Psychological disorders can be incredibly lonely…
…It can be difficult enough to find sympathy for ailments that are obvious, but when the issue stems from the mind, it’s easier for others to look away or ignore it altogether. It can make you feel abandoned. Alone. The person you see in the mirror can start to look like a monster, the self you want to deal with but don’t know how. Director Samantha Aldana shines a light on that monster with her debut feature Shapeless, having just premiered at Tribeca, and the results are difficult to swallow.
Written by star Kelly Murtagh and Bryce Parsons-Twesten, Shapeless centers around Ivy (Murtagh), an up and coming singer with a food disorder. The worse Ivy’s disorder gets, the more she finds it destroying her life and beginning to shape her body into something ugly, leaving her to face it head on, or become the monster inside her.
(Note: I do not have an eating disorder, nor do I know anyone with one. I will do my best to speak on this topic with sensitivity, but please forgive me if I get anything wrong, as I know it is a sensitive issue.)
Opening on a chilling score from Mandy Hoffman which permeates throughout, Aldana wastes no time planting us into the psychologically disturbing mindset of Ivy. From a bath which feels cold and isolated to blurred faces at a nightclub as Ivy sings, she instantly comes off as someone alone within herself despite being surrounded by an active nightlife. Natalie Kingston’s gorgeous cinematography initially infuses the screen with deep reds, blues and greens and projects hazy, glowing lighting on Ivy to give her a sense of life, but that lighting quickly begins to fade, turning to imagery that is dark and lit with a sickly hue as time goes on.
Murtagh delivers a raw, daring performance as Ivy, brilliantly countering moments of empathy with bouts of rage as her condition progresses. She is neither good nor bad, but a character that is struggling with an issue that threatens to tear her apart, and you don’t have to have suffered from any sort of eating disorder to relate to that struggle. Aldana and Murtagh make sure to bring an understanding of the issue to the audience in ways that will have you squirming in your seat.
Unsettling sound design presents noises like Ivy’s hunger as something monstrous and inhuman. Shapeless gets you up close and personal with the images and sounds of chewing, swallowing, and yes, vomiting, and the experience is nauseating. But I don’t want you to get the wrong idea and think this is a film purely focused on grossing you out. Instead, the filmmakers handle the subject with great care, wanting the audience to see this disorder for what it is rather than exploit it. Some of the hardest to watch scenes don’t come from queasy body horror, but from witnessing Ivy’s struggle, such as when she eats part of a breakfast bar, puts it back in the fridge, then comes back to it again and again before finally throwing it in the garbage…and comes back to it once more.
Shapeless puts us in the shoes of a type of addict that never gets the proper attention brought to them in media. We watch Ivy as she lies to checkout clerks about why she’s buying so many snacks, makes excuses to her friends about why she can’t eat, and ravages food in her car, hidden from sight. Murtagh also incorporates various tics to bring a sense of realism to Ivy’s disorder, rubbing at her skin, biting her nails and occasionally pacing like an animal trapped in a cage. Food is a drug for Ivy, and the world consistently blurs around her, altering her perception until she gets her next fix.
There is some incredibly cringey body horror in Shapeless, ranging from strange, puckered gashes to actual fingers poking out of Ivy’s back like someone trapped inside and trying to escape. While the effects look great, they are used sparingly, which the audience’s eyeballs should probably be thankful for, though I do feel the elements of body horror could’ve been used more often to heighten the trauma of Ivy’s image of herself. Still, Shapeless takes the concept of body dysmorphia to a whole new terrifying level.
Unfortunately, despite Murtagh’s breathtaking performance and purposeful direction by Aldana, Shapeless ultimately fails to fully connect us with Ivy by avoiding so much of the inner workings of her character. The focus is heavy on her disorder, but shies away from other important elements of her life such as relationships and her career. We get the sense that Ivy wants to be a successful singer, but never really get a good idea of what exactly is driving her or the disorder which torments her. Part of that is due to the film sacrificing Ivy’s outside world to enhance her isolation. The people she knows and meet feel unimportant, many of them blurred, or with the shot focused on their hands or a face in a mirror, highlighting the false projection of how we see ourselves.
For such an intensely disturbing film, Shapeless doesn’t quite deliver that finishing gut-punch that it should.
Regardless, Shapeless is a tragic film, tackling difficult subjects that aren’t easy to digest and doing so with a sharp precision that may leave those with weaker stomachs feeling wounded. Not everything clicks just right, but Murtagh is utterly captivating, and I’d recommend this film to anyone seeking a better understanding of eating disorders, the devastation they can cause and the signs you shouldn’t ignore from your loved ones.
By Matt Konopka