Thursday Rethink: The Shape of Water Fails as a Fairy Tale
Guillermo del Toro’s films have often worked their magic on me, from the haunting darkness of Pan’s Labyrinth to the silly heroics of Pacific Rim to the enchanting blend of Gothic horror and romance in 2015’s Crimson Peak. However, his latest, The Shape of Water, which is likely to score his first nods for Best Picture and Best Director at the upcoming Oscars, left me cold. It’s not that the film is hugely different than del Toro’s other works—it’s another fable that combines fairy tale storytelling with R-rated violence and sexuality. So why did The Shape of Water fail to conjure much emotion beyond a sense of bewilderment?
The answer to that question is threefold. In today’s Thursday Rethink, I get at the heart of why The Shape of Water is a handsomely-designed film that lacks the power of del Toro’s previous, and superficially similar, works.
The characters lack motivation and psychological arcs.
The motivations of the characters in The Shape of Water are as murky as the waters of the Amazon. And that failure to clarify why any of the characters do what they do is an obstacle that I couldn’t overcome while watching the film.
The Shape of Water follows a mute woman, Eliza (Sally Hawkins), who works as a cleaner at a secret government facility in 1960s Baltimore. One day, she witnesses a creature known as the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) being put into a tank in the facility. She soon befriends and falls in love with him and plots with her gay neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), and a kindly scientist, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), at the facility to rescue the Amphibian Man and release him back into the world. The film plays as a Beauty and the Beast-style fairy tale about star-crossed lovers from different worlds and tries to push the lessons of that type of story—don’t judge others by their appearances, choose kindness and curiosity over fear—into a 20th-century, politically-fraught American context. While the application of archetypal lessons to specific political contexts is problem enough (one which I’ll get to in a moment), the characters have no motivation for their actions beyond the necessities of the plot. Furthermore, their psychologies are rigid from the film’s beginning and do not change as the film progresses.
Eliza is an outsider, so she has an obvious affinity for other outsiders, embodied in her nonjudgmental relationship with Giles and non-racist friendship with a black coworker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). It stands to reason that she’d have some sympathy for the Amphibian Man, but to extend natural sympathy to obsession and romantic longing strains credulity.
In the early scenes of The Shape of Water, we see her sneak into the Amphibian Man’s room to feed him hard-boiled eggs, teach him sign language, and play him Benny Goodman records. He does nothing to further her interest in him beyond respond with intelligence and curiosity. She responds in kind with affection, then love, and even lust. Thing is, romance is more than curiosity. Eliza’s actions are motivated more by the story’s need to manufacture a romance than by any specific reactions to the Amphibian Man as an individual. Nothing he does suggests romantic interest. She merely forces the romance on him as del Toro forces the romantic plot on us.
Other characters suffer from a similar lack of motivation. Michael Shannon’s villain, Strickland, a military man responsible for capturing the Amphibian Man and who ultimately wants to dissect it, is a complete wash as a character. At every turn he embodies nothing but empty, American evil. He is sexist, racist, bloodthirsty, and grotesque—there’s an inexplicable moment where he explains there are two kind of men in the world, those who wash their hands before using the toilet and those who wash their hands after, all the while chomping on candies after using the urinal and not washing his hands himself. He calls himself a Christian, but his Christianity is defined mainly by his racism, sexism, and his hatred of “abominations,” as he terms creatures like the Amphibian Man. He wants to dissect the Amphibian Man without giving any reason for doing so and seems propelled solely by his hatred of everyone around him. I understand that he is meant to embody a fairy tale monster, but to call Strickland an “archetypal villain” is to undersell the nuance of archetypes.
Even Stuhlbarg’s Dr. Hoffstetler offers little reason as to why he first ignores Eliza’s secret meetings with the Amphibian Man and then actively helps her in facilitating the Amphibian Man’s escape. It’s presented as compassion, but considering revelations about the character’s reasons for being at the facility and his backstory, it’s unlikely he’d sacrifice everything for a washing woman’s fancy.
Only Jenkins’ Giles is given meaningful motivations for his actions—there’s a heartbreaking subplot about his unrequited crush on a dinner owner—but even then, Jenkins overcomes any deficiencies in the writing through his performance.
I understand that fairy tales are meant to have characters perform certain actions (per Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale) without psychological motivation, but in The Shape of Water, this lack of motivation is crippling.
The romance between Eliza and the Amphibian Man crosses the line into absurdity.
Your reaction to the film will depend largely on your reaction to the fact that Eliza has a sexual relationship with the Amphibian Man, causing all the sexual subtext of monster movies like King Kong and The Creature from the Black Lagoon to spill over into text. Of course, romance between humans and creatures is common in any sort of Beauty and the Beast narrative, but usually in those types of stories, the creature is actually a human being who has been cursed and who will revert to their human form after learning the error of their ways. Beyond that, in such romances sex is never shown or even implied, especially while the male character is still in his creature form.
The fact that the Amphibian Man is not a human who has been cursed into his form is a big problem. It’s also a problem that he exhibits no characteristics that would make him more human than a great ape. He learns sign language—like an ape. He learns to appreciate music—like an ape. He even shows a capacity to love cats, even after eating one—like an ape. Now, if you’re to tell me that a woman could find an ape in a cage, bond with that ape over boiled eggs, sign language, and music, and that the bond she formed with the ape could naturally flourish into a mature romantic relationship, I’d be more-than-a-little disgusted.
Perhaps you could charitably argue that The Shape of Water is drawing on old myths, where the gods have sex with human women while they are in the form of various animals, but in those myths, the sex is not actually sex but rape and never purported to be romantic, as it is here. As well, you could say that sexual romance between humans and aliens in a series like Star Trek is not unsettling, so I shouldn’t take issue in interspecies sex here. However, in Star Trek the differences in biology are often superficial—skin colour and maybe some extra features on the hands or face. And more importantly, the sentience of the aliens on Star Trek is clearly demonstrated; they can talk, think, and reflect just like a human and in a manner very similar to a human.
In The Shape of Water, del Toro might want us to assume the Amphibian Man is sentient, but he never demonstrates that in a meaningful way. Instead, we’re left with the Amphibian Man exhibiting as much individuality and sentience as an ape or dolphin, and however much I like apes and dolphins, I don’t want to watch a romance involving one of them and a human. I understand that The Shape of Water is fantasy, but it pushes the boundaries of taste and believability, even for its genre. It doesn’t feel like romance. It feels like bestiality.
Also, the film should not be able to hide behind the claim of being an “adult fairy tale.” That’s something of an oxymoron. Fairy tales are for children; even if a film like Pan’s Labyrinth has horrifying, violent elements, violence is not unusual for a fairy tale. That film’s lessons are still simple and universal. The Shape of Water has to work too hard to sell the romance of its central pairing. Had it sufficed with friendship, or depicted a chaste romance, it’d be much more palatable.
The film’s targeted political messaging is at odds with its central fairy tale.
As a fairy tale, The Shape of Water attempts to convey messages about tolerance, compassion, and wonder in opposition to fear, bigotry, and oppression. However, it does not simply make universal statements about these virtues and sins; instead, it ties these sins directly to conservative America as a means of commenting on the Presidency of Donald Trump and modern American politics. The specificity of its target undermines the universality of its lessons.
Certainly, fairy tales can convey messages that are applicable to our modern world and instructive to the people who run America, but the film’s messages and the left-leaning politics of its creator mean that the film is too tied to political commentary to be effective as an overarching lesson. Fairy tales are, of their very nature, universal, but The Shape of Water is so obviously about “America in 2017.” All the sins of its villain—sexism, racism, cruelty—are the usual evils liberals claim all Republicans are guilty of. Its hero is a spunky, sexually-liberated, disabled female outsider who fights against intolerance with smug satisfaction and inexplicably showcases modern liberal sensibilities, even though the film is set in the early sixties. The film even involves a plot by Russians to meddle with the whole endeavour!
Essentially, del Toro wants to have it both ways, harnessing the universal emotion of a fairy tale while aiming the specific message of the film at American intolerance and bigotry. Sadly, like many works of art straddling two worlds, The Shape of Water does not hold together. It uses characters as blunt instruments to represent alienation and decry intolerance in modern America, and in so doing, it loses all nuance.
Fairy tales are powerful because they speak to all times and all situations—the moral lessons they teach should not be directed at only people of certain classes or political affiliations; instead everyone should be able to learn from their universal lessons. But when you tie the moral lessons of your fairy tale to the very-specific evils of a political administration and the culture it encourages—and in so doing, liken real-world, complex individuals to simple fairy tale villains—you rob the fairy tale of its universality.
If you remove The Shape of Water from the Age of Trump, it loses any shred of its moral power. For a film with such grand ambitions, its targets are too limited and small. It’s a fairy tale that fails to hold water.
The Shape of Water (2017, USA)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro; written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor; starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer.