When referring to the story of Frankenstein, an oft-cited correction is that Frankenstein was the doctor, not the monster. After reading about Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s mistreatment and cruelty toward his creature, one may be led to believe that Frankenstein himself was actually the monster.
In the opening of director Guillermo del Toro’s new film, The Shape of Water, a voiceover narration talks about a princess without a voice, and the monster who tried to stop her. It is in this film that viewers ponder a similar question of who the monster in this tale really is.
Taking place during the Cold War era, The Shape of Water is a monster movie seen from the sidelines. Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaning woman in a secret government base who witnesses the placement of a new asset into the facility, one resembling the title monster of Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Elisa grows to have feelings for the creature credited as Amphibian Man, which leads her to snatch him from the facility in the hopes of setting him free. Opposing her is Michael Shannon as the formidable Richard Strickland, who acts menacing and hateful toward the creature.
Right from its opening narration and long shot of a sleeping Elisa suspended in water, The Shape of Water establishes a sense of magic and fantasy. Alexandre Desplat’s score creates a sensation of floating through lightness, and a feeling of being in an endless sea with echoing notes.
The fantastical nature of the music, coupled with the film’s fairy tale opening, tells a story in which there is something wondrous in the love of an unknown creature. Though an appreciation for Elisa’s love of the creature is created for the audience, the character of Strickland does not feel this appreciation.
Strickland is a character carved out of his era; he values Christianity and the nuclear family, trying to quash the unusual from invading his world. He fears Russian superiority and aims to maintain traditional American values as seen by him, and it is in Strickland’s fears that the film offers significant thematic depth.
The Shape of Water knocks down the toxic masculinity that Strickland evokes. The man is sexist and racist, demeaning to all those who do not match his view of how the world should be. He proudly touts an electric rod, a brazen symbol of his manliness, while using the urinal in front of Elisa and her friend and fellow cleaner, Zelda Fuller. After losing two fingers to the creature, Strickland asserts his virility, deadliness and manliness, just by the unique descriptors he uses for his remaining fingers.
Strickland’s view is one tied up in Christian beliefs, yet clearly shown to be tainted. He describes Amphibian Man to be “ugly as sin,” and implies that God looks like a white man. For Strickland, his position is one of authority backed up by tradition, appearance and force. He seeks a car that will define him as “the man of the future,” and when it is damaged, he takes the car of an inferior by force, hiding away the shame done to him.
Elisa stands in opposition to the person of Strickland. She is a woman and is differently abled from him. She has not attained the American values of success in a family, a house or a position of power. She expresses what Strickland would see as sexual deviance in her daily routine and in her amorous affair with the creature. Instead of expressing herself through a voice and powerful gestures, Elisa chooses the gentle motions of dance and touch.
As Strickland’s values are challenged, it is the film’s portrayed era that provides a strong backdrop for its story. The glamorous perception of the 1960s is hinted at with black and white TV dance performances, gramophones and teal Cadillacs.
Yet, the dance performance comes on after the channel is switched from clips of rioting, the gramophone hides the sound of a burning factory and the Cadillacs stand more for rampant consumerism than they do for glitz and style.
Del Toro’s film has no issue with honesty regarding the past. There is no romanticism of some bygone time of perfection. In a pie shop that Elisa’s friend and neighbor, Giles, has a worship-like affinity for, the pies are terrible. The decor is just part of the restaurant’s franchising and a feeling of falseness is invasive. The kind man behind the counter has a fake accent and refuses sit-down service to a black couple. In this honest look at the past, a reconsideration of the Christian, American family man plays out powerfully.
The romance of the film may be difficult to get behind with the alien nature of the Amphibian Man, but at the very least, there is a tenderness in the way this romance is portrayed. Hawkins displays kindness and care, as her character looks past presumption in order to appreciate another creature for who they truly are.
With its music and gentle tones, The Shape of Water plays out gracefully like a waltz or the drift of seaweed in water. Even with the contrasting harshness of reality, eschewing an idealizing view of the 1960s, the film succeeds as a complete work.
This is a monster movie, but the creature featured is man. Here, his monstrosity is laid bare, allowing viewers to see the murkiness within.
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