The Shape of Water: an unconventional love story… or is it?

I was first in the queue to see The Shape of Water. Within 30 seconds of tickets being released for the preview at London’s BFI, I was entering my card details – and feeling extremely smug.

I missed the premiere in Venice (unfortunately the day I was there meant Clooney’s Suburbicon was the only film on offer), and so was anxious to see what I assumed from the reviews was a powerful, life affirming cultural intervention into the cinematic landscape.

Oh.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of lovely elements to the film (the score, the friendships, the production design..). But take away the water, and the gills, and what remains?

Let’s unpack the plot…

  • Woman is ‘alone’/ invisible to society.
  • There is a man shaped hole in her life (“I am incomplete”).
  • Cue man. He’s not conventional but he’s a hunk of sorts. He definitely doesn’t disappoint.
  • Woman’s life now has meaning. Her existence is validated.
  • Woman is whole. Dead but whole. (Indeed, throughout cinematic and literary history, female characters are punished by death for expressing sexuality outside the realms of domestic / patriarchal structures).

What’s more, the fish man himself ultimately conforms to physical expectations (is this the real threat?). It could be said that the emphasis on his physical power and ability to ‘satisfy’ Eliza tramples over the more subtle and nuanced aspects of his character. The result? The threat/success of the fish man is defined by toxic masculine standards – he is a worthy challenger to the film’s alpha male.

Next time we see films described as unconventional – let’s make sure the characters defy convention. Let’s allow men not to be defined by toxic male standards. And let’s allow women to exist in their own right as human beings, without being defined by their relationship to men.

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