“That was beautiful, and I cried, but why did she have to fuck the fish?” was the general sentiment I heard as I left the theatre when Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water finished screening. It is indeed a strange one to grapple with - a fish creature and human woman? Not just an unlikely pairing, but a complex and morally ambiguous one. Yet there is a long-established tradition of the other-worldly lure of all that is aquatic. For millennia, we have looked to bodies of water in all their unfathomable, unexplored depth and felt that anything could be out there, conjuring impossible creatures out of the surf.
Perhaps the earliest example of this can be found in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus must be tied to the mast of his ship to prevent him acting on the Siren’s song, as they try to lure the men to their deaths on the sharp rocks. Such images of sensuous yet dangerous water-women have pervaded in folklore in various forms all over the world. There are selkies, magical seal-folk traditionally forced into marriage by human men who cannot resist their terrible beauty, only to trick them out of their children years later when they return to the sea. There are water nymphs who can change shape at will, amoral and potentially dangerous, mermaids who pull men to their watery doom, and kelpies, beautiful female water-spirits who take the form of a horse to lure travellers to their death, of course.
There is a clear, ancient tradition that links water and the erotic feminine; a tradition that includes The Shape of Water’s Elisa. The first and last images of Elisa show her suspended in water; there is the motif of her masturbating in the bath; her throat bears mysterious gill-like scars. Male water-creatures are a more interesting and less widely explored concept. In such tales, men more often appear as the seafarers, the adventurers, the ones who have an experience with the unknowable and alluring female creature. In this sense the traditional male and female roles within the film are reversed: Elisa is the active party whilst the creature remains trapped and vulnerable, forced to be passive in this alien environment. Like those sailors of old, she is bewitched by this otherworldly creature, which thankfully has no designs on her life.
Though they are clearly bonded by their outsider status - one cannot speak, and one is genuinely an aquatic life form - something sits strangely. The idea of a non-human (though humanoid) being unable to consent or seemingly understand the situation leaves a sour taste on the tongue. Elisa can sign, but the creature cannot communicate except by expressive eye contact. It is possible that this unease is intentional, showing us that a love like theirs just doesn’t work on dry land, within a human template. The relationship can only ‘work’ when Elisa becomes a water-creature too, her scars opening up as gills in the final scene. Together, forever, they are where they both belong. This is exacerbated by the feeling that Elisa herself is not quite part of our world, sealed off both by her silence and mysterious, private nature.
Some of the most beautiful scenes in the film have to do with this troubled romance. There’s the pale light of the bathroom scene when Eliza steps, naked, into the tub with the creature for the first time, the green and white of the tub and the walls, the woman and the creature. Later, half suspended in the waters of the flooded bathroom, the pair ignore the chaos reigning outside amid the timeless, magical, womb-like state they are in. Del Toro has called it ‘a fairytale for troubled times’ and it is just that - mythical, otherworldly, with a clear ‘good’ and ‘evil’. For many, however, it is troubling rather than soothing.
That unease lingers, and the fact that a water creature and a woman have a sexual relationship – and not its exploration of difference, isolation and hope - is still the thing that seems to be forefront in discussions about the film. Del Toro has described the film as a parable that ‘not only speaks of tolerance and solidarity, it gives voice, literally, to the voiceless. It gathers a group of invisible people that rescue the ultimate outsider, which is this creature and they find the beautiful and the divine and the lovable in the other.’ This message is sadly overshadowed by the sexual relationship between Elisa and the creature, without which I feel the film would work just as well, if not better. Though the sex feels strangely inevitable, there are other meaningful bonds aside from the erotic. A deep connection, a love of sorts, could have been established and celebrated on a platonic level, which I feel would serve to accentuate the other themes in the film. However, del Toro is merely following this long established connection in the cultural psyche between water and the erotic - the mystery, the beauty, the unknown. Why did she have to fuck the fish? It was always going to happen.