Shelley Pryor commented the other day on my last post about Orpheus and Eurydice, and recommended the movie “The Shape of Water,” calling it “Orpheus and Euridyce aquatic.” Shelley had been Laura’s neighbor and close friend in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia before they both moved out about the same time to get married . One of the things I learned from Laura was how important women friends are to women, one of the things I was so dense about in my first marriage.
Despite my interest in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, I’m not generally attracted to movies like “The Shape of Water.” But Shelley’s recommendation and comment got my attention. I went to see the movie today.
A touching love story, but my first reaction was puzzlement. Except for the location of much of the action above a movie theater called “Orpheum,” the plot of the movie did not seem to follow the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. More like “Beauty and the Beast,” to which Guillermo del Toro explicitly compares his movie. Some have seen it as opposite to Guillermo del Toro’s earlier “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
On further reflection, however, I finally got Shelley’s point. “The Shape of Water” does play off the Orpheus and Eurydice story, but does so by turning the myth upside down. Instead of Eurydice dying and going to the Underworld ruled by Pluto, the undersea godlike Amphibian is captured by men and brought up to the land, which will be his death. Instead of the prolific poet and singer Orpheus descending into Hades to rescue Eurydice with his singing, the mute Elisa rescues the Amphibian and helps him return to the sea. Instead of a man bringing his woman up from the underworld, a woman helps her male lover get back down under the water. Instead of Charon who ferries the dead into Hades, Elisa’s friend (and voice-over narrator) Giles drives an old van to take the Amphibian out of his prison and then down to the canal leading out to sea. Instead of the River Styx as transition between upper and lower worlds, we have the canal. Richard Strickland, the evil government agent, combines the attempted rapist and the snake who kills Eurydice in the classical versions of the story.
I would put a “spoiler alert” here, except the movie poster gives away the ending. The Amphibian jumps into the water with Elisa’s body. She has been shot by Strickland. In the water she opens her eyes and comes back to life in the arms of the Amphibian. Like Giles I tend to believe that they lived happily afterwards in the world beneath the water, but he warned us “about the truth of these facts” in his prologue.
In Ovid and other classical versions of the myth, Eurydice dies a second time when Orpheus looks back as they are climbing out of Hades. He breaks Pluto’s injunction not to look back at Eurydice until they are out. I think it would be stretching things to find a parallel to Orpheus’ glance back in “The Shape of Water.” As a result the movie presents an unambiguous myth of love overcoming death.
In my next post I will explore the many ways over the centuries that writers and composers have brought us to Orpheus’ looking back. And in the post after that I will explore the meaning of that dramatic moment and how it parallels why I am so interested in the story of Orpheus and Eurydice.