In her canonical 1984 essay “When the Woman Looks,” film scholar Linda Williams argues that the way in which men and women, both on-screen and off, look at monsters in horror films is fundamentally different and predicated on their gender. She writes, “The male look expresses conventional fear at that which differs from itself. The female look—a look given preeminent position in the horror film—shares the male fear of the monster’s freakishness, but also recognizes the sense in which this freakishness is similar to her own difference.” She goes on to note that “The strange sympathy and affinity that often develops between the monster and the girl may … be less an expression of sexual desire … and more a flash of sympathetic identification.”
Guillermo del Toro’s new horror-fantasy The Shape of Water gives striking, at times unsettling, and at other times deeply moving form to Williams’s argument, building from a long line of classic horror and fantasy films ranging from The Phantom of the Opera (1927), to King Kong (1933), to Beauty and the Beast (1946) about tortured romances between misunderstood monstrosities and the women who come to love them. As Williams notes, most of the time the affinity between the female protagonist and the monster arises from sympathetic identification, but just as often there is a sexual component of some kind, albeit usually restrained, suppressed, or somehow deflected, even as it remains obviously present. Del Toro’s risky gambit is that he makes the sexual component of this attraction explicit, giving us an emotional and physical romance between a shy, mute woman and an amphibious humanoid held in captivity in the government facility where she works as a custodian.
As with most of del Toro’s films, The Shape of Water is set in the recent past, in this case the last year of John F. Kennedy’s Presidency when the Cold War was at a particularly heightened state. The opening narration, which unspools over a beautifully surreal sequence that turns one of the film’s primary locations into an submerged dreamworld, suggests the form of a fairy tale with its references to a princess, a prince, a monster, and a kingdom. The film is also, like virtually all of del Toro’s films, a paean to outsiders—sympathetic characters who live and struggle on the margins of their social world due to their age (many of his films feature isolated children) or some kind of disability, weaknesses, lack of stature, or outright freakishness.
As in his most recent film, the Gothic melodrama Crimson Peak (2015), the protagonist in The Shape of Water is a young woman who doesn’t fit into her world and doesn’t really care to. In Crimson Peak, which was set at the turn of the 20th century, Mia Wasikowska’s Edith Cushing was an aspiring novelist with a fierce intelligence and a streak of feminist independence that set her on the outs of the fashionable Boston high society into which she was born. In The Shape of Water, Sally Hawkins’s Elisa Esposito is a mute who keeps largely to herself, her only friends being other outsiders of Cold War America: Giles (Richard Jenkins), the aging painter who lives next door who was fired from his job because of his homosexuality and who yearns for the young man who works the counter at the diner down the street, and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her chatty African American co-worker. Despite her plain appearance, Elisa is both intensely sexual (one of the first things we see her doing is masturbating in the bathtub before going to work) and intensely introspective. Hawkins’s performance is a real marvel in the way she is able to convey so many depths of feeling, wonderment, empathy, and imagination without ever saying a word; it’s all in her eyes, her face, and her gestures.
That mix of sexual and emotional feeling is perhaps why Elisa feels such an instant connection to the strange being—referred as “the asset” by the white-lab-coated scientists at the facility—that is brought in and housed in an enormous tank in a cavernous room behind a massive steel door. Referred to in the credits as “Amphibian Man,” the creature is a tall, lithe, muscular humanoid with an intense stare and a quizzical demeanor. He looks, not surprisingly, like a more animated version of the monster-star of The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), and he is played in a full body-suit and articulated mask by Doug Jones, who played the Faun and the Pale Man in del Toro’s 2006 masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth and the fish-man Abe Sapien in his two Hellboy films.
In many ways, del Toro’s film plays as kind a pseudo-sequel to The Creature From the Black Lagoon (there are references to Amphibian Man coming from a river in the Amazon, the creature’s dwelling in the earlier film), as well as an ideological reworking of its gender politics. Black Lagoon played on horror tropes that envisioned the creature as a particularly monstrous version of predatory male sexuality; the most famous scene shows the creature lurking and gliding underwater as he stalks Julie Adams while she innocently, yet provocatively swims through the river. The creature eventually abducts her and takes her away to his lair, where she must be rescued by the male characters, a typical Hollywood trope that pits male heroes against male monsters with the endangered beauty caught in-between. The Shape of Water inverts that dynamic by making Elisa the initiator of the relationship with Amphibian Man, gently luring him out of the water with hard-boiled eggs, gentle sign language, and a look that suggests the kind of curiosity that wants to know him, rather than probe him. After witnessing his abuse, she wants to rescue the creature, who she describes to Giles as “the loneliest thing she’s ever seen.” She sees him as a fellow victim and one who sees past her own “incompleteness”—“he sees me for what I am, as I am,” she says. In the same way, she sees past his monstrous exterior and recognizes feeling, emotion, and a sense of shared recognition—in other words, humanity.
This is quite the opposite of the other male characters in the film (Giles excluded, of course), particularly Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the sadistic security expert who is brought in to ensure that the asset is kept contained and secret. Strickland is the film’s true monster, a controlling brute in neatly pressed suits who lusts after Elisa (when he has sex with his wife, he covers her mouth and tells her to be “silent”) and inflicts all manner of abuse on Amphibian Man, repeatedly jabbing him with a cattle prod, which eventually results in the creature’s one moment of (off-screen) violence when he either rips or bites off two of Strickland’s fingers. The fingers are surgically re-attached, but the manner in which they fail to take, turning blacker and more foul as the film progresses, is a kind of external signifier of his warped soul, which Shannon is all too adept at playing. In addition to Giles, whose homosexuality excludes him from traditional male authority, there is one other sympathetic male character, a scientist named Bernard (Stewart Arnott) who has a secret with major political implications, yet is the only other character besides Elisa who feels empathy and recognizes that the creature is not some simplistic brute, but an intelligent being capable of language and understanding.
As we have come to expect from del Toro’s films, The Shape of Water is a masterpiece of cinematographer and production design. Every space in the film, from Elisa’s slightly decaying loft apartment, which sits above a palatial, but barely attended relic of a movie palace, to the dank government facility, is a visual marvel that invites sustained visual scrutiny. The film’s dominant color is teal, which we see in the sickly seafoam green tiles all over the government facility, Elisa’s janitorial uniform, and the water in which the creature is kept. The camerawork and lighting by Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen (who also shot Crimson Peak) emphasizes the depths of the film’s interior spaces and plays creatively with light and shadow. The production design by Paul D. Austerberry (Pompeii) works primarily with various contrasts, pitting the shining exteriors of Kennedy-era America (specifically a glistening Cadillac dealer showroom floor and Strickland’s neatly appointed suburban home) with both the damp recesses of the secretive government facility, which becomes a kind of metaphor for all that is dark and hidden in the American psyche, and the sad remnants of an earlier era (particularly the movie palace over which Elisa and Giles live).
Del Toro’s films have always been particularly expressive in the spaces the characters inhabit, and they often reflect tumultuous historical periods (two of his Spanish-language films, 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, are set against the Spanish Civil War). His approach to fantastical genre material is intriguing for the way he both uses and undercuts tradition, and The Shape of Water may be his most audacious experiment to date in that regard, as it dares to take the repressed sexual connection between the horror film’s two preeminent outsiders—women and monsters—and bring it to the surface. Yet, there is no sense that del Toro is being exploitative or crass in the film’s explicit sexuality, and he and co-screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs) take great pains to ensure that the physical connection and intimacy between Elisa and Amphibian Man is a direct expression of their emotional and spiritual connection. The title’s reference to liquid’s ability to take the shape of whatever container it is in suggests that love works in a similar manner—a tangible, yet amorphous experience that can take on any shape at any time. It’s a daring and, given the film’s romantic pairing of a woman and an amphibian humanoid, potentially disastrous conceit that del Toro brings off with a rare sensitivity, reminding us that his films always aim to expand genre limits, not play safely within them.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © 20th Century Fox
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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