- YEAR: 2017
- DIRECTOR: Guillermo del Toro
- KEY ACTORS: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer
- CERTIFICATE: 15
- IMDB SCORE: 7.3
- ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 92%
SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ It is rewatchable. If I switched channels and this was on, I’d keep watching. At least until the sex scenes – they’re fascinating!
✔️ It does pass the Bechdel test, although because of insignificant passing conversations rather than because the women have a plot that does not involve men/fishmen.
✔️ And of course it’s sex positive! It’s about fucking a sea creature and those who judge her are considered the bad guys!
❌ While it didn’t inspire fantasies…
✔️ …I would fuck the cast. I wouldn’t consider myself a monster fucker but that is one hot fishman!
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: Disney+ (free with subscription), Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £7.99), YouTube (from £3.49). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
I’m always a little surprised by how much I like The Shape of Water, and by my surprise at how much I like it. It’s a beautifully made movie by a talented director that was nominated for twelve Oscars and won four, including Best Picture, so the fact that it’s excellent shouldn’t really be questioned. Certainly it was critically acclaimed and yet it still isn’t talked about in the same way as other Oscar winners.
Perhaps that’s because The Shape of Water won Best Picture in those weird years before Parasite’s unexpected 2019 success when the winners were viewed with a bit of scepticism, and so its win almost feels like a mark against it rather than a confirmation of quality. Peaking with Green Book’s white saviour win in 2018 over true racially diverse movies like Black Panther and BlacKkKlansman, the Academy was criticised for making easy or safe choices, which rarely meant honouring the best or most interesting movie. I don’t really know why The Shape of Water was tarred with the same brush, but I suspect that it’s because 2017 was a rich year for movies and this felt like the least deserving. The Best Picture and Best Director nominees that year were a list of some of the finest – and most diverse – in recent Hollywood history, including a queer love story in Call Me By Your Name, a psychological horror that plays on race relations within the USA in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and Greta Gerwig’s millennial girl’s coming of age tale in Lady Bird, plus movies by Spielberg and Nolan, and The Shape of Water beat them all. A movie where a woman fucks a fishman!
But having seen it a few times, I think this narrative obscures a really nuanced and beautiful movie, and let’s not underestimate that del Toro managed to make a beautiful, nuanced and successful movie where a woman fucks a fishman!!
Set during the Cold War of the 1960s, The Shape of Water tells a simple enough story – Elisa (Hawkins) is mute and works as a cleaner in a secret facility that one day takes possession of an ‘asset’ – the fishman – who the scientists plan to study. (Side note: I don’t know what to call the fishman as he doesn’t have a name. The Asset feels too associated with his captivity and The Creature feels too negative so I’m going to stick with calling him a fishman!) The scientists physically abuse the fishman and eventually decide to vivisect him to learn more but, by this time, Elisa has fallen in love with him so rescues him. Once she has taken him home, they are able to have a physical sexual relationship before she releases him into the ocean. During the release, Elisa is shot by sadistic government agent Strickland (Shannon) and so the creature takes her into the sea with him, saving her and transforming her neck scars into gills so they can be together forever…
Monster fucking is a kink I knew but was not one that I had given much thought until recently. Although this film has been on my to-review list for a while, I am writing about The Shape of Water now because I was inspired to think about monster fucking by the fabulous Zoë Burgess and her session at Eroticon on Queer Monsters. She introduced me to Teratophilia, to give monster fucking its formal name, and told us about its history, from a way to get around Japanese censorship laws that forbid showing genitalia to the fandoms surrounding more recent monsters like Venom. Burgess spoke about how monsters were particularly attractive fantasies for queer people and those with diverse genders as, by definition, monsters don’t comply to cis heteronormative rules. There doesn’t need to be a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ and there doesn’t need to be a penis or a vagina. Monsters can be literally anything you want!
More than that, monsters represent the ultimate ‘other’ and so share the feeling of otherness with those of us who feel sidelined or excluded from society. Speaking to Mashable in 2018, psychotherapist Kristie Overstreet said that ‘the need to be accepted for who you are links otherness with the monstrous…Being different attracts you to others who are seen as different, so there is comfort in being connected with another person that understands.’ And The Shape of Water is full of depictions of otherness! So much so that it has been criticised for being too blatant, described by Sheila O’Malley for Roger Ebert as making points with ‘a jackhammer, wielding symbols in blaring neon,’ but I don’t think that diminishes their power. Yes, the closeted gay roommate’s loneliness is palpable and the black family being turned away from the restaurant is a cliché now and the way mute but not deaf Elisa is spoken to and about in her hearing smacks of ableism and the classist and racist way the scientists treat cleaners Elisa and Zelda is very telling of their general opinions of those less privileged than them, but the sum of these parts is a society where otherness is freaking obvious but is still treated like shit. Does the fishman’s equally obvious difference make him more ‘other’ than the rest? And if so, where is the line?
Guillermo del Toro has attributed his feeling of otherness to being an immigrant and has a well-documented interest in the monstrous and abnormal, previously directing Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy: ‘since childhood, I’ve been faithful to monsters. I have been saved and absolved by them, because monsters, I believe, are patron saints of our blissful imperfection, and they allow and embody the possibility of failing.’ He is also on the record as being aware of the sexual and romantic appeal of monsters, telling the LA Times that ‘when I saw the creature swimming under Julie Adams [in 1954’s “Creature From the Black Lagoon”], I thought three things: I thought, “Hubba-hubba.” I thought, “This is the most poetic thing I’ll ever see.” I was overwhelmed by the beauty. And the third thing I thought is, “I hope they end up together.”‘ Although he preferred to formally speak of The Shape of Water as a love story, rather than a story about sex or fetishism, his amusement at the various themed sex toys that were available at the time, joking that he was sure ‘Dunkirk doesn’t have that problem,’ suggests to me that he wasn’t unhappy that so many people had found his movie sexy!
Because it is a sexy movie! And one about a female lead who isn’t ashamed of her sexuality, which is always very powerful. We have barely met Elisa before we see her masturbating, as she does every morning to an egg timer to ensure that she doesn’t take too long. She is also the one who does all the seducing and has all the power over the fishman, who is reliant on her for everything. Outside of the water anyway! Doug Jones, who plays the fishman, manages to make him seem weak and vulnerable when he is in the lab, almost like a kitten or a child, but he immediately embodies a powerful physicality, a ‘sinewy symphony of movement’ as soon as he is free. ‘This character has to be sexy.’ del Toro told Jones, ‘When watching the film you have to believe that someone could actually fall in love with him and find him sexy and want to take their clothes off in his presence.’
And it works. More, it is entrancing. He has a presence. He has incredible abs and an incredible arse! There is something so masculine about how he stands, strong legs in a wide stance with his back slightly arched to widen his chest. I was reminded of it when I saw this tweet about how Stringer Bell from the Wire, another ridiculously sexy man, had influenced Miguel in Across the Spiderverse, exuding power without flexing. Like the fishman!
The beauty and power of the sexuality of the fishman is further emphasised by just how awful all of the human sex is shown to be! There’s a scene where Strickland is fucking his wife that is frankly unpleasant – she does not seem to be enjoying his repetitive thrusting even before his hand wound starts bleeding on her and he covers her face to stop her distracting him so he can finish. Urgh. He is the fishman’s human reflection – a strong, powerful man – but his characterisation couldn’t be more toxic. Strickland is angry and aggressive. He is sexist and ableist and racist and classist and an absolute wanker! So much so that he feels like a cartoon, a caricature, and is clearly the real monster of the story.
But at the end, The Shape of Water appeals to me because it is an example of my favourite type of love story – one when two people who think they are broken or damaged find each other and realise that they’re perfect for each other, and so can be happy together without needing to change. As Elisa signs to Giles, ‘he doesn’t know what I lack or how I am incomplete. He sees me for what I am as I am.’ It’s why I love Secretary and one of the reasons why I love 10 Things I Hate About You. And unlike so many other stories of a beauty and a beast, the fishman doesn’t need to stop being monstrous or become more palatable to the rest of the world. This is a ‘Beauty and the Beast fable where both get to be beautiful and neither has to be beastly.’ Instead, ‘he transforms Elisa’s otherness — symbolized through the scars on her neck — into a power.’
Because love and sex and desire don’t need to stick to those rigid cisheteronormative rules that so often define romance, especially in Hollywood. To finish with a quote from del Toro himself, ‘love is fluid, like water, and takes the shape of whatever it needs to take.’
NEXT TIME… Barbie