Oscar Movie Roundup! The Shape of Water
Image: The Shape of Water, Fox Searchlight
In the lead up to the Oscars, we will be posting reviews for some of the nominated movies. The third review in our series is for The Shape of Water, which received 13 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director (Guillermo del Toro), Best Original Screenplay (Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor), Best Actress (Sally Hawkins), and Best Supporting Actor (Richard Jenkins).
This review contains spoilers for The Shape of Water
Elisa masturbates in her bathtub each morning before work, in synch with the ticking of an ovate timer while she waits for her hardboiled eggs to cook on the stove. The morning she first falls in love she can suddenly control the droplets of rain water through the bus window on her way to work, causing them to swirl and dance with her fingertip despite the glass barrier. She makes love in a DIY pool she created in her bathroom with an amphibious creature she seduces with empathy and saves from torture at her workplace.
Love is fluid, the director Guillermo del Toro wants the world to know in his latest film, The Shape of Water. It is malleable in its softness. It is our weaknesses that give love strength, and it is our traumas that help us heal others - which, in turn, can help us to heal ourselves. Rigidity can only lead to loss.
Never one to skimp on the strong female protagonists in his cinematic works, del Toro’s The Shape of Water goes even further than Pan’s Labyrinth’s mythical Ofelia. Not only is Elisa one of the most feminist characters he has put on the screen, but throughout the film, all of the primary male characters consistently exhibit varying degrees of toxic masculinity, which escalate in accordance with their rank in social position or economic power. It is the men in this movie who foil plans, cause harm (either intentionally or out of foolishness), let people down, and even pee on the floor Elisa is responsible for cleaning at work.
A contemporary fairy tale set in the 1960s, The Shape of Water explores the intersections of power, oppression and violence from a feminist lens, all the while subtly poking the patriarchy and celebrating qualities considered traditionally feminine. Compassion, nurturing, adapting, communication - these are the qualities needed to stop evil and bring balance to the world. These are the qualities that bring the fairy tale happy ending: pure love that is transformative.
The main character, Elisa, played by Sally Hawkins, is a mute orphan. She was found abandoned by the river as a baby, with claw marks along her neck, never gaining the ability to speak. She communicates to her friend Zelda, played by Octavia Spencer, and her much older, gay, artist friend, Giles (Richard Jenkins), through sign language. Elisa and Zelda work together as cleaning ladies at an oppressive tech company where their bosses bring in what they call The Asset - a creature found in the waters of the Amazon, where the Indigenous people believed him to be a god. As a single woman with a disability, no family, and unknown childhood traumas, Elisa relates to the creature’s silent suffering. Although eventually a scientist and her friends help her in her quest to free the creature from captivity, torture, and death, Elisa is the only person who extends compassion toward him for no other purposes - it is empathy in its purest form. Her compassion comes from her ability to relate to his solitude, silence, objectification, inability to communicate his good intentions, and the feeling she also experiences of being considered Other.
“When he looks at me, the way he looks at me, he does not know what I lack, or how I am incomplete,” Elisa signs to her neighbour Giles, when trying to convince him to help her save the creature. “He sees me for what I am, as I am. He is happy to see me, every time. Every day. Now I can either save him… or let him die.”
To do so, she faces off against the film’s Bad Man.
The rigid and violent Strickland (Michael Shannon), who discovered the creature in the Amazon, and brought him back to the USA for “science”, represents the toxic masculinity at the core of the mid-century American Dream. Armed with an electrical rod to torture the creature into submission, he plans to use The Asset to win a Cold War race against the Russians, with the goal of sending the creature out to space. In Strickland’s mind, the fame and glory would fund his early retirement. Power and money are his goals, and he will stop at nothing to achieve both, no matter what pieces of himself he loses along the way.
“You may think that thing looks human, stands on two legs, right?” Strickland says to the cleaning ladies in his office. “But we are created in the Lord’s image. You don’t think that’s what the Lord looks like, do you?”
He then looks at Elisa and Zelda before his desk, pausing at Zelda.
“Well, maybe less like you,” he says, with racist conviction.
Strickland is addicted to a hard candy he says he grew up with as a child, and sucks on them regularly throughout the day as an anxious habit. Boys will be boys. The candy addiction eventually turns into an addition to pills, which gradually worsens with time, as his anger and frustration rises. With that kind of power and privilege he has clearly had throughout his life in mid-century America, as a white, middle class man, he has simply never learned how to soothe himself.
When he lures Elisa into his office, specifically to harass her, he tells her that her silence is what arouses him, before stroking her face. Fetishizing her disability, he thinks that he can dominate her because she could never speak of it.
Strickland underestimates Elisa - and others – repeatedly throughout the film, blinded by his own ego and ignorance.
“What am I doing interviewing the fucking help?” Strickland says after the creature has gone missing. “The shit cleaners, the piss wipers.” He gives up on interrogating Elisa and Zelda simply because he can not fathom that a woman, a custodian, could have accomplished such a heist. A mute woman and a woman of colour - no, they could not be smart enough, strong enough to pull something like that off.
His own ego and ignorance serve as his blind spots, like power and privilege often do when coupled with toxic masculinity. Afraid to appear weak, Strickland cannot see that this in itself is the most damaging and damning of weaknesses.
Through characters, conflict, and catalyst, Del Toro’s feminism is clear. Elisa leads the way, never letting an obstacle discourage her from her mission. With some convincing, Zelda eventually follows Elisa to help save the creature. Zelda is tough and resourceful under pressure - strengths many men in the film lack. When others belittle Elisa or doubt her abilities, reminding her that she is “incomplete” because she can not speak, Elisa is resilient. She is a dreamer, with an optimism that no one else in the film shares - a hunger for fantasy that fuels an immunity to adversity. She is able to create new solutions to obstacles she has been handed in her adulthood with such ease because of the obstacles she was handed in her childhood. Her traumas have, like magic, shaped Elisa into the heroine she is, and that heroine shapes the plot into its magic and happy ending.