Shapeless (2021)

Shapeless first published by Movies On Weekends

Shapeless opens in the bathroom of a run-down New Orleans apartment, and will return there repeatedly. This is the most private space of Ivy – the place where her naked body is exposed, at least to her own unforgiving eyes, and also evacuated. Played by Kelly Murtagh (who also penned the screenplay with co-writer Bryce Parsons-Twesten), Ivy works at a dry cleaner’s by day, regularly running late but doing her job well enough, while by night she pursues her passion as the singer in a jazz quartet at a dive bar. She also frequents a more opulent club in the wee hours where she dreams of having a gig – and this is no idle fantasy, as the club’s owner Dylan (Marco Dapper) has already noticed the ‘raw’ quality of her voice, and is keen to poach her. 

It might be said that, in her professional ambitions, Ivy has Starry Eyes (2014) – and stars form something of a motif in Shapeless. Ivy tells her closest friend if not quite lover the bassist Oscar (Bobby Gilchrist) that she would like, if only her landlady would allow it, to paint her bedroom ceiling black so that she could put stars on it. Oscar draws a star on her wrist as compensation, and later, in a drunken moment of flirtation, tells her that his drawing was modelled on a star “of the Lacerta constellation, which means ‘beautiful’ in Latin”, before he admits that it in fact means ‘lizard’. Yet even as Ivy’s star seems to be rising, there is another aspect of her life that she keeps secret from her boss, her friends, even from Oscar. For while Ivy may be a beauty, all she can see is the lizard – or more precisely, flesh that cyclically shifts and sloughs and scars and transforms – and the only way that she can subdue the creature within is to feed it. 

In other words, Samantha Aldana’s feature debut as director allegorises Ivy’s eating disorder through the idioms of the monster movie and body horror. As Ivy avoids the after-hours company of her band members to conceal her serial binging and purging, she becomes like a vampire or werewolf, except that her only victim is herself. For here we are watching a woman in trouble and in free fall, burning all her bridges and destroying all her dreams. And when she loses everything, only one comfort remains that can still fill the gaping, yearning hole in her life.

In Shapeless, images come duplicated, distorted, diffracted, defocused, decontextualised and defamiliarised, as cinematographer Natalie Kingston uses blurring and flaring lights, unusual framing, extreme close-ups and reflections to show Ivy’s alienation from her environment and herself, and to find an impressionistic, kaleidoscopic visual code for her body dysmorphia. These in-camera effects are occasionally reinforced by grotesque metamorphoses in Ivy’s body, as webbing, lesions, burns, even eyes and fingers emerge through her skin, manifesting the instability of her self-image and the source of her deep shame. Mandy Hoffman’s discordant score, too, brings an insistent, buzzing note of disharmony to a film otherwise filled with the joys of jazz. This tension between the way that Ivy appears to the world, and the way that she sees herself, will eventually reach a breaking point, yielding a portrait all at once tragic, horrific and – importantly – sympathetic, as a woman is undone by her own uncontrollable, undiagnosed drives and urges. Perhaps its closest analogue is Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ Swallow (2019), but Shapeless is very much its own hybrid beast, simultaneously ugly and beautiful.

strap: In Samantha Aldana’s feature debut, a woman’s body dysmorphia is expressed through the idioms of body horror

Anton Bitel