What is the shape of water? The movie (see here) directed by Guillermo del Toro (see here) is a wonderfully subversive and visually enchanting movie, with great acting and writing. The movie hung around in my head several days after viewing. There is a strange quality to the movie, wherein the kaleidoscope of motifs, fairy tale, sci-fi, horror, homage to old Hollywood, Cold War spy thriller, and classic love story all conspire together to drown out whatever story Mr. del Toro was trying to tell–or, one might think. But instead of drowning out, I thought all the different touches and themes worked and presented a beautiful picture in which we might consider any weightier ideas or messages.
I say it was beautiful, but it was also interspersed with moments of terrible ugliness in the form of the main villain (played by Michael Shannon), the person in charge of the facility holding the “creature” the “monster.” I was reminded of the fall in those moments. Here was a beautiful world; a world declared “good” and yet, disrupting the beauty periodically is this black hole of nothing that somehow bends or warps the beauty around it.
The movie is set in Baltimore, the 1960s, and the US government has somehow captured a “fish-man” from South America. It hearkens one back to “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” The creature ends up in a secret laboratory, where they try to figure out what to do with “it” and how it might help them in the Cold War against the Soviets.
A whimsical mute woman, Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins), leads a fairly routine life and is part of the janitorial staff at the facility. Her co-worker, an African-American woman (played by Octavia Spencer), is her protector and confidant. Elisa’s neighbor is a gay man (played by Richard Jenkins) trying to get his career back and longing for love. They watch Hollywood musicals and dance numbers together. In a sense, all they have, the three of them, is each other. Why that is becomes clear as the movie unfolds.
Through a series of events, Elisa meets the “creature” held in the facility and instead of treating this being as an experiment or with hatred, she treats him with love and kindness. Their relationship grows from friendship into love and the ultimate idea of what is described by a term hardly (for good reasons) used anymore: miscegenation. That the movie also makes reference to the Civil Rights Movement and racism, gives their relationship and union and even more scandalous nature.
Interspersed around the core theme of this love story is the attempt to save this “creature” and throw in some Soviet spies as well to add another measure of, not only historical flavor, but subversiveness. And I don’t mean Soviet or Communist subversiveness.
For me this movie is asking the question: Which one is the monster? At that time and even now, we have been trained to the see the “fish-man” as the monster. This creature is not human, he is not like us, he is different, he is “other” than us. And this is exactly how our three main characters feel too as to how they are seen and treated by the dominant culture. One is a mute woman. She has no voice and neither did most women then or now. Her neighbor is gay—enough said? Her best friend at work is an African-American woman—enough said? At that time, and even now, these people were/are too often seen as the “monsters.”
The true “monster” however is the facility head, the one in charge of the amphibian man and the facility (which may stand for modernity in a way). In the 1950s-60s (now?) he would have been the hero. He is white. Married. Two children, a boy and a girl. He has a nice home with yellow and pastel colors in the background—it is a pretty and clean environment. He drives a Cadillac. He is “tough;” he is John Wayne. He knows the Bible. Everything else that didn’t fit that picture, then (now?), was the “other,” the monster.
This movie turns all that on its head. It subverts that narrative, that picture, that history. It even does this as to the Soviets. The Soviet spy in the facility is the only team member who wants to keep the amphibian man alive—he is the only scientist there who sees their captive as something more than just a monster to be used.
Who is the true monster here? The movie’s answer is: We are. “We” being the white, male, heterosexual, cultural-Christian, ultra-patriotic, rugged, individualistic, gun-toting, free-market loving, Americans. If one is on the other side of that equation, if one doesn’t fit that picture or narrative, we no doubt have been the monsters.
This movie is a counter-narrative to the one that has been dominant in America for far too long. Movies like this are important for the reasons noted here in a New York Times review:
“In Mr. del Toro’s world, though, reality is the domain of rules and responsibilities, and realism is a crabbed, literal-minded view of things that can be opposed only by the forces of imagination. This will never be a fair or symmetrical fight, and the most important reason to make movies like this one — or, for that matter, to watch them — is to even the odds.”