BLACK We see the Out of Frame logo, and an animation that suggest increasing the volume. SEAN The Shape of Water is a curious, romantic, and deeply... deeply strange film. It would be difficult for any description to do it justice, but it's essentially a dark science-fiction fairy tale about a mute woman who falls in love with an amphibious monster that explores themes of individuality and authoritarianism... Set in 1963 against the backdrop of the cold war and the civil rights movement. And right now... It's up for 13 Academy Awards. SEAN Honestly, I couldn't be happier. Its writer & director, Guillermo Del Toro, is one of the most imaginitive and talented filmmakers working today. He's directed everything from big action movies like Pacific Rim and Hellboy, to powerful Oscar-winning dramas like Pan's Labyrinth. And no matter what, Del Toro's unique voice and masterful perspective as a visual artist is always crystal clear. His films are constantly exploring themes of innocence and originality in worlds dominated by crushing, often violent authoritarian rule. Yet they're also magical and surreal, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. And they almost always feature terrifying creatures who often turn out not to be the monsters they first appear to be. SEAN For example... Pan's Labyrinth is set during the Spanish Civil War and tells the story of a young girl, Ofelia, as she tries to escape her life as the step-daughter of a brutal fascist general in Franco's Spain. Ofelia is surrounded by death and warfare. Between the Communist guerrilla fighters and the Fascist army, an evil step-father and a sick mother, Ofelia's life is bleak until one day a Satyr visits her and explains that she is actually a princess in exile from a magical fairy kingdom. But... Where I think most filmmakers would turn this into a light fantasy, stripping the world of danger and diving headfirst into a bright whimsical setting, Guillermo del Toro adds whimsy without pulling punches. In Pan's Labyrinth, Ofelia's war-torn, authoritarian reality is horrifying and dangerous, but even in the fantasy-world, the tasks she must complete in order to enter the magical kingdom are terrifying too. There is no path to freedom for Ofelia that doesn't involve risk and require her to overcome genuine fear. This means the storytelling has meaningful stakes -- we know what happens if Ofelia doesn't succeed, and we believe that it is possible for her to fail. Only her innocence and her desire to escape the evils of her world are enough to compel her to action. Another part of the beauty of Pan's Labyrinth is that it's never clear whether or not she's dreaming or hallucinating, or if the fantasy world is actually real... Either way, Ofelia's experiences are heartbreaking and tragic to the very end. And that's what makes it so good. For years, if you'd asked me what my favorite dramatic or foreign film was... I'd tell you Pan's Labyrinth. The Shape of Water shares many of these same themes. It tells the story of a lonely woman, Eliza, who works at a top secret government facility as a janitor. Eliza is beautiful and sweet, someone who day dreams and dances down the stairs, wishing she could be like Ginger Rogers or Audrey Hepburn. But... She can't speak. With the exception of her two friends, Eliza is treated by everyone as somehow... incomplete. One day, a new "asset" arrives in a heavily secured tank full of water. Eliza approaches the tank and catches a glimpse of what appears to be a merman. A fish creature with gills and scales, but also... Hands, legs, and human proportions. Tasked with cleaning this part of the facility, Eliza has access to the room that has become this Amphibian Man's prison. Like Ofelia, she is brave, innocent, and curious, so in spite of the apparent danger she approaches the monster in order to find out who... and what... he is. He turns out to be curious and gentle in response. Over time, Eliza teaches him to communicate through sign-language and music, and they develop a bond without ever being able to say a word to each other. But this is all in sharp contrast to the way the government -- and particularly Agent Strickland -- treat this amphibian man. Ostensibly, the facility is full of scientists, and designed for covert military research. The government's interest in this creature is to study him -- and vivisect him if necessary -- in order to learn more about how he breathes in and out of water, hoping to use this knowledge to gain another advantage in the Cold War. Strickland uses an electric cattle prod to torture the amphibian man, Meanwhile, the Russian government is attempting to break into the facility and steal or kill the creature -- mostly working on the theory that if the Americans have him, then he must be destroyed. The only character that treats the amphibian man as a person is Eliza -- because, of course, she too is used to being treated as less than human by others. When she learns that both the American and Russian governments are going to kill her new friend, she decides to take action -- so she risks her own life to free him from his chains and help him escape the grip of his authoritarian captors . In one of the most beautiful moments of the film, Eliza persuades her friend Giles to help her rescue the Amphibian Man by saying... ELIZA "When he looks at me, the way he looks at me... He does not know, what I lack... Or - how - I am incomplete. He sees me, for what I - am, as I am. He's happy - to see me. Every time. Every day. Now, I can either save him... or let him die." It's this kind of beautiful story-telling that grounds Del Toro's work. Yes, this film is about a bizarre magical creature -- a merman that may or may not be some kind of South American god. And yes, it's about a mute woman who falls in love with him. It's whimsical and sweet, it's often funny and romantic, but... at the same time... it's visceral and terrifying and in some ways, very real. The Russian and US Governments are vying for power and control over a sentient life with zero regard for his own autonomy. Their operatives are cruel and sadistic, content to brutalize or murder anyone who stands in their way... Including Eliza. I won't give away any more of the film here, but the effortless ability to seamlessly blend a believable, dark reality with brilliantly original fantasy is what makes Guillermo Del Toro one of the greatest storytellers in cinema. And in the end... The Shape of Water gives us a lot to think about. It tells us that love can transcend barriers of language and appearance. It says that creatures that look like monsters can be humane, while humans can be monsters. It reminds us to treat every individual with dignity and respect -- regardless of whether or not we perceive them to be different from us or lacking some of the things we take for granted. But I think most of all, The Shape of Water teaches us that there is a kind of power and magic that comes with freedom and it will always be out of reach for those who see other people as objects to control, imprison, or destroy. BUMPER: OUT OF FRAME LOGO SEAN Thanks for watching this episode of Out of Frame. Let me know what you thought about The Shape of Water. Leave a comment below and let's start a conversation. And if you want to see more video essays like this, hit that subscribe button and check us out as @FEEonline on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. See you next time!

Out of Frame


About this show

Video essays that explore the intersection of art, culture, and big ideas written & produced by FEE's Director of Media, Sean W. Malone.

The Shape of Water Dives Into Individualism

March 2, 2018

The Shape of Water is one of the strangest films you're likely to see this year... But according to FEE's Director of Media, Sean Malone, it's also one of the best. On this episode of our video essay series, Out of Frame, we talk about how The Shape of Water fits into writer/director Guillermo del Toro's larger body of films featuring strong anti-authoritarian, pro-individuality themes and why it deserves its 13 Oscar nominations.

Written & Produced by Sean W. Malone
Edited by Jaye Davidson & Sean W. Malone

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