The Shape of Water
The protagonist doesn't speak, and neither does the one she loves. Her confidante is a single man in late middle age, struggling in vain for work. These are not the heroes you expect, the violence that punctuates the film isn't there to make you swoon in awe. The Shape of Water isn't a movie whose like you will have seen before, or at least, not done this well. The closest comparison that comes to mind is Splash (1984), in which A-list alphas Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah pretend to be outsiders.
Subversion of the norm isn't enough by itself, of course: what made this film so captivating? Sally Hawkins in the central role, a mute girl of expressive eyes and sign language, conjures up in her performance something wistful, lonely, but optimistic. Her empathy for a monster, held by the government agency she works for as a cleaner, is filled with both compassion and believable desire. Their love scene is one to remember, involving a flooded bathroom and glittering, alien blue.
But there are a dozen film reviews already extolling how good this film is, in terms of plot, sincerity and character. Why did I feel so emotional during this film? The idiom of monsters and freaks is unavoidable: in the post-Second-World War surroundings of this film, African Americans and gay men are asked to leave an empty bar room – it's a place for families, they're told – while people who don't conform live alone like refugees. Sexual love seems impossible for the girl. A transgender narrative, perhaps, of the fear of a future consigned to isolation. It takes something special to give Hawkins's character hope, while an agent played by Michael Shannon – whose name could be Patriarchy – is both fascinated and repulsed by difference and desperate for the sake of his career to track them down and rid them from normality.Anyway, it's rare to see a Valentine's Day film celebrate difference to this degree, and make it look this sexy and alluring. It's the nuclear-family love life of Shannon's chauvinistic agent that looks garishly devoid of warmth; it's the soiled bathroom of the silent girl that becomes this fantasy's equivalent of the balcony of Romeo and Juliet. Difference as something attractive and sexual: even if Hollywood is guilty of selling lies about romance, give me more of this kind of romance.