Love and Sexuality in "The Shape of Water"
SPOILER WARNING: This article contains spoilers for "The Shape of Water"
Guillermo del Toro has an affinity for monsters. This affinity has manifested as honest-to-goodness love in his latest film, The Shape of Water. Indeed, the emotional centre of it is a mute janitor named Elisa having sex with the creature of this feature, a humanoid that suggests the missing link between an Olympic athlete swimmer and an alien sea creature.
That The Shape of Water is set in 1962 is an interesting choice. 1962 was only a few years away from the explosive tumult of the Kennedy assassination, race-riots, the sexual revolution, and the escalating violence in Vietnam. Precluding that explosiveness, though -- and perhaps contributing to it -- freakishness, the Other (anyone not white and straight), and taboo desires were pushed into the collective unconscious so as to not disrupt the maintenance of an idealised Normalville, USA.
Consider that the fish creature is prodded and poked at by middle-aged white men in a dank, damp, underground facility - a symbolic collective unconscious. These authority figures are the gatekeepers of the symbolic collective unconscious. They keep this aquatic organism contained until they can weaponise it or destroy it. It's within the bowels of this facility of repression – where white men like Michael Shannon's uber-masculine Strickland run the show and women and people of colour are the janitors – that Elisa forges something wonderful: A gentle bond with the aquatic organism, one based on non-verbal reciprocity. She feeds him soft-boiled eggs and plays him her music records during lunch, he innocently blinks and vibrates with curiosity. Her fixation on the luminous, otherworldly creature becomes wholly believable when she tearfully tells her friend that the creature "Doesn't know how I'm incomplete". Their attraction is surely strange, but is there a more conventional definition of love than that?
A parallel plot point plays out, only in reverse. Elisa's closeted neighbour Giles misreads signals from the delightful waiter of a diner that looks straight out of a half-remembered fever dream of 50s America. Confronted by Giles' homosexuality, the smiling waiter, affronted, reveals the homophobic rage that lurks underneath the congenial diner. “Get out and don't come back. This is a family place.”
If the Disney Land-esque diner was a site of repressed ugliness, it's nothing compared to what happens in the most cherished of institutions: The Home.
The most gruesome sex scene in The Shape of Water isn't between woman and monster but between husband and wife. After a day of torturing the fish monster, Strickland comes home, with two bloody middle fingers to show for his cruelty, to a cooked dinner prepared by his beautiful blonde wife. It's staged exactly like an idealised Norman Rockwell painting, American as apple pie. But Michael Shannon's menacing scowl remains fixed and his deadened fingers are in full view, subtly imbuing the idyllic setting with menace. He has sex with his wife. Or rather, he engages in piston-like sex. She tentatively voices her obvious discomfort. He doesn't stop. Instead, he silences her with his ruined fingers. As the film progresses, his fingers continue to rot as his violence and desperation escalates. Eventually, he twists them off and chucks them away. And with them go his pretence of humanity; he doesn't need to make love or comfort -- all he needs is the trigger finger. Strickland even pisses without using his hands, and his weapon of choice is a comically phallic cattle prod. He's all domination, all the time.
Though Strickland is, to use 60s vernacular, The Man, Del Toro allows us to see him as a child. A daddy figure General orders Strickland to recapture the escaped creature, or he'll be in the shit. Strickland retreats to the bathroom, and pitifully psyches himself up to do more harm. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. Strickland is the actual monster in The Shape of Water. But like the best film monsters, it's difficult not to feel some sympathy for him. Because his spiritual rot born out of toxic masculinity began a long time ago and there's nothing he can do about it.
The Shape of Water reaches its visual and emotional crescendo when Elisa, harbouring her oceanic lover, fills her apartment with bathwater so they can make love. It's a balletic scene, filled with sentiment and emotion. It illustrates a generosity and sensuality that heightens its already fantastical setting. However the water they're submerged in floods parts of the apartment building and the movie theatre below. It's love and sex as societal disruption, in a way that Strickland's forceful and horrifying sex wasn't. It's not right, but that is the world.
So The Shape of Water ends as it only could, with them together in the ocean. 70 percent of the earth's water hasn't been shaped by men like Strickland. With that, there's a possibility of happily ever after.