Despite its title, Shapeless (2021) does have a distinct character of its own. Director Samantha Aldana succeeds at exploring eating disorder that serves as a metaphor for losing the will to live. However, the story’s potential is compromised by the underused body horror layer that screams for more development.
Ivy (Kelly Murtagh) doesn’t feel fulfilled in her life. Her artistic career hangs by a thread since the band she leads can’t make it outside of a semi-busy bar on a less-than-semi busy week. Things are slow to say the least. Naturally, that doesn’t bode well for an artist who refuses to take another route career-wise. Frustrated and unhappy, Ivy spirals into a state of limbo, as if trapped in moving sands in which she loses herself.
Yet what truly halts Ivy from realizing her potential is bulimia, a copying mechanism against the stress she’s under. As her frustration grows, the eating disorder becomes more vivid too. Samantha Aldana seizes that opportunity, and portrays the mental burden that Ivy carries through bizarre, and often perturbing imagery. Ivy often clings onto the toilet, and the shots of the protagonist wrapped in food foil, set against black, hollow backgrounds, strongly reminded me of a similar artistic concept that Under The Skin (2013) opted for. In Shapeless (2021), such scenes work like a noose tightening around Ivy’s neck – her disease takes over, progressively, and there seems to be no way out of that tragic state.
Further worsening of that situation is explored through the psychological torment of the protagonist, as well as her deepening physical transformation. In one scene that arrives quite early on, Ivy’s ominous hallucinations begin, with a vision of her fingers molding together in a tissue pulp. Then, the director conjures up far more appalling ideas (bringing to mind my favorite animated gem from 2020, Korean anime horror Beauty Water). We’re back with fingers that grow out of Ivy’s back, as well as eyes popping on her arms.
Frankly, the film never embraces the potential conceived by those bizarre visions. Arguably, these bodily moments ooze a mysterious aura for the sake of their own visual appeal, not to serve a particular plot-based mechanism. Ivy’s transformation lacks the graphic punch, one that worked so well in Swallow (2019), a close kin of Shapeless (2021). Furthermore, Aldana leaves too much space for interpretations – are these really hallucinations, or is it some sort of cosmic possession going on?
Even if the horror part doesn’t fully deliver on its promise, I feel that Shapeless (2021) runs on the fuel of Kelly Murtagh. It’s her riveting performance that glues the pieces together. Murtagh, who spent years fighting with bulimia on her own, channels that same struggle without exaggeration. Candies, and junk food constitute a retreat that Ivy hungrily grasps, and so these little cheat-day specials become her own prison.
Horror fans will call it a blasphemy, yet I dare to say Samantha Aldana deserves applause for the way her film oozes unease without reaching for extremes. I know I’ve mentioned that Shapeless (2021) could benefit from more vivid nightmares, however Aldana avoided the trap of sacrificing drama for gore. Given the film’s premise, I walked in with images from aforementioned movie Swallow (2019), and was slightly afraid that Shapeless (2021) might be a bit derivative in portraying an eating disorder. The director found her own voice here, dark and less aesthetically pleasing than Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ flick.
Among the enjoyable parts of this slowburn horror drama, I need to stress out DP Natalie Kingston’s cinematography. I praised her work on Lost Bayou (2019), and Shapeless (2021) cements my opinion regarding Kingston. She takes a curious point of view in Shapeless (2021), one that constantly feels as if we’re peeping toms, who abuse the privacy of Ivy. Such a method of camerawork pinpoints Ivy’s shame, and how she uses the band, the shows and other gimmicks as facades, all of which take the spotlight away from her growing pains.
Some scenes simply marvel, such as an ingenious party sequence choreographed to Ghostpoet’s hypnotizing collaboration with Massive Attack. Dipped in slo-mo, and neon lighting straight from Nicolas Winding Refn’s dossier, that one scene was a turning point after which I let Shapeless (2021) in entirely. Score as a whole adds a lot to the film’s unnerving atmosphere too. Joe Ceponis and Mandy Hoffman created a hectic, stuffy soundtrack that confines the protagonist even more.
Some viewers will feel let down by the film’s horror tag, and the unfulfilled premise of such categorization. However, Samantha Aldana succeeded at breaking down the vicious circle of how people trap themselves in paths to self-destruction. The only thing missing here is a conclusion that would tie all the knots together and leave a lasting impact. Nonetheless, Aldana’s directorial debut proves she should be considered a major talent to watch.