|By Source, Fair use, |
Obviously del Toro's tale (screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor) was indebted, among other sources, to the fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast, which in turn springs beautifully from the ancient Greek myth of the perfectly married body and soul, or Eros (Cupid or Amor) and his beloved, Psyche (Anima.) Portrayals of Eros and Psyche go back to the fourth century B. C. in Greece. (Apuleuis wrote the first full narrative of their story in Latin.)
And so I end up considering The Shape of Water in the light of Eros and Psyche, a story of metamorphosis, of a woman gaining strength as she passed through many trials, of two impossibly-different (one a winged god, one an earthly princess) strangers finding sacred union and giving birth to their child, Pleasure. Through her many tasks and her difficult journey to the Underworld, Psyche becomes more than she was, and at last she wins immortality and becomes the equal of Eros. Eros and Psyche has always been a story of the achievement of wholeness, and through the centuries it has been popular and multivalent, giving rise to varied and rich meanings. I played with the story some years ago in The Throne of Psyche, so I am guilty of adding to that heap of meanings.
|Alphonese Legros, Cupid and Psyche (1867)|
Public Domain / Wikipedia / Google Art Project
What if the amphibian-with-powers was also, like the Greek god Eros, more complex, more human in his acts? That is, what if he appeared to have a soul, so that Elisa's discovery of his worth appeared more powerful?
What if he refrained from slashing flesh, munching on Giles's cats, and murdering those who do not understand what he is? (As is, it's a possibility that Strickland's harsh, cartoon view is a bit more accurate than the viewer would like--after all, the Amazonian fish-man repeatedly chooses to be violent, even though he is shown as powerful enough to make other choices.)
What if the amphibian lover performed a redemptive, possibly transformative act at the close, giving life and change (redemption? a speck or a peck of penitence?) to Strickland rather than simply killing a baddie drawn too firmly in cardboard? What if Strickland was transformed from something less to something more, and in the process the creature was also elevated to something more in Elisa's mind and in our minds?
The close gives us the pattern of death and resurrection, but the Amazonian is no god for Easter--he's a god for sex and death and a happily-ever-after we had better not examine too closely. For like Psyche, Elisa meets death and is changed somewhat (gills! whether brand new or simply opened because she was already part fish), but it's hard to puzzle out how she and her amphibian love will keep house together underwater in the Amazon.
What if, like Psyche, Elisa had a more complicated relationship with her lover, one that further developed the idea that she is fearful but learning who and what he is, that gave her uncertainty when others were fearful for her, and that showed her changing (in more than gills) to pursue her love?
What if the story was a kind of Eros and Psyche story without side tales that hammered home obvious messages about the patriarchy and How Bad and Illiberal American White People Especially Men Were Not So Long Ago (but now at least we who chose to see the movie are good and love everybody, even Amazonian monsters)? What if the movie didn't pat us on the back in this manner? What if the story didn't tell us how much better we viewers are now than people were before but made us long for our own transformation into something more beautiful and human?
Note no. 2: Maybe it's time to re-watch Pan's Labyrinth. And here's a documentary about the Pale Man, the Faun, the toad, and the stick-insect fairies.