Water has no shape, takes the form of its container, and becomes what you make of it. The sheer naivety of the metaphors, parables and political allegories in this hydra headed multi-academy award aspirant is mind boggling. ’The Shape of Water’ is a monster movie set in the early 1960s. It is about a creature from the lagoon that is captured by the US military and stored in a pool at a guarded Government facility in Baltimore. It would be a merman, had it not been for the legs it possesses. We discover later that this amphibian man can even get it on with a woman, when it parts the scales between its legs to reveal an erect penis. The sexually bizarre seems to have become more acceptable in the higher echelons of Hollywood storytelling.
The film is an ungainly parody of many things. First, we see the race for technological advancement during the cold war. There is much talk of the competition in the space race between the US and the Soviet Union. The captor of the waterman, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and his boss, General Frank Hoyt (Nick Searcy) have conversations that seem a hilarious take off from the absurd and satirical dialogue in ‘Dr. Strangelove’. They talk of the creature as ‘the asset’ and fear that the Russians will get to it. Sure enough, the Russians have an embedded scientist at the facility called Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose real name is Dimitri Antonovich Mosenkov. He is visited by his Russian comrades, wildly exaggerated KGB types speaking in sub-titled Russian.
Then there are multiple issues of race, sexuality, sexual orientation and disability, all of which ’The Shape of Water’ miraculously covers, and simultaneously too. The film is set in the time just before the assassination of JFK, so we see footage of the civil rights movement and the violence of that period. Two of the female protagonists in the film are janitorial staff at the highly secured facility. One is mute and the other is African American. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) speaks in sign language and she is the person who rescues the amphibian man and takes him home to live in her bathtub, plays music for him, teaches him a little sign language and eventually cohabits with him.
Elisa has only two friends, one at home and the other at work. At home she is friendly with Giles (Richard Jenkins), a lonely and middle aged repressed gay who is attracted to a good looking young man at a takeaway restaurant, but is rejected by him. Elisa’s friend at work is her co-worker and fellow janitor, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). She too develops empathy for the waterman and collaborates in his grand escape. Her own marriage is to a caricature of an African American male who does no work in the house, seldom talks and acts subservient to the strong white man from his wife’s workplace who barges into his home and threatens Zelda.
Apart from its distorted representations of every single majority and minority from the American spectrum of colour, ideology and sexuality, the film, as a romantic fairy tale, fails to move on an emotional level. How on earth can one be stirred by a love story between a woman and a wild creature from the water, who, on one occasion, even eats Giles’s cat? Without doubt this is the most kinky Hollywood film nominated for the Oscars. It may be amusing to watch in parts, but American critical opinion has taken it far too seriously.