Wednesday, 24 January 2018

“The Shape of Water” is a Hollywood Classic With Contemporary Politics

The experience of watching Guillermo del Toro’s new film The Shape of Water is like that of buying and eating an elaborately manufactured and fussily packaged epicurean dessert, the kind that upmarket department stores promote in their northern-suburbs branches over Christmas. The lavish presentation may resemble that of haute cuisine, but the formula conforms to industry staples and packs heady dosages of sugar and fat, for immediate gratification and easy consumption.

That comparison is somewhat unfair: Del Toro’s film involved many conscientious craftsmen and many hours of labour, and even the most pedestrian of Hollywood studio productions deal in narrative and concepts, human emotions and ideas — the stuff of which Woolworths doesn’t generally construct its weekly food catalogues. And del Toro knows how to mix in ideas with his sweetener; the only other of his films that I’ve seen is Pan’s Labyrinth (and about half an hour of Hellboy II: The Golden Army), which ran its narrative course through a prismatic view of fascism as well as the full gamut of psychoanalytical insights on childhood fantasies.

Though Pan’s Labyrinth is the film that took a stark view of particular brutalities during the Spanish Civil War and The Shape of Water is the one that centres on a fairytale romance between a dewy-eyed innocent and a colourful water creature, it’s the former which played as an ingenuous Freudian expedition through the preoccupations of childhood, while The Shape of Water has the feel of a more tempered and more adult look at things.

The story is set in the early 60s in Baltimore, where Eliza (Sally Hawkins) works as a cleaner at a secret government laboratory. She is mute due to an injury sustained as an infant, and communicates in American Sign Language with her very small circle: her neighbour and wry G.B.F., the commercial illustrator Giles (Richard Jenkins); her landlord, who also owns a movie theatre downstairs; and her friend and colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who does enough talking for both of them at work.

The events of the plot are set in motion with the arrival of a mysterious “asset” at the laboratory, brought in by the callous Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon). Eliza finds that this asset — the colourful water creature Strickland dragged from its home in the Amazon — is surprisingly humanlike, and quickly forges a tender and intimate bond with him. The complications and threats arise from the intervention of a spy working for rival Soviet researchers and the mercenary interests of Strickland and his commanding officer, and del Toro has streamlined the convergences in his plot between the plan to save the water creature from savage annihilation and Eliza’s scheme to unite with the new object of her desire.

The stunning and conspicuous sheen on The Shape of Water’s visual aspects is not merely a reflection of the professional and accomplished mode in which del Toro works (though it cost less than any other movie he has made in the last fifteen years), but an affectionate rearview appreciation of old Hollywood’s industrial gloss. The Story of Ruth, from 1960, is playing in DeLuxe Color in the movie theatre at the beginning of The Shape of Water, and Giles and Eliza share a love of Fred Astaire musicals, which play endlessly on Giles’s television. Even the appearance of Eliza’s beloved creature seems like a tribute to Creature From the Black Lagoon, from 1954 — and none other than the Iridescent Marilyn Monroe diagnosed that poor monster’s troubles and predicted the premise of The Shape of Water:

“He wasn’t really all that bad,” Marilyn speculated, in The Seven-Year Itch. “I think he just craved a little affection, you know? A sense of being loved and needed and wanted.”

Yet the subject of the film takes into account the vectors of exclusion and ignorance of the time that were prevalent in those classic films and are all too apparent to us today. All the rough bigotry of the era is condensed into the character of Strickland, who refers to African Americans as “you people” when speaking to Zelda, and goes so far to emphasise the closer resemblance to God in educated white men than in working-class black women; his sexual advances on Eliza are exactly the kind of nightmarish affront the #MeToo movement has highlighted; he dismisses South American peoples as “primitive” and derides the subject of their sacred beliefs; he mocks the insignificance of local protest in the face of global capitalist onslaught; and, most strikingly, the scene of his physical torture of the creature in the laboratory recalls the many barbaric abuses and assaults exacted by a savage ruling class, particularly at the time (the mid-twentieth century) and place (the American south) presented in the film.

Yet the more biting indignation that del Toro offers is in the form of satire, as he deflates the halcyon Golden Age view of the suburban American nuclear family. Strickland’s deferential wife dishes up a healthy breakfast for him in her sun-filled wallpapered kitchen, sends their doting children off to school, and, leaning her ridiculous blonde beehive close to his ear, invites him up to the bedroom for the fulfillment of her domestic duties. After a brief discussion of the pleasures of suburban living, del Toro cuts to a comically absurd and comically distasteful sex scene, which is also telling in its depiction of sexual power dynamics.

“Summer Place” plays on the soundtrack when Strickland visits a Cadillac dealership, where del Toro pierces the illusion created by those who sold others the American Dream of the post-war years. When we arrive at Zelda’s far more humble home later on in the movie, his point is completed: That American Dream was achieved by some, to diminished satisfaction and incomplete fulfillment, at the expense of all those downtrodden and exploited people whom the classic films of the time — for all their grandeur and magic — excluded or ridiculed.

The love story at the film’s centre runs on Eliza and the creature’s fellow-feeling from being tormented and bullied, and they find a redemptive companionship in one another. Somehow, they find erotic bliss as well, and, though del Toro has foreshadowed Eliza’s joyful discovery by showing her morning ritual that includes an auto-erotic quick-fix underwater, the journey that she makes from befriending the creature to shacking up with it is thinly conceived and aesthetically bland. The emotions are heavily sweetened until dripping with as if with syrup, and the unique personal experiences of each of them elided, so that del Toro can rush along to the larger point he wishes to make, and which his title hints at: Love takes the shape of the space you have prepared for it in your life. Love brings about the bliss that Eliza eventually finds in many other aspects of her life, and love is eventually what immerses her and becomes her life.

It’s through the accomplishment of love that del Toro’s Cold War-romance eventually turns into a fairytale, with Eliza as the transformed princess, and it’s through del Toro’s straining to appear to be saying something significant and his conscientious efforts of homage to the styles and forms of a bygone system of moviemaking, that any style is drenched and anything significant to be said is drowned out.

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