The 2018 Academy Award for Best Picture was given to The Shape of Water. This film did not only skilfully prove our elders right by denominating what is vulgar as being related to the vulgus (the throng), it also contributed to enhance what tyrannical masses have always been accused of: placing the sacred in the public space. It is by watching movies such as this one that I am able to sympathise with the Roman poet Horace: “I hate the profane rabble (vulgus) and avoid them!” Mr. del Toro’s new recipe to reshape humanity, which he apparently does not like in its current state, is very simple: a mute woman finding liberty in a dozen of sex scenes with a human-like fish does the trick. In a world where Freud’s adage abusively pervades everyone’s thoughts, it seems that everything ought to be solely explained by sexuality.
The film basically deals with a mute female employee in a gigantic American lab, where a creature from the seas is being observed, tested and tortured for scientific and military purposes. When the woman falls in love with the creature, both the lab’s goals and the intents of a most cruel agent commissioned by the army are shaken.
Guillermo del Toro pretends to deliver a message of tolerance, in which no deed of discrimination can be committed. Love should have no limits. Why not? If men are replaced by fish who are nothing but love, freedom and peace, then women’s muteness ought never to be an issue anymore. Hating men is not a way of loving women though. No doubt Phantom Thread, the story of a woman who finds love at the cost of her autonomy at the hands of a devilish and selfish couturier, could not match its rival at the Oscars. People simply love what is accessible. Films such as del Toro’s latest work always have the intention of breaking what is forever sacred and most vulnerable when touched by uninitiated hands. They bring out what is supposed to remain inside a temple, making profanum what is in fano (sacred).
Why would you display unnecessary sex scenes? If sex is intuitively and traditionally performed in some intimate, closed and unexposed place, showing the act on big screens with such levity tells more about the director’s tastes than about what it truly is. When movies appeal to the masses in these particular ways, they end up lowering themselves to the standards of porn films.
In contrast, Phantom Thread is a stumbling block for whomever agreed with the argument of The Shape of Water. Although the film presents a dressmaker and a model childishly arguing about what seems to be each one of their whims, this is all a pretext. The film rather exhibits the struggle between a man and a woman, trying to coexist. In other words, this is a story of willpower and balance in a highly strong-willed couple. A fish, on the other hand, has no will. It will not be at variance with its wife, nor will it present her any sort of difficulty, resistance or rejection.
It is not a fluke that the two films were released and granted the same nominations at the same time. The two spirits of del Toro and Anderson fight on an equal ground before us, the people. In my opinion, few people perceived Paul Thomas Anderson’s very old-school, conservative message on his definition of seduction, namely that relationships are about dealing with another person’s will, and not about finding a person pliant and ready to indulge one’s every whim. Phantom Thread teaches that relationships are made of violence and struggle before thriving. But the aesthetic content of the film must have prevailed over the rest, just like in The Shape of Water, since the audacity of such a message nowadays would not have gone unnoticed otherwise. The argument of the fight between the two films remains the question of the place of men and women in their relations and of their roles in the emotional societies they build up.