Spoilers ahead for The Shape of Water.
In Disney’s Beauty & The Beast, a young woman falls in love with a beast, as the title suggests. She ends up trapped in a castle with said beast because she selflessly decides to take her father’s place as the beast’s prisoner. The beast is sour and embittered because, you know, he’s been cursed to remain a beast until true love allows him to regain his human form. During her imprisonment, the woman — who, by the way, is beautiful but “odd” — falls in love with the beast. She warms his furry heart, saves him from some evil villagers, and ultimately reverses the spell that made him so furry in the first place.
The Shape of Water, Guillermo Del Toro’s fantasy film that came out last Friday, follows the same story, almost to a T. A young woman (Sally Hawkins) is beautiful but odd. She meets a beast in the form of a fish-man (played by Doug Jones and referred to as “the asset” in the movie), who is trapped in a government lab. They fall in love, and she releases him from his confines. The Shape of Water is a Cold War-era Beauty & The Beast, with one very important update: In this movie, the woman is the agent, the machinator of the plot. She is catalyst and inciting incident — The Shape of Water doesn’t happen to her, she happens to The Shape of Water.
It's a sweet and well-needed update. The traditional version of fairy tales often cast the woman as object. In terms of plot, she doesn't do things. She waits. She looks pretty. Cinderella's godmother spurred her to the ball, and the prince is the one to go fetch her after she runs away. Rapunzel waited in her tower, brushing her hair. Snow White slept. Belle is admittedly a pluckier version of these women, but she's still a victim of circumstance. The action of her tale is situational, the result of a witch's spell that was cast decades ago. Her strongest character traits are that she loves books and she's beautiful. In terms of a protagonist, she's a little frozen-in-carbonite; the story hangs her on the wall, but she doesn't ever spring to life in our minds.
Elisa, Del Toro’s protagonist, is a very good Belle mock-up. Like the Disney princess, Elisa is fastidious but idealistic. She measures her morning routine with an egg timer, and every day without fail her hair makes the same triangle shape. But, she entertains a rich fantasy life, and expresses a desire to escape her current situation. Elisa even has a kooky older man to nurture and a buffoonish suitor. Belle had her father and Gaston; Elisa has her hapless next-door neighbor Giles (played with nasal aplomb by Richard Jenkins) and the vicious Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon).
Down to her look — a small cloche hat and heels that are shined daily — Elisa is almost a princess. But, she’s more obstreperous than her Disney counterpart. Belle’s desires are ultimately kind of small, and very genteel: She wants to read, and she wants much more than “this provincial life.” (The irony is that a well-read woman like Belle in 2017 would probably love to live a provincial life.)
Elisa, in contrast, has sexual desires. She masturbates every morning. And, despite her dedication to her morning routine, she’s regularly late, something that irks Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her co-worker at the lab, where they are both on the janitorial staff. She maybe wants to be famous, a desire that is still considered a little gross. When Strickland calls Zelda and Elisa into his office to investigate the disappearance of the asset, Elisa signs a triumphant “FUCK YOU” in his direction. Belle’s restlessness is charming because it’s vague, while Elisa’s is cutting because it’s not.
Because she has these clear motives, her actions, admittedly bonkers, make sense. Elisa is the aggressor in her relationship with the asset. She’s the one who seeks him out, offering a hardboiled egg as a token of friendship. She’s not trapped in a castle with the asset, forced to explore his massive library —what does captivity matter if you’ve got a bunch of free books? — she’s independently determined to rescue the asset from his beast-ish situation. Elisa is a woman on a mission, which is exactly why the action feels so frantic, important, and inevitable.
This is all very anti-Belle, whose romance could really be attributed to Stockholm syndrome — he is her captor, after all, no matter how friendly the talking clock is. Belle wouldn’t have fallen in love with him if she hadn’t been forced to spend time with him. Actually, remove Belle from the movie, and the plot would likely march forward with another woman. Surely, another hapless, hopeless romantic would end up in that castle eventually. Then, who can resist that literate beast?
Without Elisa, The Shape of Water doesn’t happen. Without Elisa, the asset doesn’t learn the word “egg” or “dance” or “together.” Without Elisa, The Shape of Water is just a sad movie about a failed government experiment.
This isn’t to say Beauty & The Beast is a bad film, or even a bad story. The two tales have the same heavy-handed moral: We are all human, no matter what we look like. They both indulge in a fantastical world where the limit does not exist. Clocks can talk, and glowing fish can enjoy penetrative sex. Beauty & The Beast has an alluring thesis, that no matter how weird you are, you can find someone weird enough to fall in love with you. That’s why it’s stuck around.
The Shape of Water is Del Toro’s unique vision, but it hangs onto the frame of Beauty & The Beast. It has the same weird idea — you, too, can find someone “incomplete” who will match your own version of incompleteness — but it hands the storytelling power to its protagonist. This is not about a beast redeeming himself via a captive woman. This is about a woman discovering her voice (literally) via a fish-man who is unavoidably attractive. She's Belle, but hungrier, more resolute. And it's about time we handed a tenacious woman some decision-making power.
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