The Strange Genius of The Shape of Water: A Brief Deconstruction of 2017’s “Best Picture”

Thomas Machacz

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The Strange Genius of The Shape of Water: A Brief Deconstruction of 2017’s “Best Picture”

By Thomas Machacz

2017 was a weird year for the Oscars. And for films in general. In one year we got a “social horror” film from a black perspective with Jordan Peele’s Get Out, an all-out feminist, female-directed superhero film with Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, and… some movie about a mute lady who falls in love with a fish guy? And it won Best Picture at the Oscars?

Let’s dive into that weird fish-romance movie.

The Shape of Water tells the story of a good-hearted mute woman who accidentally finds and falls in love with an amphibian man while working at a top secret government facility in the 1960s. Stay with me. Her two best friends are Zelda, her wisecracking black co-worker, and Giles, a closeted gay artist who lives next door to her. Already we have a unique setup. Not only is it the story of a woman who falls in love with a fish man, but it’s told from the perspective of three people who are systematically silenced, figuratively and literally, by society, based only on who they were born as.

It’s easy to thoughtlessly categorize Elisa as just a “mute woman”. And the movie understands that. That’s exactly what the film’s villain, the upstanding government agent Strickland, uses against her. Instead of taking the easy road and making her character out of a series of labels, the film deliberately shows her as a strong, free-thinking person. We see her living on her own, making her own decisions and even shamelessly accepting her own sexuality, which is so rare in any Hollywood movie. She’s a fully-fledged human being, played to perfection by Sally Hawkins (who totally should have won Best Actress; sorry, Frances McDormand).

Zelda and Giles are also greatly unique characters, in that their identities as a woman of color and an unsuspecting gay man actually matters to the story, rather than just being ignored or swept under the rug. It’s Zelda’s immense personal strength that allows her to (SPOILERS) help Elisa in breaking the amphibian man out of the facility. It’s her status as a minority that allows her to slip under Strickland’s radar during the investigation. She is not relegated to the all-too-common roles of comic relief or put-upon minority. The same goes for Giles, whose status as a closeted gay man allows him to connect with Elisa’s mission of entering a relationship with the amphibian man. Their identities matter, an inspiring message that is highly underrepresented in Hollywood media.

Combine these perfectly-portrayed characters with gorgeous costume design, stunning production design (what I wouldn’t give to live in Elisa’s apartment), and breathtaking cinematography and you might just have a masterpiece on your hands.

So who would think up such a strange story? And who would be crazy enough to make a whole movie about it?

The Shape of Water is the latest project from director Guillermo Del Toro, whose previous movies include Pacific Rim, the Spanish-language fantasy film Pan’s Labyrinth, and the Hellboy movies. In other words, Del Toro is no stranger to the strange. His films can easily be identified by the presence of monsters, of whom he’s an unabashed fan of, thanks to growing up on Universal horror pictures like Frankenstein and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. He’s also this writer’s favorite living director.

Del Toro represents something really special to me. He’s someone who clearly has a passion for what he does, and he rarely apologizes for it. He knows exactly the kind of stories he wants to create and where his unique capabilities can take him. He’s also someone who comes off like a giant, jolly human Totoro, which certainly doesn’t hurt his character. Del Toro won Best Director at the Oscars this year, and, after seeing the film, it’s not hard to see why. Who else could take on such an outlandish setup and bring it to such an overwhelmingly beautiful level?

Del Toro has been famously overlooked by the Oscars in past years, most accrediting that to the science fiction and fantasy genres of his films, both of which are often shunned by the Academy. Yet, The Shape of Water picked up 13 nominations, more than any other film this year. So what makes this fantasy movie different?

It’s important to recognize that the Academy’s nominations have always been very heavily influenced by politics. For example, in 2005, the gay romance film, Brokeback Mountain, was generally agreed upon to be the best film of that year, even winning the Golden Globe for Best Picture – Drama. But when the ceremony came, the title of Best Picture of 2005 was given to Crash, a clunky and stereotypical drama about race relations in the city. It was a surprise to many. Critics of the Oscars pointed out a hesitation to give the golden statue to a film with a gay relationship front and center. They seemed more comfortable choosing the poorly-written movie about “race” rather than the actually insightful one about “sexuality”. The point is, the Academy votes for the movies they think will look good winning, rather than unanimously choosing the best film every time. The Academy’s decision to put The Shape of Water in the forefront of the awards season buzz is a rare case in which giving a film Oscars not only looks good, but is warranted.

Even without considering the Academy’s decision to single it out as “The Best Picture of 2017”, it is my firm belief that The Shape of Water  is one of the most unique and beautiful films ever made. If you couldn’t tell from the rest of this analysis, I would absolutely recommend seeing it (assuming you’re old enough, of course. It’s rated R for a couple very well-warranted reasons). If you don’t think you could believe a romance between a woman and a fish man, I challenge you to hold judgement until after you’ve seen the film.