posse of the similarly disenfranchised: Zelda (Octavia Spencer) who’s both black and unhappily married, and Giles (Richard Jenkins) who’s a struggling artist and secretly gay. (Elisa herself, by the way, is Latina in addition to being disabled.) More importantly, the film deals in symbols. Green is the colour of water, red the colour of blood: an advertising man advises Giles – speaking of an advert for Jell-O – that green jelly (not red) is the jelly of the future. This links up with Strickland assuring his son that of course we’ll all have jet-packs in the future (“This is America!”), another sign of how wrong he is about everything. The creature, being water, is obviously green; Strickland’s bloodthirsty ways equate him with red – and the film makes it super-obvious, having him buy a Cadillac and tell the salesman, “I’m not sure about the green”.
The Shape of Water is a very busy, very jam-packed movie; there’s a pleasure in sorting it all out – especially given the film’s ornate visuals – but it also feels like del Toro grabbed these various elements and just slammed them all together. Why the religious angle, for instance, with Elisa having been found in the river as a baby (like Moses), and the title explained in the final seconds as a reference to God? Why the surprising, rather misjudged bits of violence? And what are we to make of the many cinematic references, from Creature of the Black Lagoon to Biblical dramas like The Story of Ruth? Elisa’s apartment is directly above a movie theatre. She dreams of being Alice Faye in a black-and-white 30s musical, a form of escape – but movies are also a form of denial: “I do not want to see that!” cries Giles when she turns the TV to footage of ‘Negroes’ being beaten, longing for the bubble of his lovely old musicals. Where does del Toro (a well-known film buff) stand on this issue, if anywhere?
Viewers, I suspect, won’t really mind that the film is muddled. (I haven’t even mentioned the sub-plot involving a scientist who’s really a Soviet spy.) After all, its main contours are clear: Beauty and the Beast, with a nasty soldier standing in the way. There are instantly iconic images, like the couple making love in a room full of water. Above all, the look is amazing. Surfaces are cluttered, walls damp and splotchy, rooms filled with carpets and overstuffed sofas. The lab where the creature is kept is a riot of tubes and piping, wall-high computers and what looks like a bathysphere. At one point, the camera moves from a pool of green-filtered light to a bank of retro TV sets in a shop window to a fat man sitting on a bench – all irrelevant, except that they look cool.
And what of water? Water, in this movie, is the medium of sexual pleasure and religious ecstasy – but also the medium of clammy images that stick in the mind, raindrops on glass and submerged, empty corridors. The Shape of Water is too cluttered to really cohere, then again water itself is also slippery (and shapeless, despite the title). The film starts in water and ends in water, bidding farewell with a high-flown Biblical quotation – though in fact I might’ve preferred Douglas Adams: so long, and thanks for all the fish.
DIRECTED BY Guillermo del Toro
STARRING Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins
Includes some dialogue in Russian, and in sign language
US 2017 123 mins