With The Shape of Water, Guillermo Del Toro effuses different fluids from those in the vein-severing Crimson Peak, and I’m not only writing of the ones which discharge when protagonist Elisa (Sally Hawkins) does have sex with the gilled-man at the center of The Shape of Water, as has been widely reported. But Shape of Water isn’t primarily a carnal tale, nor a bloodthirsty one, nor one that is drawn primarily to the weirdness and curiosity of the body and its fluids at all. In fact, it’s almost devoutly un-perverse, afraid of unpacking its questions even as it freights the film with those very questions. Despite the wonderfully imagined suit that animates him, the film’s amphibious man (Doug Jones) is obviously a purely abstract construction, a metaphor for human preconception and the loneliness and ennui and that beleaguers protagonist Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and her fellow cleaning lady, the African-American Zelda (Octavia Spencer, the most spirited member of the cast, and probably the best if we rule Jones out). Although Jones drip-feeds the creature a personality through visibly hesitant gesticulations and a curiosity exposed only through his eyes, the character is plainly allegorical. Which also means that he never has the capacity to resist the confines of his allegory.
The Shape of Water is a fantasia of love, not one which dares suggest that this amphibious man might truly exist. Not physically exist, mind you, but mentally exist, which would imply he has any destabilizing capacity to resist Elisa’s love or any independent desire of his own. He has no place outside of her story. As a love yarn that happens to feature a mute woman and a fish man, Shape of Water is self-conscious about its adoration for classical Hollywood B-films, but it crucially and depressingly is not actually fascinated with those romances, since fascination would imply more thematic heft to explore these films than Del Toro’s film is willing. At one point, Michael Shannon’s vile, abusive antagonist argues that the fish creature is an affront to nature, and we’re obviously meant to find ourselves disenchanted with Shannon’s character. If so, why can’t the film imagine any affront to its own vacuum-packed drama?
To this end, Shape draws all of its themes in boldface, and not only its cinema-fetish that it uses as a mask, an ensconced castle to hide within “fantasy”, rather than an avenue to inspect the intersection of fantasy and reality. At one point, Shannon outlines his masculine, personal power fantasy by underlining his equation of Elisa and Jones’ character. He prods the latter with a stun baton just as he prods the former with insinuations about how he wants to sexually abuse her because of her mute-ness – her inability to question him – and the quasi-gill-marks on her neck, remnants of the accident which rendered her mute at birth. Shanon’s character is the empowered male authority figure whose unquestioned supremacy over the world might be disrupted by any agency or alternative vision on the part of any marginalized figure, be it Elisa or the gilled-man. The neck marks are an appealing nuance for Elisa, but Shape of Water is belaboring under arguably the great misfortune of modern storytelling: the assumption that every briefly fleeting filigree must move beyond delicious frisson and sublimate itself to thesis and theme, must fit neatly into the package the filmmaker is making. Anything else would be sacrilege in this image of cinema.
Even Elisa has no complication to speak of herself beyond her totem-like placement in the story as an icon of social marginalization. Why does she fall for this creature? Because she sees herself in him, turning this film into an even more distressing self-song disinterested in Jones’ character outside of his role in the story? Or does she fall in love because the screenplay requires her to, and because she is adherent to it, unable to disfigure it as, we are told, she disregards the conventions of the society that binds her. We are asked to accept the love of Elisa and this amphibious man as a fact, as a foundational fantasy, not as an uncharted tributary the film actually charts to potentially film-threatening ends. A fantasy world is totally fine for a film. There’s no particular reason why a movie has to consider the confines of reality and ascetically demarcate itself to them, nor does the film actually have to consider the implications of “fish man” as a flesh-and-blood entity. But if Del Toro’s film is a fantasy, why is it unable to imagine anything beyond the boundaries it has imposed for itself? When Richard Jenkins, playing Elisa’s live-in friend, both each other’s caretaker, questions Elisa about what outfit he should wear to the fish man’s rescue, this is the lone moment where anyone’s personal desires even minutely wrinkle or deviate from the path to self-conscious majesty the screenplay has defined for itself.
Del Toro’s will to boldface every notion in his film is totally inhospitable to the idea of suggestion or the impropriety of a stray theme, one which passes by the wings or lingers in the darkness and defiantly resists being brought to the surface. It brings to mind Amelie – the film Shape of Water has been most heavily compared to – and its protagonist’s appreciation of misadventure and freak disturbances, when that film is itself totally unwilling and unable to consider anything beyond its own planned, prepackaged, heavily-foreclosed emotions. Similarly, although Shape of Water introduces the specter of social themes at nearly every turn, the film’s heavily-insulated emotional cleanliness – its inability to sabotage its romance – treats these social issues as mere boxes to tick for a film set during the height of the Cold War.
Everyone in the film keeps telling us that Jones’ character is an unholy creation, but Shape of Water’s creature is not an insurgent into anything. He’s the foundational spirit of a film that can’t imagine anything outside of its foundational spirit, can’t imagine insurgency. Del Toro has obviously read enough film theory to imagine multiple possibilities for water as a reflection of society, as a cleansing rebirth, as a fount of new possibility, as a vision of society’s worst. If suffused with water, though, Shape of Water is not briny enough. There’s no possibility of mixing fluids, introducing any salt or vinegar or sourness, no possibility of a polychromatic tale unsure of its origins or conclusions. There’s no potential for shapelessness. There’s much that is self-consciously iconographic about the film, mythic and film-referencing, but there’s little that is genuinely self-reflexive about the piece, almost nothing that imagines a world beyond its own mentality. I mean, the protagonist’s apartment is above one of those motion picture theaters I hear tell used to exist for god’s sake, another of the many, many too-neat, overly-curated signifiers and allusions on the film’s part.
Sure, it’s a beautiful film, in a superficial sense. Paul D Austerberry’s production design is capably indebted to movies of the era more than the era itself and Dan Laustsen’s cinematography manages the neat trick of being both sensual and sickly, suffused in vaguely-jaundiced greens and sensuously lush but chilly blues. But where is Del Toro’s mischievous gusto? His wicked roguishness? His sense of outsider art? Where is any sense of imagination, genuine imagination, not the surface-level kind to woo the Academy with visions of the sorts of films it has been wedded to for years? For a film about breaking convention and disrupting the status quo, Shape of Water is deflatingly acquiescent to them.
Update upon it’s Best Picture-winning bow: No great defender of several of them, I am nonetheless content to claim that Shape of Water – much to my chagrin, as an on-off fan of Del Toro – is the worst Best Picture winner of the current decade, or at least tied with the ludicrously superficial The King’s Speech. It’s really a rather empty film, and unlike, say, The Artist which at least imagines itself as a collage of pop confectionaries, a panoply of divine delights, Shape of Water desperately shores up its Hollywood clout by superficially laminating itself in classical Hollywood style while undertaking the most superficial critique of that style possible, only offering a merely diagnostic attitude toward the fly-by social issues it “addresses,” or pretends to. And as a fable, it manicures itself to the point of taxidermy, reminding us that Del Toro is so much zestier and more pugnacious, not to mention more analytical and affective, when he isn’t putting on airs, raving with the likes of Blade II and Hellboy: The Golden Army rather than waltzing with Academy big-wigs.