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How The Shape of Water, a romance between a mute woman and a fish-man, could win Best Picture

Our critics roundtable discusses the Oscar chances for Guillermo del Toro’s watery fantasy-romance.

The Shape of Water
Can The Shape of Water win it all?
20th Century Fox

Each year, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences nominates between five and 10 movies to compete for Best Picture trophy at the Oscars — its most prestigious award, and the one given out at the very end of the night. What “best picture” really means is a little fuzzy, but the most accurate way of characterizing it might be that it indicates how Hollywood wants to remember the past year in film.

The Best Picture winner, in other words, is the movie that represents the film industry in America, what it’s capable of, and how it sees itself at a specific point in time.

So when we look at the nominee slate for any given year, we’re essentially looking at a list of possibilities for the way Hollywood will ultimately characterize the previous 12 months in film. And one thing that’s definitely true about the nine Best Picture nominees from 2017 is that they exhibit a lot of variety.

There are genre films and art films, horror films and history films, romances and tragicomedies. And thinking about what the Academy voters — as well as audiences and critics — found enticing about them helps us better understand both Hollywood and what we were looking for at the movies more broadly this year.

In the runup to the Oscars, Vox’s culture staff decided to take a look at each of the nine Best Picture nominees in turn. What made this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?

In this installment, we talk about Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, a lush fantasy-romance between a mute woman and a fish-man. The film is one of the favorites for Best Picture, after raking in acclaim all season and picking up the most nominations of any film at the Oscars.

Alissa Wilkinson: I am surprised by how much I loved The Shape of Water. I’m not usually a huge fan of Guillermo del Toro’s movies, and this one feels like it embodies many of the issues I have with them: a moderately underdeveloped mythology (by design, of course, but it often frustrates me), characters who veer toward caricature, and themes that sometimes seem a little too obvious.

But man, I just loved this movie. I thought for a while that I may have just been in the right headspace for it — the slight delirium that hits around day four of a very intense film festival — so I went back to see it a few months later, and I had the same reaction.

This movie gets me right in the gut. It’s beautiful to look at, its caricatures somehow work for me, and I find its central romance, a story of two creatures who are so totally unlike one another that they somehow are the same, moving. I walked out and was certain it would at least be nominated for Best Picture. (Del Toro has been picking up Best Director awards and is up for the Best Director Oscar as well.)

There’s a lot going on in this film. What do you think attracted the Academy voters to it? Why have people (critics and audiences alike) responded so strongly to it? What is it about The Shape of Water that landed it in the list of Best Picture nominees?

Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in The Shape of Water
Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in The Shape of Water.
20th Century Fox

Todd VanDerWerff: I had a similar reaction to you, Alissa. While I tend to like del Toro’s movies (both The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth are big favorites of mine, and there are very few del Toro movies I outright dislike), I wasn’t expecting to love something this slight as much as I did. Something about it feels like a magic trick, like if I think about it too hard, it will ruin the fun. But thinking about it too hard is what they pay us to do, so I’ll roll up my sleeves.

Some might find it mildly baffling that the Academy embraced a movie about a romance between a woman and a fish-man to the tune of 13 nominations (and a very, very, very tentative status as the “favorite” for Best Picture). I did when I first heard the buzz about the film. But pull aside the immediate premise and The Shape of Water reveals itself as three things the Oscars love: a swooning love story, a story about how bad prejudice was in some bygone era, and a tribute to the magic of the movies. Seen in that light, how could it not get 13 nominations?

Truth be told, I find the love story just a touch underdeveloped; del Toro dispatches with most of it in a montage of his heroine, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), feeding the fish-man (Doug Jones) hard-boiled egg after hard-boiled egg. When it’s confirmed that the two have fallen for each other, you can feel the strain just a bit. But del Toro and co-screenwriter Vanessa Taylor advance the love story so rapidly for a purpose: They need to get the fish-man out of government custody and into Elisa’s apartment, where their crush can blossom into something more real. And it’s here that the movie really works for me.

Something I think is a little underrated about del Toro is how smart he is at both casting and knowing how much of the load of his fantastical premises each individual actor can bear. He knows that Jones, his longtime collaborator, can somehow emote beautifully from beneath a rubber costume, and he knows that Richard Jenkins (nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role as an aging gay artist who’s Elisa’s best friend) can keep the story grounded in a warm humanity.

The Shape of Water
The Shape of Water.
20th Century Fox

But he also knows, instinctively, that Hawkins can nimbly navigate between the fantastical and the grounded, giving the movie both its joy and its melancholy, sometimes within single scenes. The movie simply doesn’t work without her, and she’d be my choice in the Best Actress category.

There’s plenty more to discuss, but I’d like to touch, briefly, on the movie’s love of classic Hollywood. It’s come under some criticism for its supposed similarities to the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (who has raised these concerns as well, though he somewhat bafflingly points to one specific scene from his Delicatessen, when much more of the “doesn’t this remind you of?” critiques have focused on his later film Amélie).

On the one hand, I sort of get this; on the other, I think it ignores just how thoroughly del Toro shows his hand when it comes to the classic Hollywood stuff that he is ripping off. He’s not trying to trick us; he just has a deeper knowledge base than a lot of the viewers watching the movie (including, admittedly, me).

But I still smiled a bit to see that the movie playing in the theater beneath Elisa’s apartment was The Story of Ruth, given that tale’s refrain of “Your people shall be my people.” If ever there were a time to express that sentiment, it’s when you’re falling in love with a fish-man.

Alex Abad-Santos: We discussed this in the Call Me by Your Name roundtable: The Academy is not that great at recognizing LGBTQ movies that have happy endings and aren’t tinged with tragedy or pain. But if Shape of Water wins, I’d count that as the Academy recognizing a queer love story with a happy ending.

As for Hawkins — I truly, deeply love Saorsie Ronan and Frances McDormand, but I think Hawkins takes it. Todd’s right, this movie doesn’t work without her, and I’m not entirely sure who else could have done the role of Elisa justice.

You two are better than me when it comes to old Hollywood, and all I know is that this movie made me want to watch Creature From the Black Lagoon. What were the references that stood out to you? What do you think its message was about “old” Hollywood? Did it spark a new love for creature features?

Alissa: I’ve never had a very good eye for classic Hollywood references, but I did write pretty extensively about The Story of Ruth when I reviewed the film, and I think that parallel is really striking. I haven’t heard del Toro talk about it much, but the whole concept of the story of Ruth from the Bible is that a broken-hearted Moabite woman named Ruth is brought from a faraway land by her bereaved Jewish mother-in-law Naomi to live with Naomi’s people, who eye her warily. But one of them — a man named Boaz — comes to love her. And eventually, Ruth and Boaz become great-grandparents to King David.

However, the “your people shall be my people” line from the biblical book of Ruth — which is often quoted at weddings — is actually something that Ruth says to Naomi when she tells her that she will go live with her. And it’s that kind of sacrificial love, the leaving of comfort and plunging into the unknown, that is all over The Shape of Water, whether it’s between friends or between lovers. I found it quite moving both times I saw it for that reason.

Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water
Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water.
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Also, being a total nerd, I hunted around to figure out what “the shape of water” actually meant. It turns out that [shoves glasses up on nose] it’s an idea from Plato, who thought that when water was totally pure, it was an icosahedron, which is a 20-sided polyhedron. Water — the source and sustainer of life on this planet — has many faces, in other words.

And so, posits The Shape of Water, does humanity. Michael Shannon’s character is despicable specifically because he only considers people like himself (white, male, American, ostensibly Christian) to be worthy of respect.

This is one reason I think The Shape of Water has a fighting chance at winning Best Picture, because if there is anything that Hollywood loves today — in a way that approaches platitude — it’s the story of people who are different finding goodness in one another. (In a really goofy and not nearly as good way, this is also the theme of the burgeoning megahit The Greatest Showman.)

Todd, did you see any other references in the film? And what do you think about that black-and-white dance sequence? Did it work for you?

Todd: I loved the dance sequence, which is straight out of the works of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (and I’d love to see Astaire dance in a full fish-man costume). It was when the movie transformed from one I really liked into one I loved, when it somehow found the other gear I knew it had in it but had yet to see.

But I also loved the movie’s frequent visual nods toward the works of directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, especially their classic ballet-centric film The Red Shoes. The apartment in that film serves as the basis for Elisa’s apartment in this one, and I love how del Toro occasionally uses wide shots to display how Elisa and Giles’s apartments probably used to be one space, thanks to that big window, now chopped up. It’s like they’re two halves of the same person.

Similarly, there are some really great TV references here and there, especially when we find that the children of Strickland (Michael Shannon) are watching The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, a show that is wrongly remembered as an example of the kind of white-bread Americana that Shannon’s character is meant to represent but was surprisingly subversive once you pulled back its most superficial qualities. It was a show about teenagers, for one thing, and it featured characters who openly questioned the status quo. The forces that would change the world were hidden in plain sight in the early ‘60s — and they were hidden in plain sight on Dobie Gillis too.

Michael Shannon in The Shape of Water
Michael Shannon in The Shape of Water.
20th Century Fox

Really, though, that’s the big idea of this movie and why I think it’s been so successful with the Academy when you wouldn’t expect it to have been. It’s not an explicitly political movie, but I think that Alex’s idea of thinking of the movie as a queer romance with a happy ending (though we could probably debate if the ending “really” happens) helps me understand a little more why the movie’s politics are important to its success. Del Toro has talked, frequently, about how this is a movie about rejecting fear and learning to embrace the other, which is Oscar catnip. That it’s hidden in plain sight in a movie that is, on a superficial level, just a breezy good time helps the medicine go down all the more smoothly.

Some of the harshest criticisms of Shape have been that its treatment of these issues is ultimately a little facile. And I guess I can see that. But I think it goes with the territory of being an “adult fairy tale,” one that allows for magic and wonder but also accepts that the world, after you’ve reached adulthood, is full of things like pointless brutality and sensuality and stupid prejudices. Del Toro is just telling that story with a woman and a fish-man, and in doing so, he takes some of the oldest, most Oscar-friendly themes and dresses them up in a new rubber suit, so you don’t even realize the moral instruction you’re being spoon-fed. It’s a neat trick.

Alex: A new fish suit, you mean? (Terrible, I know!)

It’s funny you mention fairy tales, because one thing I love about this movie is how dreamy and expensive it looks for a movie that was made for less than $20 million. It’s a testament to the talent of del Toro and his production team that they turned that $20 million into blissful magic. I rewatched the movie after finding out the budget, and it made me pay attention to del Toro’s techniques — the way it’s shot, the way the fish guy is styled, the effects that are used — and appreciate them even more.

When it comes to the ending, I didn’t even process that, uhh, it might not have happened? Yes, it happens. It is true love. Fish people are magic. They will live in the bottom of the ocean forever, where they will have tons of amazing sex.

Full disclosure: I am a man who loved La La Land.

In all seriousness, though, how important is the interpretation of that ending to whether the movie is successful? If it didn’t “really” happen, does it make the story more powerful? Does it become more of an Oscar contender if the ending is or isn’t happy? What does this mean for the cat?

Todd: I’m still mad at the fish-man for what it did to that darn cat. Don’t remind me.

I think the ambiguity of the ending is part of the film’s power. I’ll admit I took the happy ending completely at face value when I first saw the film, and it was only in discussing it later with some friends that I realized others saw it differently.

But by giving an out to those who want the movie to have a “more realistic” climax — after all, maybe Giles is just lying to himself, and by extension us, about what happened to his best friend — The Shape of Water avoids seeming overly cloying and sentimental, while simultaneously being really cloying and sentimental. I can’t help but feel like this movie is a magic trick.

Alissa: Obviously, whether it wins or loses, there are some indelible images from The Shape of Water that will stick with audiences long past the Oscars. In five or 10 years, what idea, image, or scene from the movie will stick with you? What will you think of when someone mentions this movie?

Alex: My armpits were sweating during the heist to bring the fish-man home, and I was internally screaming, “SALT! REMEMBER WHAT MICHAEL STUHLBARG SAID ABOUT SALINITY!”

Todd: I keep coming back to the fish-man standing in the movie theater, blood literally on his hands, the glow of the screen bathing over him, as Elisa comes to gently take his hand. Guillermo del Toro has made better films than this one, but there may not be an image that succinctly sums up his work as well as that singular moment.

Alissa: For me, it will be the image of Elisa sitting playfully on the edge of the fish-man’s tank and luring him with a hard-boiled egg, then beginning to sign her name to him and, eventually, play music for him. It’s such a gentle moment of simple communication, and for me, it sells their whole relationship: They may be from different places and, indeed, from entirely different species, but the language they speak to each other is all their own.

Check out what our critics roundtable had to say about all nine Best Picture nominees:

Call Me By Your Name | Darkest Hour | Dunkirk | Get Out | Lady Bird | Phantom Thread | The Post | The Shape of Water | Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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