Once upon a time in an apartment above an old theatre, there lived Eliza (Sally Hawkins), a woman who couldn’t speak. Her days consisted of scrubbing toilets and wiping floors in a secret laboratory with her best friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). That all changes one day when a mysterious fish/man hybrid (Doug Jones) is brought in by the evil Agent Strickland (Michael Shannon). Eliza comes to form a special bond with this fish-man through hard boiled eggs and Benny Goodman records. With the help of her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), Eliza must rescue the fish-man before he’s killed by the evil Strickland.
The Shape of Water is often labeled as the “fish f—–ng movie”. While Eliza does have sex with the Fish-man (offscreen), the film is much more than that. It’s an oddball romance between a timid woman and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. It’s a Cold War espionage thriller starring janitors. It’s an allegory of 1950s bigotry. But at its core, The Shape of Water is a modern fairy tale for adults.
Director/co-writer Guillermo Del Toro clearly draws the most inspiration from Creature from the Black Lagoon, not just from the design for the fish-man. Even those who haven’t seen it recognizes the image of this fish-man trying to grab this sexy dame in a bikini. Well, Del Toro turns this story on its head by having the woman returns the affection. You can feel a strong connection between these two in moments of Eliza teaching the fish-man sign language. Kudos to Hawkins for conveying her character’s feelings without one line of dialogue. Extra kudos to Jones, who not only had to act through prosthetics, but could project the fish-man’s feelings through animal behavior.
Another subversion of the trope is the white male hero who kills the monster and gets the girl in the end. This time, that man is the villain. At first, Strickland seems like a parody of 50s masculinity with his strange habits like peeing with his hands on his hips. But as the film progresses, he comes to embody the bigotry of the times. Seeing him torture the Fish-man makes it clear Strickland has a need to dominate others to maintain a misplaced sense of superiority. This need takes an uncomfortable turn when he sets his eyes of Eliza. He clearly takes pleasure in her silence in an uncomfortable moment when he silences his wife during sex.
While writing, I noticed the story bears similarities to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, another fairy tale of a social outcast falling for a creature. Strickland serves as the film’s Gaston. Supporting players work together to bring the two leads together, in this case a black woman and a closeted gay man. There’s even a bizarre musical number with Eliza and the fish-man dancing on the set of a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical. But one similarity I notice between these two is how they portray “normal” society as an oppressive force. In this case, it’s 1950s America, where life is perfect if you’re a white male, but not so much if you are either black, gay or have a disability.
Critics already talk a lot about the visuals, storytelling and that scene of Eliza pleasuring herself in tune to an egg timer. What I noticed in my recent viewing is the humour, which he finds in characters quirks, from Strickland’s “masculinity’ to Giles stockpiling his fridge with Key Lime Pie he buys from an attractive waiter. Plus, you must admit the idea of secret agents being one upped by janitors is funny.
This film is the favourite to win this year and I am excited by that possibility. After years of genre films being overlooked by the academy, seeing The Shape of Water win Best Picture would be a major win for geeks. Plus, it would recognize Guillermo Del Toro’s gifts as a filmmaker. He is one of the few filmmakers creating truly original fantasy and he deserves a win.