I read an interesting article about The Shape of Water the other day. The article celebrates the idea of “queering” in the movie – non-traditional love between “queer” bodies – in this case a mute woman and a “monster.” The author, Stephanie Monteith, seemed to love the movie as a discussion of the monster as “other,” as a way for us to examine our own humanity through the idea of the monster.
I like Stephanie’s point, but I didn’t really like the movie. It didn’t work for me because I thought the theme was too blatant and simplistic. It felt like Oppression Olympics. The movie had pure, uncomplicatedly good characters: a mute woman, her black female friend, and her gay best friend, all struggling on the brink of abject poverty to save the sweet, loving monster from the horrible, uncomplicatedly bad rich white man who practices unflinching bigotry and cruelty.
I think humans (and monsters) are more complicated and faceted than that, so I tend to get bored with statement pieces that have angel and devil-people functioning as stand-ins for a discussion about social justice. I have no problem with movies that discuss themes of social justice, as long as the story and characters ring true.
The exception, for me, are morality tales, which I love. These stories tend to have very simple plots, and a main character who struggles with his own contradictions. In these stories, the main character is usually the only complicated character, and the plot may or may not be plausible, but the moral struggle rings true. The movie A Simple Plan is my favorite morality tale. I think Fatal Attraction and The Firm (the movie, not the book) also fall under that category.
The Shape of Water appears to be using the love story to make a statement. But, the love story didn’t quite work for me either. I believe the notion of pure unselfish love would have been more powerfully advanced if the woman and the creature had not had sex, at least not until she had been transformed into a sea creature.
The Inter-species sex introduces a strange element that takes away from the idea of love being selfless and sacrificial. Picture Rise of the Planet of the Apes where Will fought for the life of “Serena” instead of Caesar, and they made love in a tree. Will’s love for Caesar was no less poignant without the “love story,” and Elisa’s love for the Amphibian Man would have been no less touching without the sexual component.
Once Elisa dies and comes back as Amphibian Lady – since their true love had already been firmly established – sex makes sense at that point. Before that, you wonder (well, I wonder) if she was simply horny and desperate. She was a daily, vigorous masturbator, after all.
Having Elisa and the Amphibian Man consummate their relationship in the water – as equals – would have been a lot more beautiful and romantic in my opinion.
So, while I found myself rolling my eyes at some of the more obvious “messages” in The Shape of Water, and while I found the inter-species sex a little creepy and unnecessary, I love it when something unusual gets top honors. I hope the success of the movie will inspire the industry to continue thinking outside the box.
Incidentally, I believe that no group can claim true equality until the individuals in that group are looked at realistically – not all good, not all bad. Not villains. Not angels. Not comic reliefs. Not magical saviors. Not innocent victims who need rescuing. Not sexualized. Not asexual. Not serving merely as support props for the mainstream (white) character. And not as quirky side-kicks who appear when needed, and conveniently disappear when not. Three dimensional characters, just like real people, hold multiple and contradictory characteristics at once. There are no saint groups and no sinner groups.
We’re getting there, but I believe we still have a ways to go.
Peace and love,