We all know Guillermo del Toro likes his weird creatures. But in The Shape of Water, he takes fantasy to another level. I’m not one for plot-spoilers, so I’ll tread carefully here. The thing is, I’m really not sure what this film is trying to be – mainly because the ‘creature’ doesn’t have much to say. I mean to say philosophically, let alone character-wise: he’s just an unexplained amphibian, trapped in a top-secret Government lab somewhere in 1960’s USA.
The other main character hasn’t got much to say either. That’s because she is mute (and if that sounds like a poor attempt at humour, it isn’t.) This may be for another unexplained reason, which might be answered at the film’s conclusion… but you’ll have to go and see it to reach your own. Sally Hawkins’ Elisa is a whimsical, almost “simple” (as the 1960’s would have treated her) woman, with a hidden past. She has mysterious neck-scars, and a penchant for masturbating in an overflowing bath while hard-boiling eggs for her gay-best-friend, Giles, convincingly played by Richard Jenkins.
It seems this film is floundering for meaning or metaphor, let alone genre. But when Elisa takes her boiled eggs to the top-secret chamber to share with the specimen in the tank, things get even crazier. The creature learns sign-language! Given my preference for the hyper-realism of Mike Leigh (Hawkins couldn’t be further from the manic Poppy in Happy Go Lucky), and while I’ll concede it’s a touching idea, I couldn’t help wondering whether the slimy-eyed fish-man might learn how to sign the equivalent of ‘E.T. phone home.’
Don’t get me wrong: it’s a funny and touching film, equally full of gore, suspense, and humour. If you like the colour green, it’s saturated with it, from the deep green water in the lab, to the metallic teal of the Boss’s Cadillac. The acting is great, even if Sally Hawkins struggles to bring her character fully ‘alive’ – she seems somewhat other-worldly. Is there a reason for that? There’s a wee bit of sex as well, from vanilla to erotic to… surreal? No, I don’t want to give anything away.
However, if this is a ‘beauty and the beast’ story, we need to confront the elephant in the film.
It’s about monsters. When Annie Lennox, in her song No More “I Love You’s” sings about her demons, she claims to have “so many monsters,” even though she can only name two: “desire, despair…” (repeating ‘desire’ in a seemingly weak tautology.) Are these the monsters/elephants in the film? Certainly, Elisa’s longing for the creature is one desire too far, if we are to take this fantasy at face-value. Of course, we shouldn’t.
There are other obvious monsters besides the amphibious creature. The ugly side of ’60s America is easy to see: racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and xenophobia were all rife in the simmering heat of the cold war. At the film’s opening, a voice-over tells us of the monster “Who tried to destroy it all.” We soon see that this voice-over is Giles and, since he frames the film with a voice-over, it’s no give-away to say we’re wrong-footed from the start regarding who is the real monster.
I want to take this film seriously, despite its frivolity. Society, the media, and the small-mindedness of the far-right all need monsters as much as evangelical Christians desire the Devil. Dehumanising groups or individuals turns out to be a surefire way to maintain a dubious moral ascendancy. We have many people in our midst who, for some reason, are challenging or disturbing. Those with opposing views or ideologies; folk whose backgrounds or histories may not concur with the tabloid view; people who do bad things that are at odds with their fellow humans. We call them monsters, in order to mollify our own demons.
In the ’60s we had communists, now we have terrorists; then we had homosexuals, now we have sex-offenders; then we had “coloured” people, now we have religious fundamentalists. None of these couplings are comparative; I’m merely suggesting that society has always taken the route of monsterfication in order to absolve itself from the task of humanising those who are most in need of empathy and understanding; of care and acceptance. Even those who cause us distress and alarm.
Why do we do this? Because we are afraid, or because we simply don’t care? When Elisa wants to save the creature from impending doom, she points out to Giles that it doesn’t matter whether or not the ‘monster’ is human. If they do nothing, she reasons, neither are they. Are we plagued by the monsters of desire, despair, desire… did Annie Lennox repeated that word for a reason? Yes. And del Toro makes us empathise with this creature for a reason too: because the real monster is still lurking in the dank, green tank of the social laboratory called America. One day he may emerge from the swamp.
(Oh – hold on – he already has. His name is Donald Trump.)
The Shape of Water runs until Thursday 1st March at Edinburgh’s FIlmhouse.