I avoided reading reviews of The Shape of Water before I saw it, but I did read the headlines, so I was looking forward to all the fish sex. “The Shape of Water Is Like Pan’s Labyrinth With More Steamy Woman–on–Fish-Monster Sex,” Slate vowed. “The Shape of Water Features Human/Fish Monster Sex Scene,” Screen Rant promised. “The Shape of Water Is Really Going All-In On the Fish Monster Sex Scene,” The Mary Sue confirmed. It’s rare to see a truly transgressive or challenging love scene in a big Hollywood movie; I was pumped. And yet, after I saw it, I turned to my companion, puzzled: “Where was all the fish sex?!” For all the fanfare surrounding the film’s supposedly freaky romance, its depiction of love between a woman and a fish-man is pretty conventional after all.
Written and directed by monster fetishist Guillermo del Toro (Vanessa Taylor co-wrote the screenplay), The Shape of Water stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito, a lonely, mute woman living in Baltimore circa 1962. Along with her colleague and friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), Elisa works the night shift at the Occam Aerospace Research Center, mopping floors and cleaning bathrooms. One night, the hard-nosed Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) wheels in a tank containing a mysterious, humanoid creature that he captured from a swamp in the Amazon. Elisa is intrigued.
Soon, she strikes up a kind of friendship with “the Asset,” as the creature is called, bringing him hard-boiled eggs and playing him records on her lunch break. She sees in this fellow mute a kindred spirit — a literal fish out of water. (Her muteness is the result of a vaguely defined injury she sustained as an orphaned infant.) When Elisa discovers that Strickland plans to have the creature vivisected and euthanized — to learn more about it, but mostly so that the Soviets don’t get their hands on it — she hatches a plan to scurry the creature from the facility and into her bathtub, with the help of her closeted gay neighbor (Richard Jenkins) and a sympathetic scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg). Then — bow chicka bow wow!
It’s worth mentioning that by this point, we’ve already seen Elisa naked. (Nor is Elisa the only woman in the film who bares skin; in one fairly gratuitous scene, Strickland’s wife [Lauren Lee Smith] literally whips out a tit before her husband pounds away at her in their yellow-walled bedroom, a glaring contrast to the slippery, seductive pas de deux between Elisa and her amphibious love.) In fact, we see Elisa naked within the first five minutes of the movie, which — after a kind of prologue in which the camera drifts through Elisa’s apartment, filled from floor to ceiling with turquoise-tinted water — opens with a series of short scenes that establish Elisa’s routine. This includes her daily jerk sesh: In the bathroom, we watch her remove her robe to reveal her naked backside before she steps in the tub, lies back, props a leg up on the side, and goes at it. Del Toro films her motions from a slight distance, so we don’t see her body close up while she masturbates, but before she begins he includes a full-frontal shot of Hawkins easing into the tub.
And yet, when the moment we’ve all been waiting for arrives, del Toro gets shy. Preparing for bed one night, Elisa makes a snap decision. She slips off her sleeping mask, opens the bathroom door, and takes off her robe and nightgown. The creature is standing upright in the bathtub; his eyes widen. Elisa steps into the tub and shuts the shower curtain, and then, just when it’s getting interesting, the movie is all, yada yada yada.
The next day, when Zelda asks what happened between them, Elisa flashes her a familiar look — that slightly sheepish, satisfied smirk that says, yeah, we fucked. Zelda inquires as to the mechanics of the act; the fish-man, played by Doug Jones in a full-body suit, is pretty ripped, but from what we’ve seen he doesn’t have much to work with down there. Motioning with her hands, Elisa indicates that despite Ken doll–like appearances, her beloved has a penis that somehow protrudes and retracts from inside his body.
Later, in a fit of passion, Elisa sticks a towel under the bathroom door, turns on the faucet, and fills the entire room with water, swirling in the gray-green liquid with her amphibious amour. It’s a lovely visual rendering of the swooning sensation of being in love. It’s also an apt metaphor for the way movies present women’s bodies versus men’s (women are three times more likely than men to appear nude onscreen): Elisa is totally vulnerable, naked, and submerged in the natural environment of her male counterpart, whose own most intimate body part is, by design, hidden from view.
Jones has embodied humanoid creatures in several del Toro films, including the director’s masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth, in which Jones played both the mythical Faun and the nightmare-inducing Pale Man. The Shape of Water is the first movie in which he’s played a bona fide love interest; at the 2017 Vulture Festival, Jones, a practicing Christian, said that he wasn’t interested in filming the kind of nude scenes that exist “just to get someone’s top off.” But he was convinced that these scenes had artistic purpose in a film about “this connection of two souls.”
In the Hollywood Reporter, Jones said of del Toro, “When I asked him why this time does it need to involved [sic] full-frontal nudity — I mean, we’re going for it! — and he harkened back to The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Frankenstein and any of the classic monster movies that helped develop his love of monsters. There was always a romantic side to these characters and relationships on film that never got actualized all the way. Guillermo said this time, the monster’s going to actually fuck the girl.”
But the film’s tale of the love between a human woman and a beast is nothing new in the realm of art. In Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, released in 2016 and set in 1930s Korea, a woman is obliged to perform dramatic readings from her uncle’s collection of Japanese erotica; in one scene, a book opens upon an image of an octopus performing oral sex on an enraptured woman. On a narrative level, The Shape of Water has plenty of precedents in myth and literature. Usually, the stories follow a pattern of the woman’s resistance, submission, and, eventually, desire, at which point the beast often transforms into a man. We saw a version of this story earlier this year, with Disney’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, in which Emma Watson’s Belle falls in gradual love with Dan Stevens’s Beast; unlike Jones, Stevens wore a motion-capture suit while filming his scenes with Watson, so the end result looks a little more alien than the fish-man, despite the fact that Belle and her beau are at least in the same class of vertebrates. Although the Beast moves and speaks like a person, I had a hard time glimpsing the actor underneath the horned, CGI-rendered bison who for some reason wears human clothing. Of course, as a children’s movie, Beauty and the Beast isn’t going near the anatomical questions many an adult audience member surely had while watching the film; as I wrote in my review, if you’re going to render the Beast in CGI-augmented live action, our first question will be, of course, but what about his dick?!
The Shape of Water, though, is an “adult fairy tale,” our first hint being that early shot of Elisa’s vigorous morning routine; this is no virginal princess. Which is why it’s so disappointing that del Toro declined to really give us a show — or, at least, to show us what kind of equipment his creature has to work with. Jones told THR that “we’re going for it!” but, as is so often the case, it’s really only the woman who is “going for it,” while her male counterpart’s, uh, situation is mostly left to the imagination. In this context, the early scene of Hawkins stepping into the bath, and her subsequent nude scenes, feel less like a bow to the romance of it all and more like del Toro throwing back the curtain on Sally Hawkins’s slammin’ bod — as if the creature that really interests him isn’t his fabulous fish-monster but the age-old object of male artists’ gaze, a human woman.