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Thoughts on a film: The Shape of Water (2017)

N.B. I started writing this piece before the film's recent Oscar success,
so this should in no way be seen as an effort to play devil's advocate,
but merely to present an honest opinion on the film.

On his blog, The Kind of Face You Hate, critic Bill R. describes The Shape of Water as: "A morally thoughtless wagonload of bullshit that believes it's a morally superior "fable," [...] it judges not just its villains but finally the whole world based on how it reacts to del Toro's pure heroes. Anyone who looks askance at any part of this is not just immoral, but might even actually deserve to die. It's an ugly movie that has sold itself as a beautiful one. And it's not that I believe del Toro thinks this way; it's that I don't believe del Toro thought at all."

While my own opinion isn't so negative - I, like many viewers, left the cinema impressed and affected by the depths of its imagination and the clever way the filmmakers subverted second-hand B-movie iconography to tap into themes of repression, loneliness and cultural alienation - I do have a fair few reservations about the film that for me keep it from achieving the same creative success as other del Toro-directed masterworks, such as The Devil's Backbone (2001), Pan's Labyrinth (2006) and the underrated Crimson Peak (2015).

While the performances, production design and cinematography are each impeccable - which is to be expected from a del Toro film - The Shape of Water has a tonal (as well as moral) inconsistency that for me was absolutely jarring.

The Shape of Water [Guillermo del Toro, 2017]:

Fatally, The Shape of Water seemed to me to be a film that couldn't decide who its target audiences was, or to whom it might be speaking. On the one hand, the film has the emotional and intellectual simplicity of a children's film; its sense of magic and wonder as a parallel to the mundane world of the central characters recalling the experience of classic films such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Spirited Away (2001). On the other hand, it features explicit and often taboo-breaking scenes of sex and violence, as well as a socio-political backdrop of historical prejudice and abuse.

Such indulgences put the film off-limits to the type of audiences that would have been most susceptible to its storybook construction and the broad black and white characterisations that announce themselves as 'good' and 'evil' between almost every scene. It plays instead to an audience already familiar with the actuality of racism and prejudice (in the real world sense), when it would have done better to tailor its message of tolerance and understanding to a younger audience who may have found such themes to be beneficial, if not educational.

Now let's compare the development of Del Toro's film to another project with a very similar plot but an entirely different reputation.

In M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water (2006), a band of broken and hopeless characters, living through a time of war and political uncertainly, find their purpose in life to be reaffirmed when faced with a mythical water creature unable to return home. Shyamalan's film was ridiculed by critics and audiences for a supposedly ludicrous plot, while also drawing criticism for being egotistical, pretentious and bizarre. But Lady in the Water is a film that at least understands who its target audience is; announcing its intentions from the outset with an animated story-book prologue that establishes the themes of the film and why we should invest ourselves in the life of this creature that the narrative deems sacred.

Lady in the Water [M. Night Shyamalan, 2006]: 

Shyamalan billed Lady in the Water as a bedtime story, citing his own children as the influence for its creation. While it's a film full of great sadness - its characters haunted by grief; lost and disconnected; the shadow of violence hovering over many of them - it tells a story of hope and belief. The relationship between the human protagonists and the creature is paternal rather than sexual (as in Del Toro's film), and while there's a necessary level of threat, fear and even death, there's no on-screen violence. Shyamalan knows that his audience is universal and that while his idealistic themes of faith in humanity and the triumph of good over evil will be received cynically by adults, it will nonetheless make its most profound mark on the younger audiences.

While the tonal shifts in Shyamalan's film rubbed a lot of viewers the wrong way, the seesawing between supernatural mystery, character study, elemental fantasy and goofy comedy make perfect sense in the context of its bedtime story conception; where the entire narrative has the feeling of a tall tale being created for an audience a little too eager to find out the next instalment.

The Shape of Water is a film that also suffers from incredibly broad shifts in tone - moving from forced comedy to repulsive violence, childlike whimsy to erotic fantasy, etc - but unlike Shyamalan's film it doesn't seem to know who its strange creature is, or what kind of a hold it's supposed to have over the protagonist. As such, the motivations and tonal discrepancies here feel unfocused and heavy-handed, confirming the film's overall disinterest in providing a relatable motivation for the relationship and its development based on logic and conviction, but rather as a mere necessity of the plot.

Lady in the Water [M. Night Shyamalan, 2006]:

In Shyamalan's film, the relationship between the creature and the protagonist is a nurturing one. In caring for the creature, the protagonist's life takes on a new meaning. He's able to forgive himself for his past tragedies and find a way to exist in the real world. As such, the two stories and the objectives of each character are complimentary and entirely interlinked.

The Shape of Water [Guillermo del Toro, 2017]:

In del Toro's film, the relationship between the creature and the protagonist seems almost entirely sexual and one-sided. While we're supposed to embrace it as some kind of love conquers all work of pure romanticism, the filmmakers do nothing to establish a connection between these characters, or even explain why they fall in love or what the initial attraction is. It's just quickly explained away that they're both "different"; which gets to the heart of how much of del Toro's film is simultaneously well-meaning and offensive.

At its absolute core, del Toro's film asks us to invest in a love story that is never entirely convincing or appealing, and to accept the creature (all creatures?) as valid, despite its inherent 'differences', but then constantly introduces elements that make it difficult for an audiences to sympathise or identify with their idealistic pursuit.

We're supposed to churn at the abuse suffered by the creature at the hands of the one-dimensionally evil 'G-man' character played by Michael Shannon, but a later scene of animal cruelty carried out by the creature itself is mined for cheap shock-value and uneasy laughs. Similarly, we're supposed to pray for the creature's survival and potential escape, but to make this possible a young guard - one just doing his job - has to be coldly murdered so that our lovers can go free (evidently, the same critics that were appalled by Shyamalan's film having the chutzpah to murder a fictional reviewer have no issue at all with a young security guard being similarly murdered here - and by the 'good guys' no less).

As with other del Toro films there's a feeling of the gratuitous about some of the more explicit sequences, which appear juvenile as opposed to provocative. Rather than feeling like a complete work with a cohesive point of view, the film instead has the feel of a classic Spielberg blockbuster - with the same streaks of sentimentality and the atmosphere of magic and whimsy - punctuated by out of place moments of transgressive sensationalism, which feel closer to the works of Lars von Trier. An uncomfortable mix.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial [Steven Spielberg, 1982]:

The relationship in del Toro's film has been described as being akin to Beauty and the Beast but it's actually much closer to Spielberg's E.T. Del Toro's characters are similarly infantilised; the relationship only working if the protagonist is made to be simple, or child-like. Similarly the relationship lacks the maturity or complexity of an adult relationship; instead having the dopey, gooey-eyed romanticism of a school-age crush. This only succeeds in making del Toro's surprisingly earnest flirtation with bestiality and explicit sexuality all the more discomforting and misplaced.

Antichrist [Lars von Trier, 2009]:

Into this infantilised world of myths and monsters, del Toro indulges in explicit scenes, which feel incongruous, if not gratuitous. The delight with which the filmmaker exploits his taboo subject matter feels incredibly adolescent, as he juxtaposes old-Hollywood romanticism with transgressive elements that feel ripped from a work like Antichrist by Lars von Trier. But while Antichrist is absolutely a film for adults, with a deep moral complexity and a genuine psychological depth, The Shape of Water feels more like a cartoon.

Despite these concerns, The Shape of Watwer does reach for something that few directors would ever dare to attempt. The construction of the narrative - a post-modern exercise in intertextual genre-references, combining the disparate elements of a Cold War-era espionage movie, a piece of erotic 'creature from the black lagoon' fan fiction, a classical Hollywood musical and a European art-film in the tradition of Jean-Pierre Juenet (the influences of Delicatessen, 1991, and Amelie, 2001, are inescapable) - gives context for del Toro to create some extraordinary images.

From the opening sequence of a character's apartment submerged beneath the sea, to the audacious musical sequence that encapsulates the film's simultaneous embodiment of the sublime and the ridiculous, to the quietly beautiful moments in which the mute protagonist played by Sally Hawkins rides the bus to work, this is a film where the imagery speaks louder than words.

The Shape of Water [Guillermo del Toro, 2017]: 

Such moments convey in a series of perfectly constructed vignettes the progression of a character from hopeless and empty, to suddenly enriched and enlivened by the purpose of being in love.

And it's here where the film really works; as a poetic, fairy-tale evocation of a character unable to connect with the world around her, both lonely and 'incomplete.' A woman who finds in characters, similarly marginalised and persecuted by society, a kind of surrogate family, and in a creature similarly alone and unknowable, a kind of escape. It's ultimately less compelling as drama, romance or thriller than as a parable about a woman who dreams of a world beyond her own; a world where thoughts and emotions are conveyed without voice, without hurt and without prejudice.


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