The Shape of Water is certainly not the best film I’ve seen this year, even if it’s the best “Best Picture,” though it’s important for me to start by saying that in the moment, in the theater, I got what it was going for. Under the direction of Guillermo del Toro, a very specific America is conjured out of a cesspool of radioactive greens: pies look like slime, Cadillacs look like toothpaste, and the gelatine parfait is picture-perfect. His long-standing obsession has been creating monsters that reveal our own monstrousness, working with ghosts and fairies and mechanical nightmares in order to expose their underlying humanity and estrange us from our contempt of difference and the cultural (or supernatural) Other. So too with the Asset, the Amphibian Man (the always extraordinary Doug Jones) at the center of his latest offering, whose rejection of all pretense and duplicity, a natural guilelessness mirrored exclusively by mute cleaning lady and latent amphibophile Elisa (Sally Hawkins), highlights the myriad ways the large cast of side characters inadvertently contribute to their own alienation, dehumanization, and hypocrisy. Out of the crucible of 1962 Baltimore and the neon paranoia following the Cuban Missile Crisis, del Toro fashions an American aquarium viewed through a verdant rime of scum, with the bioluminescent pulse of love the only sign of life justifying our scrutiny.
But the sheer totality of its method is perhaps why, a couple weeks after seeing the movie, I feel as though it has gotten away with something rather dire. On the record, del Toro claims the film derived from wanting to tell a story about “love of the other. Embracing the other, as opposed to fearing the other.” His concerns are explicitly presentist: the working subtitle of the movie was “A Fairy Tale for Troubled Times,” establishing a firm analogy between the social unrest splintering mid-century America along lines of race, class, sexuality, disability, gender, nationality, and (apparently) species and the anxieties that are playing themselves out today. What seems to be missing from del Toro’s analysis, though, and perhaps what I find lacking in the film upon reflection, is a clearer diagnosis of the problem as such, which might justify the otherwise hasty proposal of “love of the Other” as a putative cure. In other words, it is comparatively easy, as del Toro does here in his screenplay with Vanessa Taylor, to anatomize a host of quintessentially American cruelties and castigate the sinners. But the hard part is convincing said sinners not only that love won’t tear them apart, but, quite to the contrary, it probably should.
The abortive relationship between Elisa’s neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins) and the owner of the local franchise of “Dixie Doug’s Pies,” serves as an entry point. Giles and Elisa have one of the most tender relationships in the film, a friendship that transcends linguistic limitations through a deep affection for old Hollywood movies. But as an aging gay man, Giles has his eye turned toward other opportunities for affection, centering on the young man only identified as Pie Guy (Morgan Kelly). Elisa reluctantly accompanies him on one of his trips across the street for a particularly custardy breakfast, remarking that the pies themselves are not very good. But pie is not the point. The point is conversation, a life made a little more “vivid,” as Giles describes the pies, going doe-eyed over his crush, whose Southern drawl (“Y’all come back, y’heah?”) and baby blues hold even more promise when Giles finds himself recognized and remembered. Might he be Dixie Doug himself, in the flesh? No: “There’s thirty-two Dixie Doug’s all over the country,” with pies and paraphernalia shipped nationwide from Albany. Even Pie Guy himself is an invented extension of the owner’s manual and its scientifically precise affection. He doesn’t even really have an accent. He’s from Ottawa.
Is it really any surprise when, upon Giles’s return, he finds the simulacrum of love has its limits? Glum and plied with a free slice of key lime pie, Giles makes his move, reaching out a hand to touch Pie Guy’s. He recoils in horror. “This is family restaurant,” and that attitude likewise extends to the young black couple who come in off the street and try to sit at the counter – “Just take out. You can’t sit there. You want something, you order, you take it out.” Homophobia and racism converge in a single monster, whose pretended charm is merely the effect of decent training and the need to make a sale. Artificial affection, at the expense of a more genuine “love of the Other,” contributes to so much quotidian horror, entirely without the Amphibian Man bleeding on the floor of a government facility at the end of the bus line. His assistance in the rescue and eventual release of the Amphibian Man is by comparison more wholesome – it leaves us, at least, feeling a little more nourished.
Fine. Except we can’t really let Giles off the hook either. There are things he has done that seem equally slimy. For one thing, he actually hates the pies – in a particularly good sight gag, Elisa sticks out her tongue to show its thorough greenification, then goes to put her uneaten half slice in Giles’s fridge only to find it full of half-eaten slices, all key lime. Anxious over his age, he dons a toupee in the hope of making himself appear younger, his vanity so complete as to prompt him to try and push up his birth year on a fake driver’s license he forges for the plan to liberate the Amphibian Man. These tiny hypocrisies obviously pale in comparison with the more symptomatically egregious hate Pie Guy eventually exposes, but The Shape of Water invites us to see them as different in degree rather than kind. What kind of a love can be founded on dissimulation? Giles himself says it best, in his scathing critique of the key lime pie: “Bright, fake-colored shit. Made by no one. Eaten by no one.” Something about this seems wrong, though. Even if Giles never quite finished a slice, he was more than willing to take a bite. And in Genesis, that’s all it really takes. More damningly, his “love of the Other,” his deepening relationship with the Amphibian Man, proves rewarding in a way that only feeds his vanity and self-deception: he gets his hair back, and a few fewer wrinkles.
The chief scientist assigned to study the Amphibian Man, Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) affords us another case in point. A secret agent will naturally have to deal with dissociation and duplicity on a daily basis, as loyalties and affections constantly need reaffirming. Hoffstetler (who later introduces himself as Dmitri) has a scientist’s ardor not only for the Amphibian Man, but for knowledge itself. In the advantageous position of assessing and studying the creature, Hoffstetler comports himself as an ethically admirable scientist even as he works to undermine international progress toward detente. But his superior, an agent named Mihalkov (Nigel Bennett), fails to see why there is any interest in learning about or even minimally protecting something that could yield an American advantage. Their approach to inquiry is existential and nihilistic: “We don’t need to learn. We need Americans not to learn. They don’t learn, we win.” On the one hand, rejecting this philosophy and acting out of a desire for greater knowledge spurs Hoffstetler into action. Rather than fulfilling his mission to kill the creature, he finds Elisa’s plan to liberate him a ready-to-hand means of sparing his life and offers his assistance. Eventually, under the false pretense of extraction, his supervising agents will try to kill him for his disinterested pursuit of knowledge.
But on the other hand, can we really point to Hoffstetler’s attitudes as motivated by the kind of relationship that del Toro suggests we cultivate, a “love of the Other”? Both a simple yes and a simple no yield dissatisfying results. If yes, then “love of the Other” boils down to nothing more than a kind of resource extraction. Whereas hatred and fear of difference culminate in the desire to destroy it for the good of one’s own tribe, Hoffstetler’s love cannot fully shed the trappings of exploitation, a need to instrumentalize an “Other” for the sake of those who might benefit from keeping him alive. If no, we have to ask what Hoffstetler really does love instead, which takes us into decidedly less savory territory beyond knowledge for knowledge’s sake. As he bleeds out following a brutal interrogation by the film’s main antagonist, he quotes the first stanza of a Soviet nationalist poem by Anna Akhmatova: “I’m not one of those who left their land to the mercy of the enemy. I was deaf to their gross flattery. I won’t grant them my songs.” Coming from Hoffstetler, living in exile in the United States, Akhmatova’s declaration that she remained in Russia after the Bolshevik revolution seems an ironic reaffirmation of enduring love in a country willing to lodge a bullet in his gut. More importantly, though, it’s also a testament to his even greater hatred of the America he conspired against, despite its equally nihilistic commitment to squandering opportunities for science.
At the very least we can sideline Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), right? Zero love of the Other. He is the film’s unabashed boogeyman, a domineering sexist and racist who takes perverse pride in having been made a little closer to God’s image than Elisa or her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Wholly antipathetic to the Asset in his custody, his antagonizing leads to the loss of two fingers that grow steadily blacker and more necrotized over the duration of the movie, inconveniently squirting blood as he tries to make love, an aggravation to be masked with painkillers he pops like candy rather than treated. Strickland has no need of an Other to define himself. He prides himself on his self-assurance and self-containedness, the canary yellow kitchen straight out of an advertisement with the standard two-point-three children and beautiful beaming wife with whom he has relatively mechanical and silent sex. Prompted by the perennial question about jetpacks as the way of the future, he responds “That’s right, Son. The future is bright. You gotta trust in that. This is America.”
Yet del Toro subversively proposes that love of the Other is also what is most missing from Strickland’s life. The intensity of his search for identity, the preacriousness that threatens constantly to rupture the contour of his humanity, strike fear into his very soul. Advertising helps: “You are the Man of the Future,” says a Cadillac dealer, opening the door to self-knowledge, “You belong in this car.” But once the asset escapes, he grows increasingly desperate to cling to whatever paltry substance of self he has managed to accrue. Wondering aloud, in existential abstractions, to his superior Hoyt (Nick Searcy), “A man is faithful, Sir- loyal, efficient all of his life. He has certain expectations in return. And he fails, then- once. Does that make him a failure?” In equal abstractions, Hoyt paints a bleak picture of the fate that might befall such a man, under the circumstances, “Our universe will have a hole in it with your outline. And you will have gone on to an alternate universe. A universe of shit. You will be lost to civilization. You will be unborn. Unmade. Undone.” What he does not realize, but what we already know, is that Strickland already lives in this universe, and has been struggling to fill that hole, like all of us, since the day he was born. His trouble, by the film’s logic, is that he only knows how to fill it in with Self.
Which brings us, inevitably, to that other “incomplete” person, or so she describes herself. Desperate to articulate her love for the ultimate Other, her intense fascination with the Amphibian Man who eats her eggs and shares her love of Alice Faye, Elisa frantically signs to Giles how “He doesn’t know what I lack… He just sees me for what I am.” Unlike any of the other characters in this film – save her aquatic paramour – Elisa never pretends to be anything other than what she is. Her curiosity and interest in the Amphibian Man initially reflect the same disinterested eclecticism that explains the constitution of her circle of intimates, a refusal to judge a possible friend for their sexual proclivities, their race, or their gills. She also, rare for an onscreen heroine, demonstrates considerable sexual agency, down to a couple of (potentially gratuitous) masturbatory moments in her bathtub, as synchronized to her egg timer. Contrary to detractors of Elisa’s character that see her as one-dimensional at best or consumed by a desire to be desired at worst, Elisa strikes me as comparatively self-assured, open to the possibility of warmth, friendship, and humanity’s pleasures while still confident enough to be alone without being lonely. (By comparison, Zelda’s self-assuredness only highlights the gratuitousness of her marriage to the despicable Brewster, while also hopefully causing us to reflect on why a Black woman may not have the same privileged access to singledom as a white woman.)
Her love for the Amphibian Man, however, leaves her wanting – not only wanting him, once he is “liberated,” but wanting to be something else. In the film’s most manipulative and emotional sequence, Elisa transcends her own muteness to burst into a stirring rendition of “You’ll Never Know,” complete with black and white soundstage and choreography alongside her lover. In this flight of fancy, it is easy to forget that the actual object of her affections has merely substituted one prison for another substantially smaller tank. Confined to Elisa’s bathtub, the Amphibian Man succumbs to a slow decay. His wheezing becomes more pronounced, his eyes less lustrous, his skin more mottled and ashen. Through these details, it should be clear that even Elisa’s love of the Other, for all its supposed purity and despite its ethical motivations, are not entirely unmotivated by self-satisfying concerns, and not entirely unharmful or exploitative of that Other. (In a scene that apparently didn’t make final cut, Zelda tells Elisa the story of a turtle she tried to save from being run over, removing it to a nearby tree, only later realizing “maybe the worst place to keep it- maybe the place it was running from was that pond under that camphor tree. I didn’t care. I just did what I wanted with it…”) Agonizing over the need to release him back into the flooding river, Eliza suffers a twist of fate that, characteristically for del Toro, may or may not allow for her happily ever after.
Giles’s voice-over narration would have us believe that we stand to benefit from this love story by becoming vessels for it to inhabit – that we as viewers, in fact, are the containers that determine the titular shape of water. The sentiment is admittedly beautiful, but what exactly does it mean? In del Toro’s world, no one can escape the hypocrisy woven into the fabric of American culture, despite their best intentions. In looking toward the Other as a safe repository for our love, though, we risk doing it substantial harm by hoping that our extant Selves will survive the relationship intact. Love of the Other is, after all, so tough a sell because it necessarily entails a certain amount of ego-shattering and dissolution, a questioning of fundamental principles that give our own lives coherence in the hopes of coming through the trial of love reassured of a new perspective. As the cultural theorist Judith Butler so eloquently puts it, “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel.” What is missing from The Shape of Water, in my view, is this capacity for being thoroughly undone – it wants too much to believe that, through love of the Other, we can reaffirm what we knew we always were. The scars were gills all along, waiting to be opened by a tender and magical caress.
Perhaps this is why, in the end, del Toro finds he cannot make his monster anything less than a god. For the whole of the movie, the motives and desires, the griefs and passions, of the Amphibian Man remain a nearly inscrutable cipher. We know he has some affection for Elisa. We know he finds eggs delicious, though perhaps not as delicious as cats. The Other here is a limit case of intelligibility, who reveals his luminosity – and his regenerative qualities – only after establishing a sufficient amount of trust to offer them as gifts. But even this relationship is an exploitative fantasy. Without history, without trajectory, without community, the Other here can only be understood in terms of human needs by a thoroughly dehumanized lot. In seeking the contours of the human, The Shape of Water encourages us to seek the fundamental humanity of an inhuman Other, to project the humanity its characters crave onto a signifier conveniently emptied of most of its inherent meaning. Del Toro calls this fantasizing “love.” But I worry that the real Otherness of this Other – what philosopher Emmanuel Levinas called alterity –that which cannot be safely assimilated to humanity but which marks it as most distinctly different, that which it is most difficult to empathize with but most potentially shattering and illuminating, remains denied, lost, un-looked for.
At the end of the movie, Giles recites a poem that he is always reminded of when he thinks of Elisa, whispered by someone in love, hundreds of years ago.” Its content doesn’t really matter; like all love poems, it is about the idea of love, and being in love with the idea of love. In the weeks after the film’s release, dedicated sleuths were determined to track down its source, so moved that they wanted to seek out other work by the same author. They came up empty-handed, because del Toro, of his own admission, made it up (though Reddit has offered Rumi as spiritual inspiration). In this sense, the poem serves as a perfect allegory for The Shape of Water itself. The film is an exquisite and beautiful fragment, moving in its economy and its affirmation that similarity persists through strangeness, plausible in its yearning. It is also missing the one thing that seeking difference despite similarity, rather than merely forging common ground, stands to expose to the patient and empathetic viewer: truth.
Next week: Dee Rees’s Mudbound.