It is a truth well-known – well known to would-be writers, to stressed humanities students, to anyone who writes or blogs – that some projects seem more formidable, more demanding than others. For me, some are also more exciting than others. What I am about to attempt – the film analysis, if I can call it that – that I’m about to write, sits at that complex nexus of those two statuses, at the point of conjuncture between tantalizing and daunting. All of that is, of course, a credit to the film I’m about to write about, a film that re-configures the monstrous and re-imagines the monster movie with delicate, aesthetic aplomb and attempts to alter, completely, what “monster” means – what it means to be a monster, to be close to the monster, and to use the term “monster” at all. Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water inspires me with a sort of excitement and terror, because there’s so much to write about in this rich, innovative film, but because I’m writing about such a unique piece, I want to proceed carefully and, to quote Aerosmith, “I don’t wanna miss a thing.” In some strange ways, I suppose it is far easier to write about a mediocre movie than a really fantastic film, especially when some time has passed, when one is afraid – if that one is me – that she’ll forget critical parts of this film. Which is all to say that I write this piece three days after seeing The Shape of Water and I write with the personal belief, as a student of film and “the monster,” so called, that this film’s probably doing more than I can write gracefully and cohesively about in one blog post. Nevermind that; I take this project seriously enough that writing about The Shape of Water has been nagging at me since I saw it, infiltrating all of my free moments, and so I’ll give it a try. And I’ll start by saying The Shape of Water was nothing like what I expected it to be, and it’s a really phenomenal film – one that says surprising, complex things about what it means to be a monster. (P.S.: Spoilers to follow)
Sally Hawkins plays Eliza Esposito, a sophisticated, mute woman with a strong intellect and a rich inner life. Eliza works as a cleaning woman at a scientific research plant where she uncovers, with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spenser) a “creature” so called, with green-teal skin, kind, receptive eyes and a surprisingly muscular, human build. The villainous lab worker, Strickland (Michael Shannon), maims and mistreats the creature at the laboratory, applying physical abuse simply because the creature appears an unusual albeit rather beautiful amalgam of man and monster. If Shannon has his way, the creature will be killed and subjected to an autopsy so that American scientists – and the military – can learn about his anatomical structure. Eliza, however, is immediately attracted to the creature, makes a conscious effort to befriend him, and enlists Zelda and her friend Giles (Richard Jenkins) to save the creature from Strickland’s unfounded hate and malevolence. The group concocts and elaborate scheme to save the creature, and romance between he and Eliza ensues. But, ultimately, the vicious Strickland corners and shoots Eliza and the man-monster. However, the graceful monster – both aqua-colored and aquatic – is also a healer, and, if one character in the film is to be believed, he may be a sort of god. Once he heals himself from the gunshot wounds, he takes Eliza to the sea with him, where he heals her. Presumably the two will live together, underwater, in peace and sequestration.
At the risk of narrating my own writing (which I’m doing, rules of writing be damned) I don’t really know where to start with this film. The first “trace” of the monster we see is at the beginning of the film, when Strickland emerges with a bleeding hand and two fingers that have been, presumably, bitten off, and have to be surgically re-attached (an effort that never works; they develop a sort of gangrene and plague the pain-pill popping villain until he tears them off himself at the film’s conclusion). Our inclination, then, is to “label” the monster as monster, to fear his violence as much as some of the film’s characters do, until we see that Strickland is both violent and cruel, and that the monster responds very kindly to Eliza, who immediately shows him, well, how best to say it – camaraderie, respect, and affection. Foremost on this film’s agenda, then, seems to be to re-configure the monster movie by re-imagining the monster; at the very least, it makes us ask (to me, at least, perhaps because I ask this question all the time) what is ‘the monster,’ and what are the implications of using that signifier to describe someone? The film’s real monster, after all, is clearly Strickland, who has a special electric-shock stick he uses after chaining the sea creature to beat him, just for the sake of inflicting violence. The real monster, who – again, it is suggested later – may be a god, in many ways really isn’t monstrous at all (with a few exceptions, to be explored in a bit).
The film grants the monster some characteristics that we might consider typically “human” and, in doing so, it both humanizes the monster, de-monstracizes him (I completely made that word up for my benefit) and disrupts the culturally constructed binary between the human and the monster. Again, the sea creature is far more human than Strickland. As such, the villain’s distance from the monster is one way that this binary is broken; the monster is more like the “good guys” than the bad. But the “monster,” so-called, also learns to speak with his hands like Eliza does. By learning Eliza’s sign language, he enters her rich inner world; he is more human because of his language capabilities, but also because he has the capacity to relate to Eliza, to enter her world order through her use of language, to display emotion, to empathize with her. Indeed, he is capable of human love and romance; the story that emerges between the woman and the monster is none less than a love story, a love story in which “the monster” becomes an apt, attractive symbol of seduction and romantic love. There is nothing at all disconcerting about watching Eliza fall in love with the monster, and their easy love further ruptures our culturally-constructed binary between the human and the monster. Giles describes the monster as “beautiful,” and in some scenes, he’s posed as seductive. In the end, true to classic princess-prince stories, Eliza becomes the damsel in distress, only this time, it is the monster who saves the maiden, not the prince. Furthermore, the monster, in this film, is a healer, again inverting our typical conceptions of monstrosity – beliefs that tend to assume the monster exists solely to do violence against the human body.
There is so much to say about this film; even as I include information, I become aware of what I’m leaving out. It bears noting, however, that while the monster is highly humanized, part of the way that he ruptures the established binary between that-which-is-human and that-which-is-monstrous is by remaining at least a little monstrous for all his humanity. One will note, first of all, that while his romance with Eliza is palpable and believable, while their blossoming love is evident, he is still green and blue. When removed, for too long, from salt water, he begins to get sick, and his skin becomes more infected, making him look, well, more monstrous. It’s easy to forget, by the film’s conclusion, that he has bitten off a man’s fingers, but one tends to remember, eventually, and no matter how warranted violence against an inherently violent, vile man may seem, it is violence nonetheless, and not gun violence or knife violence, but a kind of violence that happens from one body to another, that positions the monstrous as, in some ways, stronger and more capable – it is a biting that occurs, which is a very stereotypical monster maneuver. Beyond that, in one important scene, the monster leaves the salty bathtub in Giles’s house where he’s hiding out, finds a cat, and chomps its head off like he’s biting into an apple. Giles does not blame him; “It’s who he is,” Giles says. While this is an act of empathy and understanding, it’s also a suggestion that our very lovely, very loving creature is, on some level, just that and still that—he is a creature, he is the “not-us” or the “not-like-us” because we pet cats and love them (or at least stay away from them), and he bites off their heads. (Although, it should be noted, after proper instruction, he too pets the cats and refrains from eating them, showing intellect, control, compassion, and a surprising obedience that extends far beyond the typically monstrous).
What I would say, ultimately, is that this film points toward a category crisis while lambasting our need to categorize, or to create detrimental categories that may not signify anything present and real. It loudly proclaims that there is nothing inherently “true” about monstrosity – that the monster is a cultural construct. And just as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen in his book Monster Theory argues that the monster represents a category crisis, so Del Toro suggests that the monster is a category crisis. The film takes place in earlier American History (maybe the 50’s), and the amount of hate and violence inflicted toward the creature is troubling, and a troubling sign of the times, the attitude against anyone who wasn’t a white male. There is the sense in scenes of violence, and throughout the film, not only that it’s dangerous to be afraid of those unlike us, but that when we create labels like “monster” or “creature” we validate performing acts of unspeakable cruelty, baseness, and malice. While I argue, on the one hand, that the creature in this film disrupts a cultural binary we’ve created that places humans on the one (preferred) side of an imaginary continuum and the monster on the other (persecuted, hated, feared) side, and while it may re-invent, from one lens of argumentation, what it means to be monstrous, it also makes us wonder why we choose these categories to begin with; what is the benefit of determining who is and isn’t human? What are the drawbacks? What mistakes can we make in the process? In this film, Strickland and his scientist companions come close to killing, or trying to kill, a god, all because in a way, the creature kind of looks like something out of a good monster movie.
On top of speculating what this film indicates about what contemporary culture will do with the so-called monster in years to come – how much more human the monster will become to us, as viewers, in other films, if this trend continues – I’m also interested, in this film, in what it means to be close to the monster, for indeed closeness to the monster means something very different in this film than it does in other films. Being near the monster, in some films, can be a trying experience. It drains Jonathan Harker of health and vitality and gives him gray hair in Braham Stoker’s Dracula. In The Lost Boys, getting to know the monster turns Michael into a monster. But in The Shape of Water, if one is to be anywhere in the film, one rather wants to be near the monster. Those who oppose the monster in The Shape of Water tend to be malicious and bigoted, violent and cruel. Those who become close to the monster? Well, they are something rather different.
As I said of Eliza earlier in the film, she’s a sophisticated, intelligent woman with a rich inner life. While she connects with the monster because they are both “different,” – something she explains to Giles mid-way through the movie – being Eliza, as herself, and being Eliza, as close to the monster, represents, to some extent, the best of both worlds – her strong sense of self coupled with her closeness to the monster represents a simultaneous turning away and an embrace, individuality and camaraderie, the ability to love life and to abscond from it. Eliza and Giles are lovers of art and culture; Giles is an artist, and the pair watches film together as they tap dance with their feet. There is much to celebrate, about life and friendship, in the film, and in that sense it’s a really beautiful portrayal of life’s possibilities. Eliza is private but forms close friendships, and Giles, Zelda, and eventually the monster are fantastic friends to her. In one scene, Zelda risks unspeakable punishment by keeping Eliza’s secret – that she has stolen the monster – but she does it anyway. At the same time, when Eliza meets the monster they form their own inner world; in one scene, she closes the bathroom door and lets water fill the room, until they’re floating together in an aqueous enclosure of sexuality, desire and seclusion. And at the end of the film, the monster knows he cannot stay; he must go back to the sea, and he must take Eliza with him, which of course, he would not do if he thought she would be unhappy there.
And it is perhaps this turning away, as I write, that interests me. The film is, on the one hand, (and I grant this will sound incredibly cliché) a sort of celebration of individuality. It makes one, to some extent, want to cast of the shackles of society and build her own interior aquatic enclosure, metaphorically speaking. I think the film’s a pretty strong “fuck you” to a certain type of power and established order in America, and it’s really classically beautiful. But as beautiful as some elements of Eliza’s life are, as lovely as the film is, at the end of the film, to exist together, the pair must leave. To be close to the monster – even the monster that disrupts the binary between human and monster, that makes us question what categories are and what it means to be human – one must turn away completely from that which is known, from the ordinary, from every day, from society. One must be willing to quit, to go to some unknown elsewhere, to hide, to sacrifice.
Which is all to say, I think, that even as Del Toro presents us with an incredibly human monster, a monster that makes us wonder why we even establish boundaries between that which is human and that which is monstrous, he’s well aware that society – then, when the movie takes place, and now – isn’t ready for that disruption, and isn’t ready for a creature that questions those boundaries. To exist near the human-monster is to leave completely, to submerge oneself beneath society, beneath the villainous scientists and the laboratories, but also beneath one’s best friends and Shirley Temple films. Being with the monster, in this film – being with the human-monster – is a very real sacrifice, even as it is, presumably, a great gift for Eliza. We assume she lives happily ever after; the film practically tells us so, even as it pretends to be ambiguous. But we are left wondering why the beautiful creature, he who transgresses, who violates the disjuncture between the human and the monster, is forced to abscond. Perhaps I have touched on that answer in this essay – we are not ready to rupture these divisions, these categories – but why this is so remains another question entirely.