Directed by Guillermo del Toro.
Despite not being a huge fan of Guillermo del Toro’s work (I find Pan’s Labyrinth to be overrated) I have returned frequently to ponder The Shape of Water since seeing it in the cinema last week. The film is a romantic fairy-tale-for-adults, with Elisa (Sally Hawkins) at the centre. Elisa is a mute woman who cleans a research facility during the cold-war era in America with her friend and colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) under the watchful eye of Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). When a new creature – “Amphibian Man” (Doug Jones) – is brought to the research facility, Elisa builds a relationship with him through sign-language, gesture and sharing of foods.
The film lacks a certain nuance in its mise-en-scene and narrative construction. Leitmotifs and thematic recurrences are played with a heavy-hand, leaving little ambiguity to float to the affective surface and awash the viewer subtly. Not only can we easily understand who to read as “bad” and “good”, but the recurrent colouring of props links together associations in a visual chain that is more binding of affect than draping. When Richard Strickland purchases his teal car from the showroom, the name of the colour is repeated, a colour which mimics Elisa’s work uniform, which is itself one of the many -always present- nautical hues.
However, perhaps this bluntness enhances the “fairy-tale” concept, with characters and plot boldly written and realised in traditional Hollywood cinematic style. That Elisa is mute spins the classical narrative of the singing-sirens in a new direction, especially as the mer-person is ultra-masculine and thus, a good antithesis to the little mermaid. The loving and erotic relationship between Elisa and Amphibian Man is smoothly integrated into the films realism, framed as understandable, relatable, and a kinship to root for in a intolerant world (an intolerance exemplified when Elisa’s friend and neighbour faces homophobia from a man he desires.)
The character of Richard Strickland is also unsubtly the “bad guy”, with little to no intricacies to describe why one might be or become jaded and cruel. Instead, by withholding any reasoning for his behaviour, Strickland becomes emblemised as the negative side of the idea of American ideology. His white-picket fence and nuclear family function to fuse his character to this identity of success as the “American dream”. As del Toro said in an interview of Radio 4’s Film Programme, this (cold war) moment in America is the “great” time people mean when they said “Make America Great Again”. Perhaps this lack of backstory allows Strickland to better function as a placeholder for this idea of a dark America that is present beneath the pastel surface of happiness, family, success, a house, a car. Michael Shannon is a great choice for this character as, though not possessing a flawless exterior of someone like Armie Hammer, has a large, masculine presence that commands space and attention. Though emasculated near the beginning of the film when two of his fingers are dismembered from his hand, this masculinity is easily transformed into intimidation, swiftly creating fear in other characters as he moves towards misuse of power. This is further enhanced by Strickland’s weapon of choice, a large and phallic metal rod which he uses to taser Amphibian Man. The only element of Strickland that strays from the hermeneutic image of his all-American manhood is his erotic desire for Elisa whom is drastically distinct from his pristine wife. We are made aware of this desire early on, when Strickland covers his wife’s mouth during sex, making her a mute like Elisa. Though of course, this desire is not loving and, as with seemingly all of Strickland’s actions, he appears to want to possess Elisa by force and not charm.
One of my favourite relationships in the film is that between Elisa and Zelda (the film passes the Bechdel test) and their loving friendship. However, after attending a talk at the BFI this weekend concerning race in female friendships on TV, I wonder if Zelda’s character is a continuation of the primary representation of strong, black female friends who support a white woman. Elisa and her neighbour Giles also have a profound friendship and in some ways I found Zelda and Giles to provide more poignant relationships than that between Elisa and Amphibian Man.