The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, 2017)
A couple of weeks ago, The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, 2017) won this year’s Oscar for Best Picture. In the times of the Me Too campaign, Love is Love, and the critique of the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood, a film about the acceptance of difference has been chosen by the Academy as the best of the year. Del Toro, in his acceptance speech, advocated for the use of fantasy to “to tell stories about the things that are real in the world today”, and he explicitly acknowledged the influence of another film of this genre which also deals with the issue of difference: Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).
The similarities between the two are quite easy to grasp: they both focus on the encounter with an Other –an extra-terrestrial or an amphibian god from South America, it doesn’t really matter- and how the characters in the films are able to accept and understand that otherness when they face it. However, there is a clear difference between the two: who is chosen to meet with the Other. Spielberg’s film narrates the encounter between “normal” people –children, but still from a white, middle-class family– and E.T; while The Shape of Water focuses on a set of characters who belong to those parts of society traditionally left aside in movies: a mute orphaned cleaning woman (Sally Hawkins), her gay neighbour (Richard Jenkins) and her African American co-worker (Octavia Spencer). Each of them is, in his own way, an outsider in the American society of the 1950s. This way, while E.T. was a film about the “normal” accepting the Other, The Shape of Water is more about a group of “others” helping a different type of otherness.
This does not mean, of course, that the latter is necessarily a better film, but it points to cultural changes in the intervening thirty-plus years: the Other is seen this time through the eyes of the outsider instead of the eyes of the normative. It is always good news that the Academy, as it already did last year with Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016), starts to open its scope to films not only about difference, but told from the point of view of the different.