In the friendly get-together I attended Sunday evening to watch the 2018 Oscars, the most heated debate came at the end of the night when “The Shape of Water” won Best Picture. I loved the picture, predicted its win and had the smug satisfaction of being the only one at the party who did.
Typical of these affairs, most of the people there filled out their pre-show ballots based on their hopes rather than on the available evidence supporting “The Shape of Water” that is laid out in a separate story by Daniel Montgomery.
In my group’s opinions, the best movie of the year was “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “Get Out,” or — one vote each — “Phantom Threat” and “Dunkirk.” “Shape’s” most vocal detractor argued that it was a nothingburger of a movie, neither a successful love story nor an effective fairy tale, and a lame attempt at religious parable to boot.
The bit about “The Shape of Water” being loaded with religious references was a new one to me. Yes, the villain of the piece, a military officer determined to end the life of the fish-man he had found in the Amazon and brought home to a watery prison and torture, does find excuses for his outlook in Bible verse. But focusing on him misses the central point.
“The Shape of Water” is indeed a love story, but like all love stories, the reader or viewer has to accept the circumstances under which the romance occurs in order to feel its power. In this case, you are asked to make a giant leap of literary faith, to either anthropomorphize the creature’s emotional response to the kindnesses offered him by the mute cleaning lady Elisa, or accept, as I do, that the couple are the same species.
It is easier to believe the sea creature is enough of a man to have the same feelings of a man, but I have believed from the first screening through a second screening and a reading of the screenplay that co-writer and director Guillermo del Toro intended the second choice.
In the scene where Elisa and a co-worker are interviewed by Michael Shannon’s evil Colonel Strickland, it is explained in some detail that Elisa was found as a child abandoned on the watery bank of a river with the mysterious symmetrical scars on both sides of her neck and taht she has always been mute.
Why go into such detail if it weren’t relevant to the story’s outcome? As Chekhov was famously quoted as saying about the design of a play, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.”
(Spoiler alert.) Del Toro’s gun, the scars on Elisa’s neck, aren’t fired in the second act but at the end of the third when she is revived underwater by the sea creature and her scars become functioning gills. Is the creature a sea god with the power to transform humans into fish or was Elisa a fish all along?
As I imagine it was for most people watching Elisa doff her clothes and walk naked toward the bathtub bed of the creature, I was thinking “Please don’t have sex, please don’t have sex.” Then, in the subsequent scene, she affirms to a coworker that they did have sex, that it was really good and she uses hand gestures to explain how it was possible.
It was a brazen, darkly comic moment of filmmaking that seemingly took the story into the ultimate taboo zone of bestiality. The movie could not recover from that if the audience didn’t believe Elisa climbed into the tub knowing her desire would be returned.
The romance in “The Shape of Water” is not that different from the one in “Beauty and the Beast” where love conquers all, if not exactly consummated. Overcoming insurmountable obstacles is a mainstay of all romantic literature, and del Toro’s masterful fairytale deserves its place in that pantheon, and in the Oscar history book.