'The Shape of Water' and the Politics of the Oscars

'The Shape of Water' and the Politics of the Oscars

By Marion Herve

Between reboots, prequels, sequels, stories strongly anchored in our reality, Marvel and DC’s films, biopics and period films, it sometimes feels like the film industry have been less imaginative for the past few years. Sure, there is a plethora of non-Hollywood productions that are more creative (e.g. Attraction by Fyodor Bondarchuk, 2017 or A Monster Calls by Juan A. Garcia Bayonna, 2016), but the fact remains that when I head to my local cinema, fantasy and wonder seem very absent. This is why I was full of hope and excitement when I went to see Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film: The Shape of Water. I loved it, every second and detail of it, despite its plot holes and gruesome scenes. If you want to hear about how amazing and beautiful it is, I advise you to read one of the numerous praising reviews that have been written by better writers and more experienced film critics than I am. Instead, I propose here to look beyond the adult fairy-tale and think about the ideals and ideas it vehiculates. Will they be enough to grant it the Academy Award for Best Picture?

Cinema is political. It is a political tool, it can be at the heart of social issues, and it has its own internal politics. Nothing showcases this better than the Oscars Ceremony, highlight of the awards season, celebrating Hollywood’s ‘best and whitest, sorry…brightest’. These words were spoken by Neil Patrick Harris when he hosted the ceremony in 2015. This opening statement perfectly synthesises what is fundamentally wrong with Hollywood and the Academy: it is all so white. Beyond the question of skin colour, it is all so white, all so male, all so heterosexual, all so full of inequalities, etc. I won’t talk about how little women and people of colour are represented in categories such as Best Director, since so much has been said about this already. However, I want to turn your attention to what makes a Best Picture winner:

Obviously, artistic qualities (i.e. acting, directing, costumes, aesthetic, etc) are essential, but the question of the subject of the film is just as important and, I believe, ultimately one of the most decisive criteria. Indeed, it seems that to win this prestigious category, films must not convey feelings, concepts and ideas that are too controversial. It can be thought provoking, but not too much; it must not get too far from what we might call the morally acceptable. (For example, in 1995, Forrest Gump won Best Picture even though Pulp Fiction was nominated in that same category. I am not particularly fond of either of these films but, whilst I recognize the talent that went into making them both, I do believe that Pulp Fiction was, in many aspects, a more interesting film.) Themes such as the importance of family (e.g. The Godfather), rebelling against the authorities for a worthy cause (e.g. Spotlight), homage to Hollywood (e.g. The Artist), period and historical films (e.g. Shakespeare in Love, The King’s Speech), or heroic stories where good and evil are clearly defined (e.g. Gladiator), seem to dominate. Social critiques or other thought provoking content are often present one way or another (e.g. Moonlight, Million Dollar Baby), but there always seems to be a limit to them, a line they must not cross. For example, American Beauty - a dark comedy showing a character questioning the conventions of his life and American society – ends with the death of the main protagonist, in a way victim to his own rebellion. Considering this, it is not surprising that the producer with the most nominations for Best Picture is Steven Spielberg (10 nominations) as such popular themes are very present in his work. With this in mind, let’s consider the values carried by The Shape of Water, how they are expressed, and whether they fall in the frame of the Oscars’ politics.

In his film, Guillermo Del Toro has approached two topics that are particularly relevant today: the first being the welcoming of difference. Indeed, at a time when immigration policies are constantly gaining strength and nationalist/extremist movements arise around the globe, the matter of acceptance of the foreigner/the stranger is extremely important. In this film, all the protagonists are ostracized due to their difference: Eliza has a hard time communicating outside of her limited circle of friends, due to her mutism; Zelda is rejected by society, due to the colour of her skin; Giles has trouble fitting in where he once did, due to his age; and Dr Hoffstetler seems unable to gain the respect of the people surrounding him, as he does not fit the cliché of the successful male of his time. Other important issues are also approached, such as homophobia. All these people live in their own world, and their interactions with the real world are difficult. Eliza and Giles live above a cinema, they are passionate about films and switch channels when the news is on. They (unsuccessfully) reconnect with the real world at work or when they venture to the pie restaurant, and always their difference seems to catch up with them. The lab, where Eliza and Zelda work, is an interface between their world and reality, between monsters and the politics of the Cold War. The enthusiastic scientist sees his passion for life crushed by this historical conflict, Zelda escapes the hard reality of her marriage, and Eliza here finds a way to gain money and to fit in enough to survive. As a realm that does not insist on confronting reality, it shelters her.

On the opposite side, Stickland, the main antagonist, is very anchored in the real world. His life is a clichéd list of social achievements: the perfect family with an obedient wife and two kids, the new shiny expensive car, etc. He fits the model, so much so that he does not seem to have an identity or thoughts of his own. He is also a victim of this society, blindly obeying orders and being a pawn in a conflict that is beyond him. His obsession with achievement and fitting in is what ultimately leads him to become a human monster, to madness. Guillermo Del Toro praises the difference, kindness and open-mindedness of the people who are outside the main frame of society. He promotes inclusion as well as subtly denouncing how someone can lose their humanity by following social prestige and choosing to ignore or make an enemy of the people that do not fit in this frame.

Del Toro’s second major topic appears to aim specifically at women. When talking about cinema today, in the light of the Weinstein affair and what it unearthed, it is impossible not to question the place of women in film. There is quite a lot that could be said about women in The Shape of Water, both positive and negative (mostly positive though), but I have chosen to focus on Eliza. Eliza is asleep on the couch that she uses as a bed, the alarm rings, she wakes up, starts pouring herself a bath, goes to the kitchen, put eggs in a pot, takes the egg timer with her, gets in the bath and masturbates. We then see her dressed, polishing a pair of shoes with attention, before she leaves her flat and hops on a bus. These few minutes were enough for me to relate to Eliza, to identify in a way that very few films have ever made me relate to a female character. By being ordinary, Eliza appeals to me more than any supposedly badass female super hero or cartoon princess. The very short moment when we see her undress and masturbate in the bath largely contributed to this identification. When she undresses, she simply drops her robe on the floor as the camera shows her whole body from behind. There is nothing sensual about this, no camera movement seeming to tease the revealing of her body; she is simply a woman who undresses, it is just a body. A body that is not here to be an object of desire or a model of perfection that one must admire and aspire to. A simple human body. Again, when she masturbates there is no pointless and unrealistic eroticism in the action. Her movements are quick, focused, she is a woman who knows her body and is efficiently giving herself pleasure. This identification reinforces the admiration for her brave actions in the film, as we cannot help but think: ‘We are similar, but I am not sure I could do that’.

Interestingly, I have read a series of negative reviews, all written by white males, some of which were deeply disturbing. Kevin Maher in The Times talked about this aspect of the film as a box on a list that got ticked by Del Toro: please the feminists. Meanwhile, David Edelstein inferred: we see her masturbate, therefore she must have a strong sexual appetite; and Rex Reed wrote: ‘Other misunderstood characters materialize to stretch the one-act material to a time-wasting two hours and distract Eliza from her daily erotic fantasies’. Dear Lads, I am sorry that women’s sexuality is such a bother to you.

So, can The Shape of Water win the Oscar for Best Picture? It seems that, in some aspects, this film could be a serious contender. With its artistic qualities, its numerous references to Hollywood history and its fight between good and evil, The Shape of Water does tick a lot of the boxes that please the Academy. However, when you consider its political stands and the way they are expressed, the film might be crossing the line.

Guillermo del Toro is here precisely targeting what is fundamentally wrong with Hollywood: the lack of diversity. (For reference, only 28% of the people who will be voting for the Academy Awards are female and only 13% are people of colour. [1]) It cannot be certain whether Hollywood will appreciate such a strong critique of its own glaring flaw. Moreover, the talent of Del Toro resides in not delivering his message through passionate speeches and grand heroic actions, but with subtlety and through everyday actions, which ends up giving it more force due to its constant presence. Finally, The Shape of Water features some interspecies sex and I am not too sure whether the members of the Academy will find that acceptable! So, no, I do not believe The Shape of Water will win the Oscar for Best Picture. Yet, I may be too cynical and hope to be agreeably surprised by the results.

 

(If I were to guess the winner, I would probably say Three Billboards or Darkest Hour, though Phantom Thread and Lady Bird are also likely winners.)


Marion is a French Feminist and film buff. Harpy are proud to provide a platform for Marion's well-researched and thoughtful opinions, as she confessed that she had been toying with the idea of writing critically for some time.

Title image sourced via TryBooking

 

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