The 2018 Academy Award for Best Picture was given to ”The Shape of Water”. This film not only skilfully proved our elders right by relating what is vulgar to the vulgus (the throng); it also reinforced what tyrannical masses have always been accused of: exposing what is sacred to public view.

It is in watching movies like this 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 for reshaping humanity — which he apparently does not like in its current state — is very simple: a mute woman finding liberty in a dozen sex scenes with a human-like fish does the trick. In a world where Freud’s thesis pervades and warps everyone’s thoughts, it seems that everything ought to be explained solely 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 intentions of a most cruel agent commissioned by the army are shaken.

Guillermo del Toro pretends to deliver a message of tolerance that allows no deed of discrimination to be committed. Love should have no limits. Why not? If men are replaced by fish who bring nothing but love, freedom and peace, then women’s muteness ought never to be an issue. Hating men is not a way of loving women, though.

 “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 are always about breaking what is forever sacred, and most vulnerable when touched by uninitiated hands. They expose to public view 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, unexposed place, showing the act on big screens with such nonchalance tells more about the director’s tastes than about what it truly is. When movie directors appeal to the masses in these ways, they end up lowering themselves to the standards of porn films.

In contrast, ”Phantom Thread” is a stumbling block for whoever agrees with the argument of “The Shape of Water”. Although the film presents a dressmaker and a model childishly arguing about what seem to be each other’s whims, this is all a pretext. The film rather shows the struggle between a man and a woman trying to coexist. In other words, this is a story of willpower and balance in an exceptionally 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 with any sort of difficulty, resistance or rejection.

It is not a fluke that the two films were released and granted the nominations for the same awards at the same time. The 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 in his story 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 go through struggle and even violence before thriving. But the aesthetic surface of the film must have prevailed over the rest, just as in “The Shape of Water”, otherwise the audacity of such a message nowadays would not have gone unnoticed. The core of the contest between the two films remains the question of how men and women relate to one another, and of their roles in the societies they build up.

Paul Rodrigue writes for to The Burkean Journal, a recently established online political and cultural magazine in Ireland that promotes conservative thought and ideas. A slightly edited version of his  article is published here with the permission of the editors.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet