I’ve seen The Shape of Water twice in the past few weeks, both before it won the Academy Award for Best Picture earlier this month.
And I’m glad I did.
The film has stuck in my mind since both viewings, and was better the second time.
Many folks have written and said great things about this movie. And while most of the roses are justifiably thrown at Guillermo del Toro’s feet, I also think about his screenplay co-writer, Vanessa Taylor, and how The Shape of Water diverts from and feels like an apotheosis of del Toro’s own idiosyncratic lane in cinema history.
It’s a great story full of weirdness and whimsy and scares, that somehow presents itself as the most normal thing in the world.
But hey, that is Guillermo del Toro’s secret sauce, right?
Plus there’s the social commentary, which is not uncommon in a GDT film. Look at The Devil’s Backbone with its Spanish Civil War backdrop, or the fun of how Blade II features a black man and a hillbilly taking down effete Eurotrash vampires.
But The Shape of Water, occurring in 1962 Baltimore, is del Toro’s most heavyhanded commentary, pointing a finger at post-WWII America as a society creating and elevating monsters via racism, sexism, and homophobia. It’s a film in which a group of social minorities (disabled, black, gay, women, working class) band together to undermine a domineering, sadistic white male in order to fulfill the sexualized, nontraditional romance between a woman and a fish-man.
They take this concept, and then stock it with great character actors in roles bespoke to their onscreen personas.
Del Toro says he wrote the lead role for Sally Hawkins. It’s tough even to be all that mad about Octavia Spencer playing a cleaning woman, again, when the part is this good. Or that Doug Jones is playing another fish-man in a Guillermo del Toro movie, because this one is far from Hellboy’s Abe Sapien. Or that Michael Shannon continues his twisted officer full of evil from when he broke out in Boardwalk Empire.
You even add here that, in the true fashion of an auteur who knows he is making a masterpiece, del Toro flexes. He stunts on the audience. Not only does he center his film on a mute lead, he also puts together scenes entirely in Russian without subtitles. You nearly feel him nudge your shoulder, and say, “Don’t worry; you’ll get it.” He makes a movie that is a monster movie, a period movie, a fantasy movie, a spy movie, and a romance all in one, and it works.
Guillermo del Toro already came into The Shape of Water as one of the most imaginative film directors in the world. He already was respected for his dedication to craftsmanship of set and character design. He built his career on horrors, fairy tales, ghost stories, and monsters, by taking what would have been schlock in many others’ hands, and adding dimension, heft and new angles to stories and genres we already know.
So, in hindsight, of course del Toro would be the one to watch Creature from the Black Lagoon and feel sorry for the Gill-Man, and make a film about that.
But he goes one further.
Whether it’s the Gothic horror of Crimson Peak, or the fairy tales of Pan’s Labyrinth or kaiju/giant monster spectacle of Pacific Rim, del Toro has often show an affinity for the girls and women in his stories. But each of those films’ female protagonists either are actual girls or are very young women. That would include Liz Sherman of the Hellboy movies, too; she’s a young woman who has to learn self-control.
With The Shape of Water, however, del Toro centers the story on a full-grown, mature woman, and the film quickly doesn’t let us forget it. For starters, Sally Hawkins, who plays the lead role of Eliza Esposito, was 40 when this film was shot in 2016. Hollywood convention would have cast an ingénue, because this sure does feel like an ingénue’s role at first.
Eliza is mute, a disability that humanity often equates with lack of intellect. (The roots of words “dumb” and “stupid” come from the concept of being rendered speechless.) Eliza’s facial expressions, gestures and sign language, paired with the rich, whimsical, Amelie-like visuals and soundtrack, might have guided the viewer to think of her as childlike and immature, like Amelie.
Nope, says the film, which establishes its characters and types within minutes of introduction.
Screenwriters Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor drop the mic early. For Eliza, they matter-of-factly depict Eliza’s “morning” routine (which turns out to be evening, because she works graveyard shift) that includes a masturbation session in the bathtub. Orgasms clear the mind, yes. The film presents Eliza’s sexuality early and plainly as a way to characterize her as confident, self-possessed, and self-assured.
“We are used to either never depicting female sexuality, or depicting it in a glamorized, artificial way,” the director told IndieWire. “I thought, most of the sexuality in the movie is not glamorized. Including the moment they come together, the amphibian man and her, is done in a very human, encompassing, naturalistic way. It really was about making the audience little by little fall in love with the creature.”
And I bet having Vanessa Taylor along didn’t hurt, either. Who’d have thought that a woman writing the screenplay would enrich a story about a woman?! Gee. Whiz.
Taylor has had a long career as a producer and writer in TV. Her work includes Alias, Everwood, Tell Me You Love Me, and Game of Thrones.
Taylor wrote a few pivotal episodes of Thrones, including season two’s episode six, “The Old Gods And The New.”
In that one, Theon Greyjoy takes over Winterfell with exponentially brutal results, and Joffrey Lannister can’t handle riots in King’s Landing. Both men are weak and try to assert themselves out of cross purpose, and they quickly fail because they lack the respect and wherewithal that self-assuredness and keen planning would have brought.
Meanwhile, Arya Stark dupes Tywin Lannister, Bran Stark’s wildling friend Osha cons Theon, Daenerys Targaryen appears (for now) cornered in Qarth, and we are introduced to the fierce wildling Ygritte. In that one episode alone, Taylor spent considerable time on some of Thrones’ best female characters; and among those, Arya and Ygritte are among the show’s best characters, period. She also laid the groundwork for the eventual romance between Jon and Ygritte.
So, Taylor, used to producing and writing material brimming with structure and juggling multiple genres, made a lot of sense. Del Toro also said she was the one who figured out that the Soviets needed their own full storyline in the film, which was a “missing piece” to making the film work. The doctor’s role added to the personhood of the creature.
Plus, hey, Taylor wrote fairy tales herself as a girl.
“It was when I realized that it was a fairy tale that I sort of got how it was all gonna fit together,” Taylor said at a screening of the film for Deadline. “There was all these different pieces, right? It’s period, and it has all these different elements to it. When I realized it was a fairy tale, I saw how it could all tonally work together. And that, I thought, was really exciting. It just made me see how it would all be so believable. I thought, ‘Oh, I totally get this. This makes complete sense to me that she’s in love with the fish.’”
Of course it does, if the emotions are right. If you nail the emotions, everything else falls into place. In The Shape of Water, del Toro and Taylor hook us into the romance by the simplest means of all: “Deep down, he’s just like me.”
Perhaps Taylor saw enough of herself in Eliza to further realize her, in a way del Toro could not. He needed someone to see what he alone could not.
And The Shape of Water is all the better for it.