Dvorák: Symphony No.9 In E Minor, Op.95, B. 178 “From the New World” – 1. Adagio – Allegro molto, by Wiener Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan. 1985
One sits in the dead of night, listening to Dvorak, while attempting to form thoughts on a strange, beautiful film. Guillermo Del Toro’s sensuous new film, The Shape of Water, is love as monstrosity, as a distortion of a conformist view of love. Del Toro could not have known how timely his parable would become. If the arts can interpret the psyche and the mood of a time, then Del Toro is but one of several artists and filmmakers who is producing art that responds to our predicament with a radical heart, but a radicalism based on the revolutionary act of seeing the other beyond their veils.
The world at this moment is being set afire by its artificial boundaries. Borders imposed by the powerful, the worship of land and the coveting of bloodlines are revealing the deep voids between us. Nations are of course composed of individuals, and as imagined borders divide the imagined nations of the world, so do we divide ourselves. A city in the Middle East becomes the symbol of two peoples unable to imagine a binational future, the differing timber in language marks one as a noncitizen in the world’s mightiest democracy. We become atomized beings, adrift in our own prejudices, whether they be silent or open, social or personal. A skin tone, a detail of our social origin, a mistake revealed, the Cain mark of ugliness (or our perception thereof), are enough to shade our gaze of the other in the same way nations view neighbors through a distorted lens.
I walked into The Shape of Water with a lingering feeling of being lovesick. In the course of our lives we encounter other lives who kindle a different feeling within ourselves. It is a feeling identified by Plato in his The Symposium, in which he describes the separation of peoples into halves by the angry gods. We are destined then, to forever seek our other half, as the philosopher states, “’Love’ is the name for our pursuit of wholeness, for our desire to be complete.”
Plato does not specify what the other half must look like, because he understood that the pull of the emotions has the power to transform perceptions. In Del Toro’s film, set in a noir Cold War 1950s, a janitor named Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), left mute by an injury which has left scars on her neck, comes across a strange, aquatic being captured by the U.S. government. When she sets eyes on the being, scaly yet colorful, himself also limited linguistically by physical reality, there is no doubt she has connected with him. We may see a strange being, the brutal government handler Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) may see mere chattel to abuse, but for Elisa he is a thing of beauty, graceful, strong and tender. The metaphor, or the strong symbolism of the story may make some in the audience scoff I imagine. But as fantasy it is a striking interpretation of how we see each other when our gazes turn into loving desire- not a shallow desire, but one based on the more fine, intuitive connections. Del Toro understands the ambiance created by such attraction, which is why his film is not shot like some B-movie monster flick, but with a sensuality in its cinematography and camera movements, in the warm colors reminiscent of the cinema of Douglas Sirk, in the sense that we can touch and feel its environment. The lightning is not too colorful, but atmospheric. The music by Alexandre Desplat is rich and elegant, in the same way that love becomes an intoxicant. Desplat once scored the Persian magical realist fantasy Chicken with Plums, about love separated and never reunited, and it remains one of the most enrapturing of recent scores that I have heard.
I had recently experienced the sudden shift of my own gaze when I met a wonderful person last year within the confines of museum life. Originally hailing from a unique corner of the Middle East, with hazel eyes, hair of nightshade and a nightingale’s laugh, she became one of those rare friends we find in life where personality, interests and connection supersede the fact that you were both born in different corners of the globe, under different banners and protocols — I am a working class Latino, she was an aspiring dancer from New York, born in the Middle East. But it was not to be anything more, and I confess I found myself in the quite nightmarish position of feeling a yearning and deep attraction for someone who could not develop a different gaze towards me. Unrequited love tempers us like few experiences.
I do not write with rancor, or bitterness, because I cannot fault my friend. Emotions must be organic, and cannot be forced. She had found someone of her own culture, and I was indeed oblivious to the subtle realities we never tend to discuss with close friends, because natural bonds reach beyond shallow concerns. She simply could never see me as anything more than a friend because she couldn’t. Never feeling myself to be attractive, and quite stubborn in my anarchist principles, the superficial differences between us (culture, backgrounds, my penniless existence as a writer) simply never crossed my mind. I wanted to be with this person to debate, explore, have good and bad times, go places, to live. New York has taken her away from the jaded flashiness of Los Angeles, and while I miss my friend, I also view the experience as one where emotions crossed artificial borders, but they couldn’t overcome them.
The Shape of Water is surreal art as a metaphor for this age. Its characters find a deep connection beneath the shadow of a threatening, modern world. The status quo of Elisa and the monster’s era is that pondering the other is dangerous, because the other is the barbarous, distant Soviet Union. Those viewing the film inside a darkened theater live in a world where fascist mindsets, driven by violent passions, demand that we fear Muslims, immigrants and anyone who speaks a different tongue than the imperial language. Dark forces wish to avert or gaze and shape it, turning the other into a monstrosity or a specter to haunt our sleep. Diversity of dress turns into a clarion call for discrimination, and everyone is conditioned by the forces of commerce to feel shame at their bodies, to feel ugliness because they will not or cannot shape themselves into the common mold.
Human contact is being reduced to a fleeting series of experiences based on swiping a cell phone screen. Alone and shallow, the masses seek sexual release, but cold and fearful of deeper bonds, because such bonds may distract us from our material pursuits, and produce gazes that will inspire us to devote ourselves to the life of another. One of the film’s truly tragic characters, Giles (Richard Jenkins), is a gay man living in a time that refuses to accept him and condemns him to a profound loneliness. Alone with the being Elisa loves, he confesses to him that he feels he was born into the wrong era. The revolutionary students in Paris during May 1968 aptly stated in their graffiti, “Society is a carnivorous flower.”
During my romantic ordeal I was constantly advised that the best solution to my predicament would be “to work out,” “try to look better.” The status quo tells us we cannot see each other differently, or truly. In Del Toro’s film the dark agents of the state represent the forces preventing Elisa and the being from being together, because they cannot fathom that such a union is even acceptable. Strickland makes it abundantly clear that to him, the being is an animal, a creature whose origin, culture, background or even language are not worth his time. How could he ever imagine Elisa loving such a strange creation? When Elisa determines to rescue her beloved from the government compound where he is shackled, she is not only pursuing her love, she is defying the fascist overlords determined to shape society as they see fit. Love becomes action, fueled by its yearning against loneliness, it becomes bold and unafraid.
The core message of The Shape of Water is the most dangerous sort. The love it proposes is destructive and spontaneous, creative and monstrous because it shatters a repressive, fixed idea of how things should be. I could not help but think about Jerusalem and the Middle East while watching this film. The president’s recent announcement concerning the status of that ancient city is now a living, bloody example of the imposed borders dividing entire nations. Two peoples are battling over this city, with multiple traditions and histories contained within their own communities. Land has become a division between individuals’ very characters. In this conflict there is no more radical idea than co-existence, or “the specter of binationalism” as leftist Israeli filmmaker Udi Aloni terms it. The revolutionary forces which could set the region ablaze in a different sort of radical vision will have to come from a change in a gaze, in the reaching out to hold another’s hand. Even if revolution is violent, its birth pangs will have to come from seeing the other not as another race or cultural entity, but as another heart and mind. As the Palestinian critic and scholar Edward Said once wrote, “Survival in fact is about the connections between things; in Eliot’s phrase, reality cannot be deprived of the ‘other echoes [that] inhabit the garden.’”
The great moment of Del Toro’s film comes in an underwater vision of the two lovers embracing, floating in the reverie of their intimacy. The bond is complete, and their union now flows through them. “You reach the fluid state, which is one of ghosts,” wrote the poet Margaret Yourcenar in her work Fires, written as a mythological response to a shattering experience of heartbreak. The image can serve as a striking metaphor, because all peoples are products of a long evolutionary history, there is no such thing as pure blood, as a pure race. Loneliness does not discriminate and neither does genuine love. This is why status quos have always feared the mixing of bloodlines, because it is dangerous in its revolutionary implications. The radical Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton, in a moment of romantic reflection, writes in the poem, “Toward a Better Love,“ that “the difference between the sexes burns much better in the loving depth of night when all those secrets that kept us masked and alien are revealed.”
As the year closes to the pounding drumbeat of conflict and possible, gathering war clouds, a film like The Shape of Water is subversive without meaning to be political. It invites us to consider the strange, romantic pairing of its two main characters, and in challenging us with this vision, it challenges us to consider how we view each other. We must dismiss the cosmetic pomp of national anthems and blood and land cults, and see each other as individual republics. Imagine if we could then cross our borders and dismiss our flags, and if hazel eyes became beacons from wild and distant shores. And if those eyes or that voice calls back, what a new world that would be. This is what they fear the most.
Alci Rengifo is a Contributing Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.