The Shape of Water unravels like a dark 60s fairytale. There is the lonely female protagonist (Sally Hawkins), her cursed love interest, and then, of course, the villain Colonel Richard Strickland (in the shape of Michael Shannon).
Elisa, a mute cleaner who works at a top-secret lab, discovers what appears to be an amphibian creature trapped inside a tank for experimental reasons. The creature is more human than fish and her secret visits to his tank spark a romance between the two. Fuelled by love, Elisa decides she must save her friend from being tortured and potentially killed at the hands of Colonel Strickland, the sexually charged alpha-male who captured the asset to begin with.
Now, here I could talk about how the film scraps stereotypes by making the female lead the rescuer, or that the colonel embodies the men who (whether subconsciously or not) prefer women to be silent and therefore in a place of powerlessness, or that the human-like creature and Elisa illustrate different outcast spectrums, with him being on the other side of the parameter and her remaining near the border. I could even bring up Elisa’s homosexual friend Giles (Richard Jenkins) who, like Elisa, needs more than just companionship in a city that to him seems black and morbid. Finally, I could mention the unwavering friendship between Elisa and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), which is further solidified by the gruesomeness of their cleaning tasks as they endure the likes of piss and shit on a regular basis; the duo is a miniature army as they make their way through the men-ridden halls like a couple of unnoticeable yet discreetly formidable mice.
But with all the noisy clamour coming from televisions, laptops, iPhones, social media accounts, news outlets, discussions, heated debates, podcasts, tweets and other sources of sound, opinion, and information, I’ve decided not to delve into such topics, for there is one simple emotion that subdues them all and that is the ordinary act of quiet love.
The simplicity with which Elisa and her lover enjoy each other’s company, as they interact with food and bond over music, does not overcome all the madness. It doesn’t put things into place or erase the world’s chaos and ambiguity. Instead, it silences everything for those few seconds in which the two characters find themselves completely immersed in the other, forming a temporary space that is impermeable and entirely theirs.
The quietness during these scenes is literal – the couple communicates with touch, gestures, and signs – but also figurative. If you’ve ever been in love, you will have experienced these moments of bland serenity. It’s a cup of tea in bed or a meaningless conversation in a restaurant. It’s a feeling that needs no answers and has no questions. It’s love in its most tranquil state, undisturbed and devoid of doubt.
Of course, these moments are brief. When external forces intrude on the lovers, their quiet love becomes infested with the harsh vibrations of the outside. The silence breaks and their love quickly starts to lose its lucidity. It’s within this loudness that Elisa questions their love and its durability.
The hushed scenes of love between Elisa and her water-man stand out like beautiful bold brushes of colour on a monochrome painting; although directed with great precision, they are basic and uncomplicated. These segments are fleeting points of clarity amidst the everyday confusion. They are transparent and idle like the calmest of rivers. As in life, these moments do not change the world, but they do give both characters a dose of certainty where there is none.