More Than Just Fish Sex

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Slight delay on the release of this blog post – I thought I could get it done before the holidays but I was mistaken.  Hope everyone has enjoyed their holidays! So, now that all festivities and family events are over and I finally have time to sit down and write…

To say that I was excited for the release of The Shape of Water is a huge understatement.

For those of you following this blog, you’ll notice from my recent post on the “At Home With Monsters” exhibit that I am a fan of Guillermo Del Torro, and if you click the “Doug Jones” tag at the end of this write up you’ll see that I reference Doug Jones in 4 of my other blog posts.  But just in case you’re still not convinced that this is something I would get unreasonably excited about…

A few months ago my boyfriend sent me a link to the first trailer for this film because it looked like something I’d be into and it was directed by “that director you like”.  Before I was even finished watching the trailer the thoughts going through my head were: If this is a Del Torro film, Doug Jones is the sea creature.  And it will be a real movie monster as opposed to a computer generated image.  From then on I was hooked.  Each new trailer had me more and more excited.  I’ve followed Doug Jones’ Facebook posts relentlessly looking for anything to do with this film.  I was thrilled when I heard the film was winning awards at film festivals, that it has been nominated for Golden Globes, and that there is talk of some Oscar nominations.  The moment this film came to Ottawa, I bought tickets.

So here’s how badly I needed to see this movie:

I have had a nasty cold for the past week and was sick as a dog on the day I had bought my tickets for. I was supposed to go out earlier that day to run errands but my boyfriend said no and told me I had to stay home and not do anything. I told him I’d stay home and rest, but under no circumstances were we to miss The Shape of Water.  I had the tickets and nothing would prevent me from going.  He agreed to my terms and I spent the day resting.  I dragged myself out of the house, into the cold, during a mini snowstorm, when I probably should have stayed home, just so I could see this movie.  I had been waiting for too long for this film and I certainly was not going to let a cold or the whether stand in my way.

This film was beautiful, and weird, and amazing.

As a fan, this film was worth the wait, and as someone who loves movies I think it absolutely deserves the recognition that it is getting.  It is just sad that the film probably won’t gain the kind of mainstream popularity as some of the other films I have written about recently.  When I booked my tickets, only two theatres in the city were showing it.  Thankfully, most likely because it was the film’s opening weekend, the showing that I went to was absolutely packed so I was pleased to see that there are people out there who want to see this film.  It is also both hilarious and frustrating that it is becoming known as a film with fish sex in it.  Yes, I have laughed at some of the memes and jokes online, but this film is about so much more than just fish sex and I feel that to reduce The Shape of Water to a sex story really does it a disservice.

The film tackles some serious issues as the main protagonists are all on the fringes of society.  They are the outsiders and outcasts; they do not fit the norms of the society they live in and are punished for it.  Women, the disabled, blacks, homosexuals, communists, and inhuman creatures – all are downtrodden by this cold-war era society and yet they are the heroes of the story.  Elisa (Sally Hawkins), Giles (Richard Jenkins), Zelda (Octavia Spencer), Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), and the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) are all seen as freaks in some way and are all equally powerless to change or improve their situations.  It is when they work together to save the Amphibian Man that they are finally able to take control of some aspect of their lives.  From visiting “At Home With Monsters” at the AGO, I learned that Del Torro has a love for characters who are on the fringes of society – the freaks – so it is fitting that this group of outcasts and misfits make up the heroes of the story.  The lives of these people juxtaposed against the “perfect” nuclear family who live in the suburbs: one boy and one girl; a husband and father who is the head of the family; and a dutiful wife and mother who has her husband’s meals ready when he comes home, who tells him he can buy whatever brand new car he wants, and who willingly offers herself up for sex and who does not/cannot complain – she is quite literally silenced when her husband covers her mouth during sex.  Of course, the patriarch of the family – Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) – is supposedly the epitome of this perfect American dream with his high-ranking government job and fancy car, but this man is so evil that not only do his job and car break down, but he is so evil that his flesh literally decays throughout the course of the movie.

Apart from a compelling story and exceptional actors, this film is tied nicely together by it music and directorial choices.  Alexandre Desplat is the composer for this film and he has been nominated for, and won, countless Oscars.  His music is truly unique and, to me, has a more artistic sound as opposed to a grand Hollywood-style soundtrack.  The music was a little quirky and given the fact that the main characters do not fit societal norms, it was fitting that the soundtrack reflected that.

And of course, Guillermo Del Torro’s directorial style was all over this film.  It was fantastic that I was able to see “At Home With Monsters” right before I saw The Shape of Water because it gave me a reminder of what to look out for – the kinds of things that Del Torro frequently includes in his films.  Apart from a cast of freaks, there was also a lot going on in terms of colour.  In films like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), the real world is bathed in cool colours while the fantasy world is filled with warm colours.  And in Crimson Peak (2015), the ghosts of the murdered women are all red and the person who killed them is the only living character who gets to wear red in the film.  In The Shape of Water the most noticeable accent colours were green and red, and I felt as if the red was symbolic of emotion an passion – primal feelings – when showcased in Elisa’s red coat, Giles’ painting of red jello, and any time blood became the focal point.  Green, on the other hand, was detached from emotion in that it was a symbol of modernity in the form of the green (teal) car, the soap dispensers, the candy, and the green jello/key lime pie that are fit for consumption only by the perfect/white/straight/American nuclear family.  On the other hand, warm lighting and cool lighting felt interchangeable to me as both were used in scenes with both good and bad characters/situations.  My guess is that since the creature is an amphibian and can survive on land and in the water, that the lighting is “amphibian” as well and highlight both good and bad situations.

***** The next two paragraphs contain spoilers *****

Another common trope of Del Torro’s that I was on the look-out for was that of death, rebirth, and the afterlife.  “At home With Monsters” reminded me of the fact that Del Torro frequently kills off his characters.  The exhibit highlighted the fact that Del Torro does not believe that death is the end and that there is typically the possibility of rebirth or some kind of afterlife.  Going through the exhibit I knew that he would kill off at least one of the characters in The Shape of Water, and I was right.  Dr. Hoffstetler and Stirckland each face death, but it is deaths of Elisa and the Amphibian Man that are significant.  The Amphibian Man is presented as a kind of god-like creature so he resurrects himself and experiences rebirth.  It is Elisa who experiences the afterlife.  Although she is brought back to life by the Amphibian Man, her life as Elisa Esposito is over and she essentially “dead” on land – her afterlife is that she is now an amphibian creature who comes alive in the water and can be with the man she loves.

Now there was a lot that I anticipated would happen based on prior experiences with Del Torro’s films, but The Shape of Water was also very heavy handed with its foreshadowing and that was perhaps the only element of the film that could have been improved.  Some foreshadowing was a little more subtle, like when Elisa masturbates in the bathtub every morning, this makes it clear that this is a sexual place for her, so it does not seem out of place that this is where she and the Amphibian Man have sex.  Then there’s the fact that the scars on Elisa’s neck look suspiciously like gill slits and, no surprise, they turn into gill slits by the end of the film.  One of the more interesting elements of foreshadowing was the constant reference of biblical stories and movies involving gods used to highlight the fact that the Amphibian man is some sort of god-like creature.  The opening sequence was also really well done as it used water to foreshadow the fact that, later on, Elisa’s apartment would fill with water, and that even later on Elisa would live in the water.  So basically there really weren’t too many surprises in this film if you paid attention to all the little details.

***** Spoilers End Here *****

img_3121I would highly recommend this film and yes I am biased because I am a fan of Doug Jones and Guillermo Del Torro, but it’s still an amazing film.  It was a joy to watch and every little detail was important and well thought out.  It is a truly beautiful piece of art and I am really looking forward to seeing if it will win some Golden Globes and/or some Oscars.  It is absolutely a weird movie, but it is a wonderfully weird movie and I want to buy a copy the moment it comes out on DVD/Blu-Ray so I can watch it again and again and hunt for even more little details.  This film is so thoughtfully made and it was absolutely, without a doubt, worth the wait.

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