The Shape of Water promises to be a heartbreaking, whirlwind romance — but can we talk about the fact that the main love interest is a fish?
Guillermo del Toro is gracing our theatres with a fascinating new fantasy romance film this month. The Shape of Water is the story of a mute janitor who falls in love with an underwater creature, set in America during the Cold War. Hypable’s review of the film indicates that it might just be his best work yet.
But while del Toro’s movies are notorious for going to places that are as strange as they are captivating, it’s hard to ignore the very prominent fact that this movie stars a fish-man (amphibian man?) as a love interest.
Although it’s strange to see an amphibian as a romantic character, it’s not the first time that a leading couple is only half-human. After all, Beauty and the Beast, Twilight and literally every mermaid movie ever revolve around human and non-human characters falling in love; from the forbidden love to the sacrifices it asks of the characters.
Why are we obsessed with falling in love with non-human characters? There is an element of fascination with the taboo, of course, but the prospect of all audiences harboring secret interest in romance with something other than human can be somewhat disturbing. No, the fascination we have with these stories comes from something much more profound — something that keeps us coming back to them, again and again.
The Shape of Water will possibly be one of the clearest examples of how an audience can root for an interspecies couple, perhaps because of how obviously non-human the love interest is. While Twilight and The Little Mermaid had character with humanlike appearances, and only slight modifications, the man from The Shape of Water is very clearly not human — he even has webbed hands! Our love for the character, then, will have to stem from something other than his appearance. Audiences won’t be able to leave the theatre swooning about how hot the fish-man was, like they did about Edward Cullen (or, I guess they could, but I don’t think they’ll be in the majority).
Here, the fish-man doesn’t seem to be a human-turned-fish, like the Beast or any vampires or werewolves. He simply belongs to a different species. And that’s a lot more to wrap our heads around — especially when romance movies ideally make you fall in love with both characters.
But perhaps our interest in this romance is a much more internal one, transcending the superficial things that we would normally think are what captivates us. “When he looks at me, he doesn’t know how I am incomplete,” says Sally Hawkin’s character in the film’s trailer. We aren’t primarily drawn in by the romance itself, but by the concept of it: the idea that love is so strong that it can bring together two individuals who are separated by their very species.
Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, this idea grows even stronger. Just as Belle’s connection to the Beast takes place in a society that largely rejects those different from themselves, the characters in The Shape of Water will find themselves dealing with a kind of historical, global division that still affects us today. While the world becomes increasingly more divided, splintering under the weight of its own greed and prejudice, two individuals still find a way to connect.
In del Toro’s own words:
“The movie is about connecting with ‘the other.’ You know, the idea of empathy, the idea of how we do need each other to survive. And that’s why the original title of the screenplay when I wrote it was A Fairy Tale for Troubled Times, because I think that this is a movie that is incredibly pertinent and almost like an antidote to a lot of the cynicism and disconnect that we experience day to day.”
So yeah, it’s a little weird to root for a human woman and an amphibian man to get together. It’ll probably also feel weird when leaving the theatre after watching it, and possibly when gushing to others about how they should watch it. But the point of these movies isn’t to make us think of amphibian romances; it’s to expose the raw humanity of our connection and disconnection, of the love that pulls us together and the hatred that breaks us apart.
The Shape of Water promises to be a visually stunning and heartwrenching experience that demands to be had. And we can feel free to enjoy it without guilt, even if the love interest is a fish. Yeah, it’s a little weird, but it’s much deeper than that.
The Shape of Water opens in New York today, Los Angeles on December 8, and worldwide on December 15.