Friday, 9 February 2018

IN THEATRES: The Shape of Water

Baltimore, 1962. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a cleaner at a top secret government facility. Unable to speak due to an injury during childhood, she communicates via ASL. Her only friends are co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her neighbour, the closeted artist Giles (Richard Jenkins).

Elisa's life is complete, until she meets the gill man (Doug Jones) imprisoned in the bowels of the complex where she works. As their bond grows into something deeper, Elisa begins to come up with a plan for them to be together forever...

Bloody hell, this was a harder review to write than I thought. How do you write about a movie that in so many ways you loved, even when it contains elements which are fundamentally problematic?

I watched the movie a few weeks ago, and I have been trying to unpack how I felt about it. On the one hand, I loved it.

First, the lead character. Elisa is a female protagonist with agency, not just in terms of pushing the narrative forward, but in terms of how self possessed and independent she is. She knows who she is as a person, and is appears to be content with her life - that includes being able to satisfy her own needs as a sexual being (the 'eggs' scene).

Even before her aquatic lover appears, Elisa is complete - she is not looking for another half, for someone to 'complete' her or satisfy her emotional and sexual needs. In its up-ending of traditional romantic stereotypes (in Hollywood terms), this characterisation feels more radical than her sexual relationship with the gill man (spoilers).

The movie's radicalism is not confined to its sexual content (although that is a part of it). Not only does the Cold War setting provide a layer of distance (the movie is basically a fairy tale), but also provides the perfect setting for a story about the struggle for humanity, empathy and love.

The supposed figures of traditional Americana, Michael Shannon's Colonel Strickland, is a repressed shell of a man - empowered and imprisoned by being a part of the white patriarchy. He has a family yet they are just ornamental, like the car he buys halfway through the movie. He has them because that is what is expected. He is as dead and lifeless as his re-attached fingers.

Richard Jenkins' Giles, is a man trapped by his time, both professionally (he is an illustrator of advertisements who has been made redundant by photography) and personally. In one of the film's most affecting scenes, Giles attempts to make a pass at the young man who works at a local shop. The man rejects him and then ejects an African American couple who come into the shop. My description makes it sound clunky and obvious, but del Toro's staging and timing is so elegant that it feels tonally appropriate. 

Throughout the movie, del Toro does not try to hide or obscure the racism, misogyny and homophobia running through the time period. If played wrong, the juxtaposition of the fantastical romance with this real world context could have been horrifically tone deaf, but del Toro never hits the wrong note. 

Ultimately, this is a story about love through acceptance rather than - as in so many romantic narratives - change. Acceptance is really the underlying theme of the movie. It sounds silly - but so much about this movie sounds silly - yet this idea of acceptance, or more specifically the unwillingness of people to accept each other for who they are, is so universal and so well developed here that it never comes off as diadactic. 

On a technical level, this movie is perfection. From the settings to the camerawork to the score, every element is perfectly pitched.

I loved Alexander Desplat's score. I cannot remember another score in recent times that stands out as a genuine piece of memorable, evocative musical accompaniment. So many scores nowadays go for simple themes (ala Hans Zimmer). With The Shape of Water, there were so many beautiful melodies. It felt like a real classic romantic score, with specific themes for characters and an understanding of the specific moods and tones that fit every scene perfectly.

So much of this movie is great, that it bugs me that on one angle The Shape of Water does not feel particularly radical, and that is in the realm of disability.

I do not bring it up that much on this blog, but I have a disability, and I happen to work in the disability sector. As a disabled person and someone who consumes a lot of media, I am well aware that there is a shocking absence of representations of disabled people in almost every form of media.

This is especially true of Hollywood, where disabled people are either used as a signifiers of evil, weakness or sympathy. They are never allowed to exist as characters who happen to have a disability. We can run through tons of examples, and the ways particular disabilities are used to represent specific characteristics, but this review is long enough as it is and there is a whole internet filled with scholarship on ableism in the media.

Watching this movie reminded me of every time I watch Susan Kohner's performance in Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life - a wonderful, heartrending performance that gets me every time, but at the end of the day Kohner is a white woman playing an African American character. And that's a blot on that movie.

Sally Hawkins is wonderful in the movie. I loved her performance to death, but I spent the movie wondering what could have been had del Toro been genuinely boundary-breaking and cast a disabled actress in the role. There are probably heaps of actresses with hearing impairments or disabilities similar to the character's, and it is disappointing that they did not get a shot. It has been about 30 years since Marlee Matlin, a deaf actress, won an Oscar for playing a deaf character involved in a romantic love story. There are people out there who are capable of playing these roles.

The other issue I had is based around the ending. Spoilers if you have not seen the movie (why not?) the movie ends with Elisa and the gill man escaping into the sea. Initially it looks like she is going to drown, but then the gill man kisses her, and via whatever magic he possesses, the scars on her throat turn into gills.

To me that started to ring alarm bells. One of the major obstacles in perceptions of disabled people is the idea that we lack something, that we are in need of improvement to be fully functional in society. Elisa growing gills struck me as off, and it made feel a bit conflicted about the way the movie viewed its disabled protagonist.

After I read Elsa Sjunneson-Henry's review, that the movie's flaws in respect to its representation of disability really began to stick out. Check out her review - she goes through the film in more detail, and I would just end up echoing the same points.

I still love this movie, but this is a major problem that seems to have ben skated over by most of the reviews. My hope is that criticism like this helps nudge filmmakers toward representations of disability that do not uphold the ableist ideology that we are fighting against in the real world.

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