“Beauty and the Beast” fables are good at breaking hearts and haunting viewers. Beloved by many and berated by others, Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” is the latest installment of film’s foray into this common fable.
In The New York Times, A.O. Scott gleefully greeted the “genre geek” del Toro’s latest film: “He draws on old movies, comic books, mythic archetypes and his own restless visual imagination to create movies that seem less made than discovered.”
One reviewer in The Guardian glorified Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-snagging tour de force as a “boundary-crossing hybrid that is as adventurously personal as it is universal.” This film is “boundary-crossing” in more than one way. Beneath the fantastic plot and beyond the shimmer of one protagonist’s blue-green scales, we find a formula for approaching, befriending, and eventually building productive and meaningful relationships across ideological and partisan lines.
In the film, the plot develops alongside an odd relationship, flowing as follows: Eliza (the main character, a mute maid in a laboratory) encounters the “asset” (an amphibious, male creature captured in South America) and initially approaches him with an apprehensive and ceaseless curiosity that, for the viewer, is amplified by her muteness, quickly transforming the two from acquaintances into wonder-filled friends reveling in unexpected and inexplicable connection, the culmination of which is romantic love.
Animated by the plot arc in which Eliza and the amphibious man quickly catch “the feels” for one another, “The Shape of Water” presents us with an absurd — yet identifiable — kind of romantic passion that, time and time again, persists through trial and tribulation, triumphantly towering above the bad guys. In my (probably absurd) reading of this plot arc, Eliza and the amphibious man also offer us a blueprint for disagreement. Mirroring the devilment of the romantic relationship, my roadmap for disagreement manifests in five steps: first, an introduction; second, engagement with apprehensive curiosity (here, it’s helpful to think in extremes: consider how you approach a Trump-supporting uncle or a socialist salivating at the thought of violent revolution); third, general acquaintance; fourth, friendship; fifth, appreciative, deep (perhaps romantic) connection.
The film, NPR Arts Editor Will Gompertz wrote, is “not really a fantasy at all,” but an “intelligent, tender, beautifully shot, meticulously crafted work of art” that has much more to offer us than a healthy dose of magical realism and fish-man love. I think this formula is one such offering, one that, as Gompertz writes of the film, “speaks directly, and critically, to our own times.”
Building relationships across political divides is no doubt challenging. I could rehash older arguments that building such relationships is necessary for sustaining civil society, for rehabilitating the public square and for recovering our common humanity, but we should also push ourselves to transcend political divides for personal reasons. If we meet this challenge, we will be better for it: we will become better debaters, we will be better able to empathize with and understand the views of our fellow Americans, we will build relationships with people we otherwise might not have known and we just might come to accomplish things in our communities.
Mahatma Gandhi once said that “honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.” In this way, progress can be an aim or welcome symptom of endeavoring to build relationships across divides and in the face of disagreement. Debate, my friends, ought to do much more for us than satisfy the ego and raise blood pressure.
A.O. Scott wrote of “The Shape of Water” that “bigotry and meanness flow through every moment like an underground stream, but kindness is always possible, and so is beauty.” This statement might also characterize cross-political discussion and interaction: sure, ‘bigotry and meanness’ are common, but ‘kindness’ and ‘beauty’ are perennial possibilities.
If it can be cultivated by meeting the challenge of disagreement, beauty and value in newfound insights and newformed friendships are not mere possibilities, but unsung truths inherent in difficult human interactions. Grafting onto our interaction with other “The Shape of Water’s” five step formula for political disagreement will help us to find beauty through biting polarization and value in our unique engagements across the proverbial political aisle.