I was disappointed to read that Jean-Pierre Jeunet (director of Amelie, co-director of Delicatessen) was accusing Guillermo del Toro of plagiarism in his latest film, The Shape of Water. Partly, my disappointment is down to both directors having made favourite films of mine (Pan’s Labyrinth, Amelie, Delicatessen, and City of Lost Children all real favourites), and I’m always disappointed (though never too surprised) when creators I like criticise one another. But another reason is it seems somewhat ungenerous of Jeunet, considering how liberally he himself has borrowed from other films.
The main scene Jeunet singles out is where Sally Hawkins’s character and her neighbour (played by Richard Jenkins), sitting together on a sofa watching an old musical on TV, start tap-dancing along while sitting down. Jeunet said it was “cut and pasted from Delicatessen” (quote from The Telegraph) — no doubt meaning the scene where Dominique Pinon and Karin Viard, sitting on a bed and bouncing in order to locate a squeaky spring, fall into a sort of sitting-down dance. (You can see both at an article on The Playlist, which also reveals that the Jeunet quotes were Google Translated from the original French.)
Jeunet also says Shape of Water’s having scenes featuring “the painter, the apartment, the girl who is a bit naive” must be inspired by Amelie, which strikes me as almost deliberately vague. I wouldn’t call Hawkins’s character “naive” — certainly not as Amelie is — she’s also clearly a woman rather than a girl, and the relationship between the characters Jeunet mentions is quite different. (In Amelie, the painter is very much a mentor figure; in Shape of Water, the relationship is of equals.) It’s far too vague for an accusation of plagiarism. (Hitchcock’s Blackmail also features a scene with a painter, an apartment, and a girl who is a bit naive, though of course it turns out far differently.)
Perhaps it’s more interesting to look at the scene Jeunet doesn’t mention. At one point in The Shape of Water, Sally Hawkins’s character shuts herself in a bathroom with the love of her life (who happens to be an aquatic humanoid more comfortable breathing through his gills than his lungs), blocking the bottom of the door with towels and turning on all the taps so they can flood the bathroom and enjoy a little underwater love. It’s reminiscent of the scene at the end of Delicatessen where Dominique Pinon’s Louison and Marie-Laure Dougnac’s Julie lock themselves in a bathroom, stop up all the gaps, turn on all the taps, and flood the bathroom, in this case to aid their escape from the other residents of the building, who want to eat at least one of them. Perhaps the reason Jeunet doesn’t point out this similarity is that this scene also occurs in a 1975 Paul Newman film, The Drowning Pool, in which Newman and a woman are locked in a large bathroom, block the drains, turn on all the taps, and flood the place to escape. In all three films, the central couple are carried out in the flood when the blocked door is finally opened.
It’s just as easy to find borrowings — unconscious or not, accidental or not — in Jeunet’s films. The most obvious, to my eyes, is in Amelie. The scenes where Audrey Tautou’s character sneaks into the grocer’s apartment to play various sneaky little revenge-pranks on him are very similar to those in the 1994 film Chungking Express — not just in the idea of a young woman sneaking into a man’s apartment and playing little tricks, but down to some of the tricks themselves. In Chungking Express, Faye Wong’s character, among other things, swaps a pair of slippers and puts sleeping pills in a bottle of drink (if I remember right); in Amelie, Audrey Tautou’s character swaps a pair of slippers for those a size smaller and puts sugar in a bottle of some alcoholic drink.
To make all these accusations of plagiarism more complicated still, in an Empire magazine feature (Le fantastique M. Jeunet by Olly Richards) from January 2010, Jeunet says of the flooded bathroom sequence in Delicatessen:
“It’s funny, because maybe six or seven years later I saw a short film with Laurel & Hardy and it’s the same idea. Same bathroom with two cops outside. I understood that probably [co-director] Marc Caro or me saw that when we were kids and then forgot it. Then it sat in the back of the mind.”
It’s an old idea that good artists copy, great artists steal, but I can’t help feeling there’s a danger of a huge loss of subtlety as soon as the accusation of plagiarism comes up. There are, most certainly, cases of outright plagiarism, but there will also be cases of unconscious influence, parallel development of similar ideas, drawing from the same sources, and so on. How to tell the difference? Surely, in these sorts of cases, you ought to be able to judge by an artist’s, or director’s, creative integrity, as evident from their existing body of work, something I think del Toro and Jeunet have both demonstrated.
I’m certainly not putting myself on a par with Jeunet or del Toro, but, as it’s the one area where I have some chance of knowing a deeper level of the story, I’ll bring in a couple of examples from my own writing. Some time ago, I decided I wanted to write a Lovecraftian story, and worked hard on coming up with a plot that, to me, summed up the essence of what Lovecraft’s fiction meant to me, in terms of the implications of its world and worldview. This was eventually published (“Zathotha”, in Cyäegha #4 in 2011). I was completely unaware, till I was re-reading it some time after it was published, that I’d in fact reproduced the plot of my favourite Clark Ashton Smith story, “The Double Shadow” — both feature characters carrying out a magical ritual they don’t understand, that leads to the ineluctable approach of an entity that absorbs its victims, and nothing can be done to stop it.
To give another example, I used the idea of a phantom staircase that appears only at certain times, in The Fantasy Reader. I came up with the idea while playing about with the sort of thing that happens in dreams — I have loads of dreams where I find myself in a small house or apartment that, despite its limited size, has endless rooms with doors that open onto other rooms with more doors, and so on, with even the occasional staircase leading to yet more rooms and doors. It was only well after I’d started working with the idea that I remembered it was also in David Lindsay’s second novel, The Haunted Woman. It’s a book I’ve read loads of times, and I even run a website about Lindsay, so, no court of law would ever accept that I hadn’t taken the idea from him, and I’d certainly be happy to say that I had, and it may be I did, unconsciously, but my feeling is I took it from the same place where he, perhaps, found it.
Both del Toro and Jeunet are, even by directorial standards, outright cinephiles, and both not only talk about their influences, but include tributes and references to much-loved films in their work. (The Shape of Water and Amelie both contain scenes set in cinemas.) I have a feeling Jeunet’s reaction may be more emotional than rational — perhaps he saw someone doing the sort of thing he considers his territory, and getting a lot of plaudits, and felt left out. I can certainly understand that. As I say, I like both directors, and would like to see both in the best light.
Anyway, The Shape of Water is a very nice film. I didn’t find it as intense as Pan’s Labyrinth, though it has a lot in common with that film. But it’s definitely the sort of film I’ll want to watch a few more times and really get to know — as I have, and will continue to do, with Pan’s Labyrinth, as well as Amelie, and Delicatessen.