“Oh brave new world, that has such people in it.” Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water, image Fox Searchlight, reproduced without permission.
NOTE: This reflection does not contain spoilers, but the two reviews linked beneath do.
There are narratives that wear their artificiality and predictability on their sleeve as a badge of pride. In the Shakespearian equivalent of breaking the fourth wall, a character in The Winter’s Tale compares the action unfolding before us to an old tale. Fairy tales use familiar phrases – “Long ago and far away,” and “Happily ever after,” to alert us to their alternate universality. And the property of myth is that it is told and retold, possibly embroidered or repurposed but fulfilling the same essential needs.
One such fairy tale is Beauty and the Beast. In a patriarchal society, frightened young women were routinely sent out of their childhood homes and into arranged marriages with unfamiliar partners, often much older than themselves. The narrative trope of a cunning woman managing to negotiate this relationship helped to comfort and guide them. As a reward, the Beast may well turn out to be a handsome prince. The destination of the journey and the reward is framed by the expectations of the host community. Belle is an outsider, set apart by her love of books and her intelligence, but her journey suggests that in “taming” these socially problematic qualities in herself she may become a valuable and loving mate. The taming is not all one way.
But beastliness may be in the eye of the beholder. In a social system that has its own distinctive bigotries and cruelties, it may be the outsider who is, in fact, virtuous and lovely. In the monster-taming movies of the 20th Century, from King Kong to The Creature from the Black Lagoon onwards, there is an implicit comment on the intolerance of human society. The Fay Wray character in King Kong acts as a bridge, though ultimately an unsuccessful one, mediating between the apparently savage and the outwardly civilised.
Guillermo del Toro’s new work, The Shape of Water, has the malleability of our concept of the strange and monstrous built into its very title. The opening narration alerts us to the possibility that the monster’s identity may not be as obvious as first appearances suggest. We are also told to expect a princess who cannot speak. There is a fairy godmother figure who is, in fact, a gay man. The rules of engagement are clear; this is a world where achetype and symbol is as significant as plot and character, if not more so. This is not a Three Billboards movie examining humanity in all its depth and complexity. Its moral messages are writ large, its characters presented with little in the way of backstory. What we are called to bring to our viewing is an appreciation of world-building, minor details, and themes recapitulated, like a nest of Russian dolls. Something as simple as an egg unlocks a whole range of messages.
The more I think about the unrealistic elements of this narrative, the more I realise that the narrative that frames it was in itself a fantasy, a political construct that was considered necessary, but was completely artificial. The Cold War was one of history’s greatest examples of tragic and wilful “othering”. Millions of roubles and dollars were spent maintaining the fiction of the opposing sides’ essential inhumanity, and that apparatus, particularly on the American side, is fetishised here.
There are other signifiers of the fantastic. Two of the main characters live above a faded cinema where blockbusters play in faded glory to a handful of viewers. Screens are ever-present – on closed circuit TV, and broadcasting vintage situation comedies and dance routines into people’s homes. A character’s emotional awakening is realised as a homage to Fred and Ginger’s Let’s Face the Music and Dance. Framing is everywhere.
A gay man is told to leave a “family restaurant” in a painful scene that also features overt racism, while black employees remain silent in the background. A “family man” appears conventional and is seduced by a salesman’s patter into seeing himself as someone who is going places, yet abuses everyone in his world and turns out to be a sexual predator. A Russian defector shows humanity and compassion. Most of the action takes place at night, in a greenish-tinted universe that itself appears aquarian. This gives it an air of dreamlike unreality, but what we see in the light of day is equally constructed. And many of the interiors seems to fetishise retro-chic, particularly the secret base where the monster is being held. Nothing seems to date more, or speak more eloquently of a past era’s values, than its concept of the futuristic.
I haven’t touched here on Sally Hawkins’ remarkable performance as the mute Eliza, whose origins themselves evoke the trope of the orphaned infant with a literally unspeakable past. All the main characters are outsiders, isolated by disability, race, sexual orientation or a sinister background left unspecified. All have something unfamiliar, and in some people’s eyes repulsive, about them. All are objectified and abused and casual or wilful racist statements abound. The Creature is simply the most obvious example of isolation, yet has the greatest transformative power.
So here is a tale as old as time, unapologetically signalling its plot cliches in letters marquee-high, because originality isn’t the important issue here. It’s the power of storytelling and how it creates our world. There have been reviews that have pointed out the flatness of characterisation and the obviousness of moral signposting. But perhaps we are looking for subtlety in the wrong places. We are more likely to find it in the minute details that lodge in the mind – a family pictured around a green plate of Jello, an egg-shaped timer, a severed finger in a brown paper bag. A hackneyed popular song expresses the film’s great truth. The familiar is made strange, the strange familiar. And isn’t that one of the things cinema has the great potential to achieve?