Since the release of Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” I’ve encountered various conversations and opinions from movie fans and non-movie fans alike. I’ve heard it debated whether del Toro was paying tribute with this film to his favorite movies, to the aesthetics of Jean-Pierre Jeunet in “Amelie” (2001), and whether it didn’t end up being a remake of “Creature from the Black Lagoon” directed by Jack Arnold in 1954. I’ve even heard “The Shape of Water” described as a pseudo-intellectual reinterpretation of “Beauty and the Beast” for adults.
In truth, the film doesn’t reference other films with a knowing wink, and it’s too similar to fall into the homage category, a category which has an immediate distancing effect on lovers of the seventh art.
Industry permitting, however, my theory is this: Throughout the history of humanity, via the broad branches of the arts, we’ve managed to express the social and political situations of our times in creative ways. The arts have been a means for furtive denunciations that can’t be made openly, for fear of risking our lives.
With that in mind and taking into consideration the fact that Guillermo del Toro is a successful Mexican in the Trump era and all that that entails — xenophobia, racism, machismo, a wall between the United States and Mexico — could the award-winning filmmaker want to offer us something more than an aesthetically pleasing piece of work?
Consider the facts. The lead character is a mute woman (of Latino origin?); a straightforward analysis of her character could interpret her as the enforced silence of half the population in our patriarchal society. Her best friend is a gay man and painter, kept in the closet by modern technology and homophobia. Her work colleague, a black woman, is a victim of psychological abuse at the hands of her husband. These three characters represent the so-called minorities, each one with their own story over and above the film. In short, fleeting moments, in scenes that appear forgettable because they are seemingly unimportant or unromantic, you find details of how they’ve been relegated into obscurity and silence by society.
Take a look at the villains. The first being Colonel Strickland — white male, U.S. military, heterosexual, a picture postcard of a 1950s American family. Remember, my theory is that none of this is by chance. Next, we could talk about the Russians; we’re in the middle of the Cold War after all. But there’s a key villain we nearly miss — General Frank Hoyt, who unveils what’s really important for the U.S. government, building for us the idea that it’s not about being a decent human being, that there’s no room for mistakes, and, most importantly, that the image of the respectable man and the happy family established in the United States is just a facade. It’s the image it uses to sell itself to the world, the famous “American Dream.”
Do you see what I’m saying? It’s impossible that all of this was by accident. Think about it for a minute. Donald Trump’s slogan, “Make America great again” and the era in which the film is set, the Cold War (the end of the 1950s, beginning of the 1960s).
And, of course, we have the wonderfully defiant Dimitri, who rebels against both governments and their thirst for power from within, putting his ethics as a scientist first and, ultimately, giving up his life.
Finally the creature from a lake in South America. Brazil. A god in its native village. Half-human, abducted and disappeared by the military. An entire scene is devoted to torture by an electric cattle prod, the favored weapon of military personnel trained at the School of the Americas.* This surely must recall the thousands tortured and disappeared in Latin America in the era of military dictatorships trained by the U.S. government.
So, with all this in mind, will the film tempt us to look back and ask ourselves whether or not we want to allow history to repeat itself?
The author is an actress and performing arts graduate.
*Editor’s Note: The School of the Americas, currently the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, is a United States Department of Defense Institute in the U.S. that provides military training to government personnel in U.S.-allied Latin American countries.