Tales have been told for thousands of years about creatures which are part human and part water-creature. These hybrids are usually female in Graeco-Roman and European myth and legend, but British Islanders have also imagined male varieties.
Odysseus’s dangerous Scylla is an ancient example of the former, while the part-seal creature in the Scottish legend of the Silkie of Sule Skerry (as in the folk song) is one of the latter. The Loreley on the Rhein started out as just a big rock, but came to have a malevolent presence and eventually a female form.
These creatures make their way into works of art, such as painting, but notably also opera, in the form of the Rhine Maidens in Wagner’s Ring. They occasionally also venture into feature films, a notable but ambiguous example being Neil Jordan’s Ondine (2009) in which it’s Colin Farrell who has the encounter.
And there is even an Australian example: Selkie (2000). Donald Crombie’s film is intended for a young audience, and more about coming-of-age than the supernatural. The alien transformation is a metaphor for the changes of adolescence.
I understand all these imaginations as stemming originally from an aspect of animism – which sees a soul in all things. It’s one more small step to imagining that these things with souls – such as rocks and water – look surprisingly like human beings, and then one more to making them part-human.
If the creature is completely alien, as in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017) then the opportunity presents itself to investigate another metaphor: to do with the problem of communication. One sub-text of the story is about cultural collision – shown here as the absence of a shared language, and the best thing about the film is the way it deals with that.
Does Love Serenade (Shirley Barrett, 1996) belong to the same family of narratives? In both stories the male is also a fish – or behaves like one: breathing under water. In both cases he successfully seduces the maiden. Is Ken Sherry a silkie?
I say, narratologically, no! The shapes of the stories differ.
Whereas in the ancient legends and in Ondine and The Shape of Water, the ambiguous creature emerges from its watery element at the beginning of the narrative, and the encounter takes place in that context, Shirley Barrett’s story begins in (bucolic) suburbia, and one of the points of the film is the depiction of the barrenness of the sisters’ existence in Sunray. When the new bloke turns up next door, he may appear to have an exotic charm to Dimity and Vicki-Ann, but we viewers can see that he is merely an old sleazebag.
So when the first fishy event occurs, it comes out of the blue, and the ending of the film lurches into another mode of being – which cannot be explained by anything in the narrative!
This kind of non sequitur is what happens in dreams – and therefore also in surrealism, which is the best hermeneutic to explain this film.
The brilliant charm of this unusual film comes from the fact that it so successfully situates its small group of characters in their ordinary houses in their tiny tawdry town – and then throws all that out of the window in the last scene, and says: Surprise!