Fairytales for Troubled Times: The Shape of Water

"Fairy tales were born in times of trouble, in complicated times--when hope felt lost. I made The Shape of Water as an antidote to cynicism. For it seems to me that when we speak of love--when we believe in love--we do so in a hopeless way. We fear looking naive and even disingenuous. But Love is real--absolutely real--and, like water, it is the most gentle and most powerful force in the Universe. It is free and formless until it pours into its recipient, until we let it in. Our eyes are blind. But our soul is not. It recognises love in whatever shape it comes to us."
 - Guillermo del Toro

I had wanted to begin my series on Guillermo del Toro's fairytales with Pan's Labyrinth, but it may have been inevitable that I would start here. Every other Friday I have the flat to myself, and every other Friday I sit down and watch The Shape of Water. When I was a child I would watch Beauty and the Beast, then rewind the tape and watch it again, and again; the more things change, the more things stay the same.

I realised in one of these many re-watches that del Toro 'princesses' resonate much more with me than Disney princesses. The princesses of del Toro's films aren't royalty, but they are special: creative, smart, courageous, kind, observant, magical, and above all else, unusual. Elisa, our princess without a voice, lives, like many other princesses, in a tower, but she is neither trapped nor alone. She befriends other societal misfits and lives a quiet life of routine, apart from the norm but not unhappily so.

In my last post I talked a bit about fairytale storytelling devices; all forms of storytelling come with their own tools, and film is no exception. One of my favourite film storytelling devices is through colour usage, and del Toro loves to use colour to tell the story in his films. In The Shape of Water, the colours are red and green: red to show love and the modern world, and green to show the future. When Giles's red Jell-o ad is rejected, he's asked to change the colour of the Jell-o: "That's the future now: green." Strickland's choice of Cadillac is green, for the "man of the future" that the salesman takes him to be, but his firm rejection ("It's teal,") betrays the fact that he is not, in fact, headed for the future. Elisa's apartment is green all over, showing her to be from the beginning set apart from the modern world and ready for the future. Bits of red begin to creep into her wardrobe as she falls in love with the Asset: red shoes, red headband, red coat. When she loses her red shoe at the end of the film, it represents her leaving the modern world behind and embracing her future in green.

Losing that shoe also ties it back into the fairytale realm. Elisa is naturally the beauty in this Beauty and the Beast tale, but there's also something of Cinderella about her. She leaves behind her working-class life to live with a god in the somewhat magical realm of the sea: a sort of rags-to-riches, not rich in money but rich in what really matters.

The tagline for this film is "A Fairytale for Troubled Times," meaning its own Cold War setting as much as our own current troubled times. Giles vehemently objects to the news being on the television, yelling, "I don't want to see that," at the footage of riots. It is certainly an understandable reaction even to this day; footage of horrible things is always difficult to watch and hear about. But it is necessary. What affects part of humanity affects all of us; we are none of us isolated. ICE raids tearing families apart, a new mass shooting in schools across America every day, refugees being turned away from safety, the poor and sick dying when told they are fit to work and have their benefits cut: it is hard to hear, it is hard to imagine, and it is easy to push it away and try not to think about it. Elisa begs Giles to help her save the Asset from being killed, and he waves her away, saying, "It's not even human." She responds, "If we do nothing, neither are we."

This nature of humanity transcends the simple definition of who is human and who is not. Strickland is human, but he is not humane. The Asset is not human, but he is humane. It is not in biology that this quality lies, but in action, in caring about the people around you, in valuing life and love and kindness above physical similarity, in wanting the best for others, in recognising that everyone is inherently worthy of having their needs met and that it requires nothing of them other than to exist. Giles realises this at the pie shop when the man behind the counter refuses to let the black couple sit down before throwing Giles out for making an advance, and he then agrees to help Elisa.

The differences between Strickland and the Asset illustrate the nature of humanity. Strickland is viscerally disgusting; he is, quite literally, rotting. He is concerned more with appearance than anything else. He is condescending and dismissive of anyone he considers his lesser while focusing on projecting the image of a strong, masculine family man to the world. Whereas Strickland wants to portray himself as a protective patriarchal figure, the Asset actually is protective and healing. He responds with kindness and friendship to Elisa because that's what she offers him. He protects his friends and defends them from their enemies. That real strength, not just the baseless appearance of it, is what makes him humane and Strickland inhumane.

This "Beauty and the Beast" doesn't end with the beast's transformation, but resurrection. Death and resurrection are common fairytale themes, perhaps most notably in Sleeping Beauty-type tales. Death is also ever-present in del Toro's fairytales; the mind goes directly to Pan's Labyrinth, of course, but Cronos, The Devil's Backbone, and Hellboy are also captivating stories infused throughout with themes of death. The Shape of Water is a rare almost-completely happy ending; the villain dies, the heroine gets her prince, and they swim off into the sunset, happily ever after.

Whether Elisa is transformed or returned to what she was always meant to be is intentionally left open-ended, and either way, the resurrection is what's important. What is transformed, one hopes, is the world Elisa and the Asset left behind them; Giles learns to care about the wider world, and Zelda learns to fight for what's important. Elisa becomes a symbol in the story Giles tells about her: a symbol of courage, a symbol of kindness, and a symbol of love.

And, in case you were wondering, today is one of the every other Fridays, and I am absolutely re-watching this again tonight.


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