There are two sets of texture at play in The Shape of Water (2017): the heavy, solid, aluminium world of post-war modernity, of consumer goods and Technicolor cinema, and the aqueous, refractive fluidity of something else – an otherworldly society – which sloshes at the margins. Halfway through the film, these two worlds come together. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) rides the early morning bus to work and watches two droplets of rain on the shuddering windowpane; they dance along the surface of the glass, endowed with their own agency, and fuse into one another.
The two droplets literalize what happened the night before when Elisa, a mute and lonely cleaner, consummates her relationship with ‘The Asset’, a humanoid aquatic creature that she helped to escape from the secret government facility where she works. The Asset was kidnapped by the US in the Amazon (the indigenous people treated it as a God) and brought to Baltimore by the sadistic Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon). The Americans and Soviets are interested in its supernatural powers, which could have value in the Cold War arms race; a parallel plot follows an undercover Russian scientist working at the US facility, who turns against his Stalinist bosses, and helps Elisa smuggle the Asset out to freedom.
This might all sound a bit too schematic, but it is the kind of scheme that inspires generosity: The Shape is the story of a disabled cleaner, a dissident communist, and a gay man (Elisa’s neighbour) successfully conspiring to free a prisoner of US imperialism. It is precisely Elisa’s disability that gives her a sensitivity to the Asset’s latent humanity, and it is her class position that allows her to get away with the daring escape, unsuspected (‘Why am I interviewing the fucking help?’, the anguished colonel says when trying to find out where the Asset has gone). Elisa and the Asset’s inter-species sexual relationship is treated as an expressionistic, and comic, consequence of their solidarity.
After an ET-esque chase conclusion, the Asset transforms the scars on Elisa’s neck into gills and they live a life of love under the sea. In other words, rather than ‘curing’ her disability, the Asset conjures a world in which her social difference can be transcended; normality must shift to accommodate the marginalised, not the other way round. There is a not too subtle allegory for miscegenation here. But it also raises a narrative problem. Despite the fantastical mode, The Shape of Water is set in actually-existing 1960s Baltimore: there is explicit racism towards black characters and we see ‘race riots’ on the TV news. So, why resort to allegories when the real problem is there in front of you?