Dear Fellow Critics,
My pick for top film of the year usually says something about the kind of year I’ve had, or how I responded to its highs and lows. However, if I stuck to choosing favourites that way, every year I’d just be lauding movies where women sensationally and violently lose patience with the men around them. This year I thought I’d switch things up with a sappy, soggy tale of romance, and a love letter to misfits and outcasts everywhere.
Guillermo del Toro’s visually stunning Beauty and the Beast-meets-Amelie tale was panned by a few of you, and sure, in a way it’s uncomplicated and uncontroversial in its messaging… except it isn’t. Your tastes might lean more towards complex stories with multifaceted, conflicted characters, and on the surface, you could read The Shape of Water as cute but superficial, but you’d be wrong. As adorable and quirky as it is, del Toro brings a deep sadness to his story that you might not fully appreciate right away.
Rather than a fairy tale reimagined, I thought the film took the conventions of the fairy tale and scraped away at the wallpaper, so to speak. I enjoyed the lighter moments like the musical number and the mischievous eroticism that winks its way through much of the plot, all eggs and gushing water, but the ending was tough. I walked away with a deep sense of melancholy, and it took me a while to figure out why.
SPOILER ALERT (Seriously, I’m fixing to talk about the ending…)
We get the requisite fairy tale ’happily ever after’, but I had a hard time seeing it as an actual happy ending. In stories where one Other falls in love with another Other, we don’t really think past the couple getting together, and I always feel like we miss one glaring point; In choosing a life together, one of the two must sacrifice life as they know it and leave their world behind.
I’ve seen The Shape of Water most commonly compared to Beauty and the Beast, but there’s definitely a touch of The Little Mermaid in the ending. I never understood how Ariel sacrificing hanging out under the sea (because Darling, it’s better/down where it’s wetter, etc.) to marry some good-looking dullard was a win for her. And while Ariel and Belle both had a chance to spend time in their new worlds and establish that they ’fit in’ before they get to ’happily ever after’, I had no such reassurance as to Elisa’s fate. Obviously, she and her six-packed water bae can’t remain here in our world because we are not kind to Others, especially when they hook up with other Others (stay with me), but how do we know she’ll fit into his world any better than he fit into ours? Elsa’s loneliness is so beautifully wrought throughout the film that I questioned whether the ending gives us enough of a guarantee that she will never be lonely again (which I took to be the story’s focus).
The Shape of Water is my favourite film of 2017 for the bittersweet complexity of that ending. It is, in other ways, a simple story beautifully told. Maybe I’m over-thinking it, or maybe it was just refreshing to watch love blossom without misogyny being clumsily couched as romance (and if Hollywood were to replace roughly 43 percent of its leading men with non-verbal amphibious creatures I would be totally cool with that), but I feel like any film that left me that conflicted and still completely enamoured with it deserves emphatic props all around.