You know that feeling when you’ve been submerged in another world for two hours, and when you surface, everything seems less appealing, more mundane?
I’d assume that most people who read books, or watch movies, or undergo other intensive, immersive experiences offered by art are fairly familiar with it. I’d also assume that, given how much practice we’ve had in dealing with it, we’d be better at the surfacing by now. That the rush up for air is less a headlong, pressure-induced splurge than a measured, calm rise air and the ‘real world’. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m still fairly horrible at handling it, yet another way in which I disappoint myself as a human being.
My latest immersive experience (all the puns intended) was with Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. I’ve been waiting to see this movie for months; it seemed totally up my alley, based on promos. Happy to report that unlike with some other movie experiences this year (sigh, Spiderman Homecoming) my excitement was not misplaced.
The Shape of Water is a gorgeous fairytale, and I use that term with all the literary weight it carries. At its heart, it is just that—the story of a princess ‘without a voice’ who finds her prince, and must overcome hurdles, some institutional, some personal. The means she uses range from the strangely mundane (towels) to beautifully fantastical (no spoilers). She receives help from her misfit friends, and faces danger from the powers that be. She is very much the hero of our story, the damsel and the saviour both.
Both del Toro and numerous reviewers have been going on about how revolutionary Shape is, the biggest reason being the fact that instead of the conventional, handsome prince, it’s the monster, an ‘amphibian man’, who gets the girl. In an interview, del Toro speaks about how watching The Creature from the Black Lagoon inspired him, how one brief shot of the heroine swimming in the water, the monster lurking beneath, made him hope that they would ‘end up together’. Shape is his fulfillment of that wish, and it’s a beautiful fulfillment yes, but I’m not sure the ‘monster gets the girl’ trope is all that revolutionary by now. Vampire and werewolf love stories have been dominating the big and small screens for years, some darker and less sparkly than others. The moment they decided to make Dracula sexy instead of horrifying, the monsters won.
What I found most ‘revolutionary’ about the movie wasn’t the monster, but the princess herself. It’s a cliche now to say that fairy tales are not exactly the best places to see a woman use her agency. Many princesses are confined to towers, to sleep away centuries, or pay the price for the errors of others. When they do make decisions, it tends to go very badly, and resulted in entire kingdoms being swallowed by thorns, or having to marry warty, demanding frogs. There’s little they do besides look beautiful (without any effort, because no woman in a fairytale has ever had to wax or get her upper lip and eyebrows done) and wait for reward in the form of a handsome prince. Sometimes that prince is a corpse-kissing wanderer in the woods, and at others he’s a book-loving softie hiding behind a fierce facade. Whatever the case, he’s the hero, despite the women being, ostensibly, the centre of the story.
How does Shape rewrite this? Not only is our princess Eliza (Sally Hawkins) riddled with might be seen as ‘defects’ in a traditional fairytale (she is a mute cleaning lady), but those very limitations are what give her power. Her relative invisibility (as the ‘help’, and a not especially glamorous woman) allow her to slip, unnoticed, into places she might not otherwise be allowed to enter; her ‘difference’ is what foregrounds her desire to befriend and rescue the stranger (Doug Jones, encased but not unexpressive in a rubber suit) trapped in a tank. ‘He sees me,’ she signs to her neighbour, seeking to explain his importance to her. The ‘monster’ does not see her flaws; he accepts her entirely for who she is, and having been alone all her life, Eliza feels nothing but compassion, fascination, and eventually, love for this being who has no peer that she can see, or imagine.
To watch Shape is to drown, for what might be a disappointingly short time, in a world that’s markedly similar to ours. There are evil security officials (a great and convincingly horrible Michael Shannon), warmhearted, caring friends (Octavia Spencer, playing to type), Cold War politics all drenched in del Toro’s fantastical colours. There is homage to the sweeping Hollywood epics of the past—both the historical fare that plays in the largely-abandoned theatre below Eliza’s apartment, and the black and white musicals that fuel her romantic daydreams. It’s worth pointing out how art—in this case, music and movies—is what really connects the monster and the maiden, and puts them on the path to communication. Del Toro’s movie is both an homage to that art, as well as a seductive object itself. It reels you in, and submerges you, and when you emerge, the world above seems a little colder, a little less magical, than the depths you’ve left behind.