Love and Otherness

Twentieth Century Fox

When I think of love, it is not the fiery kind, that wheel of burning passion that devastates as it runs us down. Historically, desire has been linked with incandescence, with the incarnadine flame that leaves no space for thought or reason, because of its urgency. But I beg to differ: Love and desire are often more languorous, as moving at their crest as when they are still. Love, in all its fluctuations, is like water.I have always been drawn to the wax and wane of the ocean, to the whisper of the rain, to the smell of rivers and lakes. They speak to me more than the Earth or the winds or colorful, dancing flames ever did.

I am a Pisces through and through.

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I was lucky enough to screen The Shape of Water a few weeks before it premiered, and immediately fell in love with the film. The experience was one of absolute transcendence: Alexandre Desplat’s magnificent score, Dan Laustsen’s breathtaking cinematography, the magical realism of Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay.

Del Toro’s mastery of atmosphere has always been my weakness. But it was only much later, as I tried to collect my thoughts and understand why the film had made me so emotional, that the realization dawned on me: The Shape of Water reminded me of a story I had read, another love letter to water—and a dazzling look at heartbreak, symbiosis, and sacrifice.

Octavio Paz’s “My Life with the Wave” is a quiet masterpiece, which details the doomed love affair of an unnamed man with a sea wave. Although the latter is personified (“Her sensibility, like that of women, spread in ripples”), she never loses her wave-like qualities (“She became humble and transparent…calm water.”). She is simultaneously a woman—or rather, an idea of one—and a surreal being, much like the Amphibian Man in The Shape of Water.

But unlike the couple in the del Toro film, theirs is not an idyllic affair. Paz peppers their story with trouble: From the onset, the protagonist seems more overwhelmed by the wave’s romantic advances than he is willing or participating. The wave, on the other hand, is mercurial, temperamental, and in a few swift strides, manages to completely upend his life.

There is an initial fallout: in a series of surreal events, the man is arrested after trying to protect the wave from being exploited by others. He is imprisoned for a year and returns to find that she has taken liberal residence in his home. Not only is the wave seemingly remorseless and ungrateful for his ordeal, she proceeds to turn the following months of their relationship into a maelstrom of emotional turmoil. The love he feels for her is apparently reciprocated, as is the eventual hostility they begin to feel for each other: like a glorious monument imploding beneath the weight of a too-forceful surge of expectations, they go from “a going and coming of caresses” to a passion “as fatal as the tide.”

The reader comes to understand that while, for obvious reasons, their union is the subject of public scrutiny and social recrimination, as evidenced by the man’s early incarceration, the threat is primarily internal, mirroring the tragic way some relationships cave in, even when nothing else is wrong. “My Life with the Wave” is not only a running metaphor for the tragedy of falling for an emotionally fragile person, it is also an observation of what happens when people from very different worlds try to see eye-to-eye, while failing to have the necessary conversations in order to do so. Case in point: the more the protagonist dislikes his paramour, the less warmth he feels for her friends, a colony of fish he calls “horrible creatures.”

In the end, the browbeaten man flees the relationship which has turned violent, and when he returns a month later, finds that his lover has become frozen into a statue. His affections vanished at last, he donates her to a nearby restaurant where she is callously chopped into pieces and put into buckets.

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The relationship in The Shape of Water is no less taboo, but the transgression is painted in a less forbidding light, despite it all.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) works as a cleaning lady alongside her friend Zelda (a glorious Octavia Spencer) at a government facility in Baltimore. There, she stumbles upon a creature who, in appearance, is a cross between a fish and a man. They slowly fall for each other, through a series of precious interactions they must keep hidden because his existence is a well-protected government secret. When Elisa learns, to her horror, that the Amphibian man is going to be euthanized, she hatches a plan with her friends to break him out of the laboratory and free him into the ocean.  

Elisa is lonely and sensitive, and when she meets her humanoid lover, it is his loneliness and his sensitivity that attract her. And while the threat of punishment looms ever-nearer for her and everyone involved—in the form of a supremely chilling Michael Shannon, a colonel who yearns to uphold the law at all cost—the risk is seen as a worthy tradeoff for how she feels. And by the time we have seen them to the end of their journey, we are rooting for them too, however we might feel about interspecies relations.

In this sense, the setting is certainly not accidental; the Cold War era dispenses intolerance almost indiscriminately. Elisa is mute; her close friend Zelda is black; and her gentle neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), is gay. Set against The Shape of Water’s racist, sexist, homophobic mid-century backdrop, each of them are—by their very existence—a symbol of defiance to the status quo, and all three end up fighting for the Amphibian Man’s survival, because they understand Otherness and oppression.

The Shape of Water is blue, in all senses of the word: Melancholy hangs like trickling rain, the piano score tinkles like melting puddles. Water is the omnipresence binding it all together, the thing that envelops all the characters’ solitude (even Michael Shannon’s Colonel Strickland, underneath the caricature of a repressed, chauvinistic man can be seen as lost and tormented) and makes it somehow less scathing. The film’s ending is tragic, but in a way that invites hope, unlike “My Life with the Wave.” The colonel catches up to Elisa and her friends just as they are about to release the creature into the ocean, and in the ensuing altercation, Elisa is fatally shot. But she is taken deep into the water by her lover, where we can presume that he heals her, and they live together, for eternity.

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For Guillermo del Toro and Octavio Paz, being in love is like holding water. It is mellifluous and mercurial. It transcends words, rhyme or reason, taking the shape it can, following the ebb and flow of emotions. It oscillates between anxiety and hope, a thing that can drown a person unless they can find a way to stay afloat.

Its effect is often bewildering: It explains why a man can fall for an ocean wave, no matter how nonsensical. It explains why a mute woman can lose herself to a fish-like creature, who cannot even speak her language. And it explains why the only ones who cannot understand this, in both cases, are those who view life without its subtlety, the upholders of the law who jail with no discrimination, and pursue with clinical vengefulness.

Love is water, more powerful than the scorching fire that consumes, deeper and slower moving than the whirlwind that dazes. It is an ode to all which flows through and holds its shape around us, if only we choose to let it.