I’ve had some time to think about The Shape of Water, which I saw a few weeks ago, and I have decided the thing that most impressed me about the film was not the beautiful composition, nor the aesthetic, nor, even, the commentary on how society attempts to break the outsiders among us into something palatable and how wrong that is. It was the way del Toro treated sex. Specifically, a woman’s sex.
Mild spoilers to follow for The Shape of Water.
The movie, for those who haven’t seen it, opens with a sequence of the main character, Elisa, getting ready for her day at the super secret oceanic labs which are going to house the much-advertised fish-man. A very important part of Elisa’s evening is one that is most certainly not shown in film. Each evening, Elisa makes her lunch, runs a bath, climbs in, and masturbates. She does this one screen twice during the film, and each time the shot is framed in such a way as to do two things: to make it clear what she is doing, and to make it clear that you are not the target of it. This scene is not designed to titillate you, not exactly. It’s designed to make you acknowledge the complexity of being in a female body, a female who likes sex.
That last part is a very interesting aspect of Guillermo del Toro’s last two films, Shape of Water and Crimson Peak. In both of these films, the protagonist has been an adult woman. In both of the films, the protagonist has been in sexual situations – a romance arc being integral to the plots of both.
In neither film is the main character sexualized in the way that we, the audience, expect.
Crimson Peak is a good example of this. As the Bustle points out, at no point is Edith Cushing portrayed in any of the ways we expect women to be portrayed during sex. For one thing, she remains mostly out of view, her nakedness taking second fiddle to Thomas Sharpe’s. For another, she is clearly consenting, and her pleasure is accounted for. Del Toro manages to strike a careful, tender balance in this film. Edith is not the wide-eyed virgin, nor is she the ravenous whore. She is a woman, and Thomas is a man, and they are learning and experiencing together.
While the Bustle article crows that this is a new age for Hollywood, I for one have not noticed a sudden dearth of movies featuring the male gaze. I still find, far too often, moments in film that leave me lost and frustrated as I watch a rounded, interesting character become heavily objectified by the camera lens, or worse, a single woman installed as sexual window dressing to men’s struggles. (Kingsman is a terrible example of this, but I digress. We’re not here to talk about people who do this wrong. We’re here to talk about how del Toro does it right.)
Elisa’s role in this film could have easily been one of being unnecessarily sexualized. There were several moments that played off of the viewer’s expectations by skirting close to this but refusing to give into it. Aside from the initial masturbation scenes, one of the most notable ones is the scene where Richard Strickland traps Elisa in his office and makes advances towards her which are decidedly unwanted. This situation could have easily devolved into physical sexual violence. It does not.
In another notable scene, Elisa and her fish-man, unnamed for the duration of the film, have sex and are interrupted by her neighbor, Giles. While in many monster movies, the virginal female lead is the unwilling victim of the monster, in this case Elisa intentionally seeks out, befriends, and then seduces her monster. She is always the one in relative control – the fish-man cannot survive without her help. When Giles walks in on them, he sees a vision – Elisa embracing the fish-man, making clear, unashamed eye contact. Her naked body is not shown, and her position is not obviously erotic outside of that nakedness. The fish-man’s own form hides her, just as Thomas’ form hid Edith. It is not that we haven’t seen her skin before. It is that we see her, in all of her erotic glory, without any attempt at shame or degradation. Elisa is here because she wants to be. You will get no blushes, no guilt, from her.
There were several other things to love about this film. The decision to have a mute protagonist was something I worried about initially, but found myself very much enjoying. I love watching ASL, though I don’t really speak it. And my absolute favorite scene of the movie was also one that was heartbreaking – Giles being rejected at the pie shop was a well-functioning piece that drew clear parallels between the struggles of LGBTQ+ folks and racial minorities within society, with Giles finally speaking up in the face of racial injustice when he realized that it came from the same hegemony that had made his own life so miserable. There’s a lot that can be said about that, and I’m not the person to write it. And of course, as with every movie, there were flaws. I won’t list them here, but I recognize there were things that might have been done better.
All that said, I enjoyed the film, and I look forward to Guillermo del Toro’s next work, and his portrayal of the women in it.