When fantasy explains reality
Zarin Rafiuddin explores the multi-narrative structure of the movie
The Oscar winner for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Score and Best Production Design in the 90th Annual Academy Awards was Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water (2017). The Shape of Water is a fantasy film set during the cold war period of the United States of America, written by Guillermo del Toro along with Vanessa Taylor. Guillermo is not a stranger to fantasy, haven been awarded before for Pan's Labyrinth (2006) which won three Academy Awards.
The movie's narrative is a polyphonic one. It talks about the emotional bond between Elisa Esposito, a mute janitor working in a high security research facility in Baltimore in 1962, and an "Asset", an Amphibian Humanoid Man, who is captured to be studied. Elisa cannot speak and the Amphibian-Man does not understand our language yet they communicate through kindness and general respect for one another.
From the onset of the film, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) merely has two friends. One is Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), her African-American colleague, and Giles (Richard Jenkins), Elisa's closeted gay neighbour, who draws advertisements for companies. Elisa is underestimated everywhere she goes due to her lacking the ability to speak. She was an orphan found as a baby with wounds in her neck.
This damage disallows her to speak. Yet, she is intelligent, observant and open-minded. Zelda usually helps conveys her voice to other people as she can understand some of her sign language and Giles seems adept in it as well. From the beginning of the film, Mr. Director wants us to see the sparkle and charisma that Elisa has for her life, which Hawkins delivers beautifully. She is shown to go to the cinema, yearn for beautiful red shoes and also converse with Giles on various topics.
Then Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) captures an Amphibian-man (Doug Jones) from South America and brings him to the facility. Strickland is crude to everyone and anyone around him. He treats Elisa with contempt and shows racist attitudes towards Zelda. Strickland strictly accentuates that the Amphibian-man is an animal, a creature with no value and is meant to be used to help further America's competition with Russia for the 60's Space Race.
He even states that some South American people revered the Amphibian-man as a god and that no god would look as that, hinting god looks like a Caucasian man. He tortures the Amphibian man hoping to succeed in climbing up the government's career ladder. He also starts bullying and obsessing over Elisa, leading to many uncomfortable scenes in the film.
Initially, the Amphibian-Man is sceptical of Elisa when she tries to befriend him. She finds him fascinating as an individual and respects him as such. Soon, they communicate by listening to music records and eating the same foods. This time is short lived seeing that Strickland wishes to dissect the Amphibian-man for further research. Elisa pleads with Giles to help her free him from such a fate. To her, the Amphibian-Man is her friend and he does not underestimate her, hurt her or bully her.
To him, she is an equal, not simply a mute woman. The Amphibian-man and Elisa take refuge in her home and they start becoming closer. Soon, the relationship becomes romantic and physical. In an extended trailer with director commentary, found from Rave Fox, Del Toro explains the Amphibian-man is an ancient being who is masculine and is supposed to look physically attractive as a Toreador (bull-fighter). Understandably, the physical chemistry between Elisa and the Amphibian-man is accentuated through their mutual love and respect for one another.
As aforementioned, the narrative is polyphonic. Through the Amphibian-man Elisa can show her confident, strong, sexual and intelligent self, which usually people ignore to see in her. The Amphibian-man also strengthens the closeness that Zelda and Elisa have. Elisa is shown to be in a somewhat abusive marriage where her husband treats her as a servant. It is her kinship with Elisa that makes her counter her husband's sexism and misogyny and cherish her sisterhood with Elisa, as her most prized relationship.
The Amphibian-man also allows Giles to believe in himself again. Spurned by his crush due to homophobia, he finds acceptance and love from the Amphibian-man, who does not oust him for his gay identity. Rather, the Amphibian-man seems to comprehend slightly that Giles is miserable and lonely and he genuinely understands the pain of being an outsider from both his and Zelda's perspectives.
My only complaint is that despite the Amphibian-man being almost like a deity and having a collection of abilities, he is still a conduit for storytelling rather a character in his own right. It is true he loves and cares for Elisa but he is still a mystery. At times, this reviewer wanted to know more of his own thoughts and what he thought of human society.
This is crucial, seeing in his native culture he is a god, whereas in the United States he is treated as an aberration, lesser than domesticated animals. It should probably strike the Amphibian-man as curious that two sets of civilizations have such vast differences. He does show awe and even confusion when some of the characters act strange around him but these are liminal scenes.
Overall, The Shape of Water is an excellent film, which depicts that speech is not the only form of communication. That emotional bonds can happen with two people willing to respect and cherish one another. It is also a film that gives voices to the outsiders of society who are oppressed by orthodoxy, sexism, racism and queerphobia. However, the film is for a mature audience as it contains graphic language, sexual scenes, scenes of sexual harassment and depictions of torture. The Shape of Water utilises fantasy to be a narrative that shows many characters and have their voices be heard.
The reviewer is working with The Asia Age