From Fashion To Fishmen: These 2 Oscar-Nominated Films Have Redefined The Word Love

Posted by Himali Kothari in Culture-Vulture
March 6, 2018

There is a poem by Margaret Atwood – “Variations on the Word Love“. You could call it a love poem for want of a more appropriate descriptive genre. In the first verse, she laments the misuse of the word love. How it has been misused and abused such that it seems like the word no longer holds the meaning it was meant to. She writes,

“This is a word we use to plug
holes with. It’s the right size for those warm
blanks in speech, for those red heart-
shaped vacancies on the page that look nothing
like real hearts…”

In the second verse, she talks about the feeling, which is too infinite for the four letters to contain and describe.

“Then there’s the two of us. This word
is far too short for us…
…O again and again in wonder
and pain, a breath, a finger
grip on a cliffside. You can
hold on or let go.” 

Love, more specifically romantic love, has been the most popular theme ever since stories were first told. What is a love story? Boy meets girl (or boy meets boy or girl meets girl). They fall in love. There is a complication. They solve the complication. Dah-di-dah-di-dah… they live (or die) happily ever after. Heard it? Seen it? Read it? Probably a gazillion times.

Why then do love stories continue to be told and often told in a way that they have not been told in before? Probably because each writer manages to find their variation on the word love, which is unique and unexplored. We watch, we smile at the first kiss, tears flood our eyes and spill out, our insides scream as the lovers struggle and the breath catches as the story spirals towards a happily ever after (or not).

It is the time of love stories at the movies this week. The first, “Phantom Thread”, is the love story of a couturier, Reynolds Woodcock, and a much younger waitress-turned-muse. Reynolds is a much-in-demand couturier amongst the cream of London society. He is a perfectionist and a genius. On a trip to his country house, he meets Alma, a waitress. Does he fall in love? Or has he found his muse? Or do both the things mean the same to him? She is whisked off to his house cum workshop. She plays various roles in his life – lover, muse, model and seamstress. The power in the relationship resides with him. She must bow to his exacting nature, dress in the clothes he makes her without an opinion, stir the tea soundlessly, butter the toast silently and cook asparagus in olive oil, not butter. But, for how long? For Alma may seem timid but she is not. She contrives a way to make Reynolds dependent on her and seize the control in their equation.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds is brilliant as the eccentric genius and is matched every step of the way by Vicky Krieps as Alma and Lesley Manville who plays his sister Cyril. As the end credits roll, I am left unsettled, worried for these two caught in the dynamics created by their personalities.  Neither willing to escape, nor willing to relent, they have forced themselves into a stalemate. An invisible bond ties them to each other, it winds tighter around both in turns, depending on who’s pulling harder.

The premise of “The Shape of Water” is bizarre at first glance. The mute and orphaned Eliza (Sally Hawkins) works as a cleaning lady in a government laboratory. She has two friends, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) her coworker who takes her under her wing and looks out for her, and Giles (Richard Jenkins), her gay and out-of-work artist neighbour. Her life is an endless loop between work and home paused only by the musicals on Giles’ TV set. But, things change when the lab acquires a new asset, an amphibious creature played by Doug Jones. Restrained and tortured by his captors, the creature first experiences tenderness from Eliza when she offers him a boiled egg to eat. Over boiled eggs, they develop a bond and she sneaks into the restricted area to spend time with him as often as possible. In the meantime, Strickland (Michael Shannon), the creature’s captor, loses two fingers when the creature attacks him and he is baying for its blood. It is up to Eliza and her friends to save him and release him to the sea.

While Hawkins stands out, conveying a depth of emotions with her eyes, it is the ensemble performance that elevates the story.

“The Shape of Water” is essentially a love story and storyteller Guillermo del Toro drives that home by making that aspect the central point of his story. The object of love being a mystical creature is incidental. He does not stop at establishing the emotional intimacy between two lonely souls. He takes it a step further and fearlessly explores their physical intimacy as well. The morning after, Eliza’s lipstick is brighter and there is a spring in her step. Zelda takes note and what follows is a non-judgemental ‘how was it’ chat between two girlfriends.

And in effect, that is the underlying theme of the story – it may not be possible to identify with the technicalities of a love that is different from the kind we know ourselves. But, it is not essential, either. Just identifying with it is enough. After all, how complicated can a 4-letter word be?