Love stories are popular for a reason, they play with our innermost desires. Audience’s reaction to any film depends on their perception, personal preferences, and the general thought process. However, love as an emotion is universal. Everyone craves for it in one form or another. Love stories give the audience something to root for, something to aspire. Even the skeptics who don’t buy into the fantasy are intrigued by it.
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The Shape of Water won the Academy Award for the Best Picture this year. Whether it was well-deserved or not is still up for the discussion. It’s undoubtedly a beautiful and heart-warming film. While the technical mastery of the film demands a separate article, here I want to talk about what makes this film rather simplistic. It’s a genuinely good movie but it fails to attain greatness one would expect from Guillermo del Toro.
Despite its fantastical elements, The Shape of Water attempts to stay grounded in reality. It works because it gives us something to yearn for. The best love stories aren’t about the grand gestures, so much, as they are about the subtleties of falling in love with someone. On one hand, we see this seemingly ordinary woman fall in love with the amphibian man, stuff that’s right out of storybooks. But at the same time, the plot of TSOW doesn’t hinge on some meet-cute or some major love declaration. It is a story of two creatures who find solace in each other, it’s a love that doesn’t need to be put into words, it just needs to be felt. They find each other against all odds and decide to fight for it. It is the core of this film, which could have put it in the league of some of the best love stories of the past few decades such as Sophia Coppola’s ‘Lost in Translation’ or Richard Linklater’s ‘The Before Trilogy‘.
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Despite everything I loved about the film, I didn’t quite enjoy the ending. First of all, let me clarify, from a visual standpoint, it was a near-perfect scene. But the fact that Elisa somehow develops or is revealed to have gills at the end just didn’t work for me. The ambiguity of the ending does work in its favor, but some of its implications are problematic. There are numerous articles over the internet talking about what the ending is trying to convey, various theories popping up every now and then. I want to talk about two of the most popular interpretations of the ending. One theory says that the amphibian man, due to his magical powers, was able to provide Eliza with gills. The other one suggests that Eliza had been similar to the amphibian man all along. This theory gets some support from the fact that circumstances of Eliza’s abandonment injuries weren’t clear within the film and he just repairs or reactivates her gills. Either of these interpretations, if true, takes away from the beauty of the film to an extent.
The reason TSOW works as a love story is also the reason that neither of those interpretations of the ending work in its favor. The love story between Eliza and the amphibian man holds power because, despite all of their differences, their inability to speak to each other, they still want to be together. It is the absence of the hope for a happy ending that makes the viewers root for them every step of the way. The true pain of loving someone is brought out by their circumstances. If either of the interpretations of the ending were true then this story ends up being a fairytale, which Guillermo Del Toro intended it to be, but that is what stops it from being a great love story.
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If Eliza had been similar to the amphibian man all along, then her love is no longer a statement on the human capacity for compassion. The depth of Eliza’s character lies in her ability to love something that most humans would be scared of or repelled by. The plot portrays her as a simple yet courageous, silent yet powerful human being. This ending just takes away from that, it makes her like any other biological species who is attracted to another member of her species.
If the amphibian man was able to use his powers to give her gills, it reduces the impact of choices these characters have made. The pain of separation, the fear of losing each other, the willingness to hold on, all of it becomes meaningless. The use of his magical powers to solve most of the complications of the plot, a Dues Ex Machina ending of sorts. Another problem is that Eliza is giving away her human life for this love, and she doesn’t have a lot of authority in the decision. It raises a lot of difficult questions, it feels like Eliza is reduced to an object of his affection. Did she choose this life? Was it chosen for her by the amphibian man? Will they be able to find happiness?
To further my point, I will talk about another recent film La La Land. It was the most memorable film of the year (in my opinion.) There are so many things one could appreciate about it. But it was in the last five minutes of the film where it crossed the line between a good and a great film. It was in those stolen glances that Mia and Sebastian share at Seb’s, reliving their lives in a fantasy world while feeling the weight of their painful reality. It is almost poetic, the way the movie ends. If Mia and Sebastian had ended up together, the price they paid for their dreams wouldn’t be as real. It wouldn’t be as impactful and relatable, and it would be just another ‘boy met the girl, they fell in love and against all odds and ended up happily ever after’ film.
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While watching The Shape of Water, I couldn’t help but wish for an alternate ending. The entire scene could have been the same, but instead of the appearance of Eliza’s gills, the movie could just have ended with both of them in the water, holding on to each other. It would still be ambiguous, but the implications of that ending would be different and far more powerful. I would have seen it as the last time they are holding on to one another, knowing that they would have to let go, the perfect goodbye. It would have been a painful ending, and yet completely satisfying.