Director Samantha Aldana’s Shapeless (2021), co-written by its lead actress Kelly Murtagh and Bryce Parsons-Twesten, is a confrontational work. Based on Murtagh’s personal experiences with an eating disorder, it provokes uncomfortable questions about our inadequacy as a society to care about those who are struggling to care for themselves.
The quote, “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say”, is often attributed to the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, but its origin is unclear. Shapeless asks us individually and collectively whether we have the understanding to match our vocal empathy. Do our words speak as loudly as our actions?
The protagonist of the story is Ivy (Murtagh), a New Orleans singer who takes to the small stages in the bars with her band. Working a day job in a commercial dry cleaner to top up the modest pay-checks, she shares a warm camaraderie with the band, bound by their love of music and performing. Ivy, however, is secretly struggling with a debilitating eating disorder that’s threatening her instrument: her voice.
Aldana effectively uses genre and body horror to complement the story she, Murtagh, and Parsons-Twesten are trying to tell. The emphasis on genre heightens Ivy’s anxious reality, but it does not lessen the authenticity. The director is able to express the troubling reality of her protagonist, and yet keep the story grounded in colourful and musical New Orleans.
What’s striking is Aldana and cinematographer Natalie Kingston’s expressionistic use of the camera to see the world from Ivy’s point of view. The grotesque detail of people eating fries, peanuts, or fast food, and slurping soda through a straw are presented in slow motion. It reminds the audience how disgusting the act of eating can be. This echoes a scene in Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs (1989), when Tom Hanks’ character reluctantly, and nauseously, munches on a snack in the Klopek’s house. It’s a scene I still fast forward through or mute because it makes me feel as nauseous as the character. Shapeless comes the closest to replicating that level of discomfort.
Ivy’s inner anxieties are laid bare, and yet, Aldana retains a distance. She strikes a balance between intimately exposing her audience to Ivy’s inner demons, and positioning them as passive observers. This juxtaposition is central to her intent.
Ivy hallucinates, seeing her body deformed, but there are moments when it’s from our point of view that we see her body afflicted with sores, or transforming into something that resembles the monstrous in horror cinema. It may be anxiety transferred, but is Ivy transforming, or is it metaphorical? It’s a question that shouldn’t be answered literally. This is about how we live inside of our minds. We experience intrusive thoughts, some violent, some sexual, others expressionistic. We’re capable of reimagining our reality through our imagination and semi-conscious state.
There are two realities we live in, the internal and external, and Ivy’s experience explores this idea within the scope of an eating disorder. The visual distortion Aldana and Kingston use in select scenes effectively express this movement between two emotional and psychological spaces. It reminds us that behind the façade, a person’s psyche can be crumbling. It’s only a matter of time before their life will be ripped apart, as the separation between their internal and external, or introverted and extroverted, disintegrates.
The difficulty is when we lose rationale over the two, and the mind turns against us or is hijacked. By the film’s end, Ivy serves as a solemn cry about how as a society, people are being allowed to become victims of disorders and illnesses. Such people are marginalised figures, like ghosts wandering among the living, gotten by the devil.
Shapeless is not about sensationalising the struggle of being a woman. Putting aside its female-centric story and the statistical evidence that anorexia afflicts a higher percentage of women than men, the film moves beyond gender to offer an insight into the broader human psyche. It’s a disquieting exploration of how difficult it is to help either ourselves or others. It asks, can we help people with mental health issues, or are we allowing people to be marginalised by it?
The director deliberately chooses a path that blurs the answer to that question. Yes, Ivy pushes people away and forces those around her to protect themselves, but there’s no support network, even though one bandmate tells her that they’re there for her. There are no easy answers to these issues. Neither are the questions we need to ask easy, especially when society is a hostile incubator of guilt and shame.
A rendition of “St James Infirmary Blues” recurs in the film. A line in the song m refers to escaping the devil. Shapeless could be contextualised as a prison escape film, only the escape is not from incarceration behind concrete and metal but from the trappings of one’s own mind.