Tummy Monster

Tummy Monster (2024)

Tummy Monster has its world première at the Glasgow Film Festival 2024

Tattoos are forever – permanent reminders of history and identity. They may grow, date and fade with the owner, gradually losing their initial lustre and showing their age, but they endure, either as proud badges of lost youth, or embarrassing souvenirs of long abandoned sentiments, tastes and urges. As a tattoo artist, Tales (Lorn Macdonald) knows all about the indelibility of his work, and is well used to getting under his clients’ skin and leaving lasting impressions – but he is also in denial of his own advancing years and his status as a father, and regularly trades in his partners for ever younger models, in flight from the adult responsibility that will not leave him alone. He is talented, certainly, but also cuts a pathetic figure – and when we first meet him at the beginning of Ciaran Lyons’ feature debut Tummy Monster, he has had to take up residence in his own tattoo parlour after his girlfriend Roxy has kicked him out of her flat. Though deft at inscribing with ink needles, he struggles to compose a simple, sincere text to his ex.

With nowhere else to go, Tales is stuck, a prisoner to problems of his own making – and the film too will remain within the confines of the messy tattoo parlour and its shopfront. In the wee hours of the night, a young, massively famous pop star (Orlando Norman) – who will later refer to himself jokingly in a text as ‘Tummy’, although that is almost certainly not his real name – will arrive wanting some new ink (you can guess where), accompanied by his minder Truth (Michael Akinsilure). Tales does the tattoo work and takes his payment – but when he also requests a selfie with the musician, claiming it is for his young niece Lola even though both Tummy and we suspect it is more to boost Tales’ own sense of self-importance, Tummy will decline and, with a glint in his eye, make a bizarre counterdemand: “Rub your tummy or I’ll think you’re an asshole.” As this instruction gets repeated, mantra-like, over many hours, Tales takes up the challenge and refuses to back down, in what becomes a battle of wits and a game of power that will ever so slowly expose the tattoo artist for the arsehole he truly is.

Tales’ real name is the rather more mundane Tim – but the nickname encodes his propensity for spinning self-serving deceits to cover over his own flaws. Accordingly this ongoing conversation, stage-managed by Tummy as a kind of performance piece in which he is fully invested, becomes for Tales a long, dark night of the soul, where he is forced at last to take ownership of the foibles and failings that are perfectly legible to everyone else if never quite to him, and to face the consequences of his own self-destructive drives. Yet even with Truth literally at his door, Tales remains locked into his own delusions, and cannot see himself, despite mounting evidence to the contrary and an unpleasant feeling deep in his gut, as anything but a winner.   

As they thresh out their combative discourse on celebrity, ego, compromise, self-image, self-knowledge and the ravages of time, Tummy Monster is presented as a dialectic between these two artists. They are superficially similar, both covered in tattoos and addicted to the same flavour of vape – but one is still on his way up and the other moving very much in the opposite direction. Effortlessly cool and surrounded by a glow of self-assurance, Tummy is everything that Tales wishes he still was, while Tales represents one possibility of where, with the inevitable passing of his youth, Tummy might be headed. It is almost as though they are both, as artists often do, looking in the mirror for some kind of insight.

Lit in neon blues and reds like a giallo, and suffused with punkish energy, this close character study adopts an Aristotelian unity of time and place to offer a synoptic view of Tales’ life and work – and while it is funny and weird and never quite goes where expected, at its heart lies a cruel truth about the desperation with which we can at times try to conceal realities that are in fact written all over us, skin deep and plain for all to see. It is an unusual and confident calling card from a writer/director (also voicing all the men heard on cellphones in the film) whose future looks a lot more promising than his protagonist’s, and from actors who make their mark.

strap: Ciaran Lyons’ parlour piece is a portrait of a tattoo artist as a no longer so young man, inscribed all over with deception, denial and delusion that only he cannot see.

© Anton Bitel