The Shape of Water: An In-Depth Review
Disclaimer: I did not know about the Polanski petition when writing this.
Knowing that del Toro and I both think alike (creatively), I couldn't wait to see this film, and when I did, I was not prepared for how much I would love it.
Even more intriguing, del Toro said he was inspired by The Creature from the Black Lagoon because he was disappointed that the Creature and the woman didn't wind up falling in love.
I, too, loved "Black Lagoon" when I was a child. My mother didn't let me see the horrific ending, so I had no idea what really happened and went on believing that maybe the Creature fell in love with the woman.
Yeah. Not shocking that this movie appealed to me.
Elisa, Another Voiceless Mermaid
Elisa (played by the lovely Sally Hawkins) spends the opening of the story showing us who she is and not telling us. Showing and not telling is, in fact, the theme of the entire film, given that the two main characters -- Elisa and the Asset -- can not speak.
We see Elisa longing for red shoes. The color red represents passion and life. And of course, we see her wearing red later after she finally experiences that passion.
We see her masturbating, and it immediately tells us that she is lonely and longs for an active sexlife. Another on-going theme of the movie is loneliness, after all.
Elisa has probably never found human men attractive simply because she is not human. In this light, the masturbation scene explains away her isolation and her "fish out of water" existence neatly and quickly.
Elisa is a mermaid and doesn't know it. Several clues about this are spread throughout the film. She can not speak. She has strange gill-like scars on her neck. She masturbates in the bathtub, as if water were needed for her sexual activities. And it's mentioned that she was found as a baby on the edge of the river. . . . presumably where her mermaid parent left her.
Later when Elisa meets the Asset, it is magnetic. She is instantly attracted to him and doesn't understand why. It is something that frightens and excites her, because for the first time in her life, she is seeing the male of her species but does not know it.
The Asset, meanwhile, seems to know immediately that Elisa is a mermaid.
A Merry Band of Misfits
Elisa faces a lot of ignorance and discrimination because she can not speak (being called a "dummy" by coworkers) and has wound up in a low paying job that often requires her to clean up after the grosser habits of humanity. Naturally, her best friends would be other marginalized people: her gay neighbor Giles and her black co-worker Zelda (I love that name).
Continuing the theme of loneliness, Zelda (played by the lovely Octavia Spencer) is lonely because her depressed and unemployed husband ignores her. She takes comfort in her friendship with Elisa, developing a sisterly bond with her, and trying to protect her at work from the tyrant Strickland.
Unlike her husband, Zelda has a steady job. But she is forced to keep it by acting like a subservient inferior who would otherwise be fired for not muttering "sir" at the end of every sentence and knowing "her place."
As the audience, we are privy to how she faces casual racism from Strickland, who calls black people ugly in one breath and inferior in another.
Meanwhile, Giles (played by Richard Jenkins) is a very lonely man who has no one but Elisa and his cats. For this reason, he pretends to enjoy the horrible pie from a pie shop because he has a crush on the owner. Unfortunately, his crush turns out to be straight, homophobic, and racist to boot.
When his heart isn't being crushed, Giles spends the rest of the movie begging to be taken back by his former employer, the implication being that he has been fired for being gay.
Much like Zelda, the only good thing he's got in life is his friendship with Elisa.
Strickland, A Villain We've All Met
Strickland (played by Micheal Shannon) is someone we've all met in real life: a wildly insecure man, damaged by patriarchal power structures, who looks like he has his shit together on the outside but is secretly ready to snap and shoot everyone at the post office.
Strickland is trying desperately to achieve his unfortunate idea of manhood (which boils down to being a sexist, racist bully), and his insecurity is wrecking everyone around him.
Giles says in the opening that Strickland is a monster trying to destroy something beautiful, and that's exactly what he is.
Nothing demonstrates this better than Strickland's very gross scene with his wife, where he uses her in bed like a thing. While sleeping with her, he covers her mouth with his grossly infected and bleeding hand. He wants women to be silent because women who can talk -- and therefore remind him that women are people -- make him feel small. He needs women to be silent so that he can continue to feel powerful, manly, and in control.
Elisa being mute is fetished by Strickland because she is perceived by him as weak and inferior. Her silence is "proof" that he can easily overpower her and achieve the sense of manliness, dominance, and control that he is longing for.
It is when Elisa speaks up -- openly signing "F You" to Strickland -- that Strickland is reminded she is a person, that she is not inferior, and he loses it.
Strickland completely lacks introspection. He doesn't understand why he's attracted to Elisa or why he has such a desire to sleep with someone who "isn't much to look at."
Hateful and insecure people rarely have any remote sense of self, and this is what makes Strickland such a realistic and very human villain.
I also love that they didn't try to make us sympathize with Strickland. A lot of crappy people in real life deserve no sympathy, and over the years, I've begun to resent stories where we are emotionally manipulated into pitying the bad guy (as is evidenced by some of my articles here).
While we see Strickland reading self-help books in the film, it is clear that he is not reading them to become a more compassionate individual who treats others with kindness and respect. Instead, he is reading said books in an attempt to make himself more confident, that he can exert power over those he perceives as worthless and beneath him.
Strickland is not remotely self-aware and has no desire to achieve awareness. He fully believes that his crap-ideology is correct, that only some people are people and others are not.
Nothing exemplifies this more than Strickland's "relationship" with the Asset. Strickland recognizes that the Asset has feelings, can think and communicate, and is fully sentient, but still does not recognize him as a person deserving of basic decency and respect. Instead, he tortures the Asset for pleasure and refers to him as "it" for the duration of the film, even comparing him to humans he doesn't see as people.
Dmitri (played by Micheal Stuhlbarg), the Russian spy who helped out our band of misfits, existed as a foil for Strickland, highlighting all of the villain's most unfortunate characteristics with his selfless and unflinching compassion. While he initially wanted to dissect and study the Asset, the cards were off the table when he realized the Asset was an actual person and not a mere beast.
Our Prince of the Mysterious Blue
When Elisa first meets the Asset (performed by Doug Jones), he is very suspicious and believes she will mistreat him like the others. I mean, she was raised by humans, after all.
Considering that he was worshiped as a god in the Amazon, being treated as less than nothing must've been far more infuriating than it would be to someone who was used to it. Out of all the marginalized and mistreated people in the film, the Asset is easily the angriest. He quickly calms down, however, when Elisa continues to treat him with kindness and respect.
This is a pretty good example of Johann Wolfgang van Goethe's saying,
"The way you see people is how you treat them, and the way you treat them is what they become."
The Asset was treated like an animal, so he became an animal. Elisa treated him like a person, and he behaved like a person.
The fact that the Asset had to learn which animals were socially acceptable to eat while on the surface (cats are a no-no) was a good way of showing that he was actually from another world. Makes you wonder how he would react if he knew we ate shrimp or some fish that was special to him.
The Asset's treatment by Strickland and the scientists is a purposeful allegory showing the audience what it means to live as someone who is treated every single day as less than a person and a simple commodity -- in other words, a marginalized person.
Through saving the Asset, it's almost as if Elisa, Zelda, and Giles are saving themselves.
While Strickland fetishes silence in women, the Asset sees Elisa's silence as a natural part of her. It is not something he wishes to use to dehumanize her or exert control over her or otherwise feed his insecurities. The Asset's love and attraction to Elisa is something pure and primal. He wants nothing from Elisa that she is not willing to give.
In sharp contrast to Strickland and his wife, the Asset's scene with Elisa is very romantic. Elisa fills up her bathroom with water so that they can really be together for the first time (we are left to assume that the other scene in the shower was just a bit of foreplay).
When Giles opens the door to stop the water flooding, he finds Elisa and the Asset hugging and happy. These are people who see each other as equals, who have just enjoyed a passionate moment of silent intimacy that is beautiful because silence is their natural state. Neither of them is seeking to build themselves up at the expense of the other. It is a relationship of equality, where both parties give equally.
The Asset is so helplessly wrapped up in Elisa that he doesn't even look up when Giles opens the door.
I think one of my favorite scenes in the film is actually before this one. It's when the Asset is in Elisa's tub and his skin lights up with bioluminescence because he is aroused by her. He pinches her clothing, perhaps trying to understand why she is wearing it or perhaps wondering how to take it off. Because Elisa is disturbed by her own arousal, she runs from the bathroom . . . only to return and give in.
For me, this story wasn't just an adorable story about love, though. It was also about true friendship.
Out of the three marginalized friends, Elisa is the youngest, and Giles and Zelda, being older, likely want to save their friend from becoming like them.
Giles and Zelda are trapped in a dreary and hateful world, but Elisa has a chance of escaping into something magical and beautiful and living her life free of the burdens of intolerance and discrimination and the loneliness it brings.
Because they love Elisa and care about her happiness, the two of them are willing to risk death and imprisonment to help her save a fish man from a government facility.
Just the perfect blendship.
I loved the whole film. (Except that weird and totally out of place big lipped alligator moment when Elisa starts singing "you'll never know." That needed to be cut.)
One of the best things about this movie? The narrative treats Elisa like a person. She is not a plot device who exists solely to help the male move his story along. She is not a walking juvenile fantasy. Her value does not lie in how pretty she is. She is not a cliched Strong Female Character, there to be tough and punch out misogynists, because del Toro understands that depicting women as equals does not mean depicting women as men.
Elisa is treated like a human being, like a person throughout the entire film, and it's pretty awesome.
Elisa is the Strong Female Character women have been waiting for, hoping for, blogging about the last few years.
Well, here she is. And she is beautiful.
© 2018 Ash Gray