Shapeless springs from a place of pain and healing for its lead and co-screenwriter Kelly Murtagh. Having battled an eating disorder, Murtagh channeled her trauma and recovery into this uneven genre movie directed by Samantha Aldana.
Murtagh’s dedication leaps off the screen every time we get an overwhelming shot of her character Ivy. Going about her day and engaging in the most mundane activities, Ivy strives to conceal her secret. Whether she is shopping at the supermarket, bored at work, or crooning with her band in a New Orleans bar. Forty minutes in, she’s hunching over a toilet, purging after an eating spree.
With the burden of bulimia to carry in silence, even the most menial tasks become unbearable and horrifying for Ivy. As the film progresses, one can almost feel Murtagh cutting herself open to deliver a gripping turn as this singer feeding and purging her demons. A self-sabotaging character, this Poison Ivy fosters a toxic environment for herself and those around her, including her oblivious bandmates.
When she learns her disorder could affect her vocal cords, Ivy will need to reassess her life. Of course, the process is anything but smooth. Particularly since Ivy and bartender Addie (Jamie Neumann) are in an unspoken rivalry, consumed under the sultry neon lights of the New Orleans’ club scene. The blonde protagonist, constantly watching over her back for fear of being replaced in the band, is attracted and repulsed at once by this brunette nemesis and her singing skills.
Shapeless relies on impressive practical effects
Presented at Tribeca Film Festival 2021, Aldana’s movie could have been a straight-up drama tackling eating disorders. The filmmakers choose to turn this story into a horror movie, giving a face — or multiple — to an invisible monster that’s still often swept under the rug. That’s what Ivy does, after all. Failing to disclose her condition to her doctor and closest friends, she finds solace and terror in her bulimia.
The body horror elements are perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the movie. The audience follows Ivy as she manifests her innermost thoughts and fears in the form of terrifying hallucinations. Through image distortions, amplified diegetic sound, and impressive use of prosthetics, Ivy’s body dysmorphia becomes tangible and smothering. She sees eyes and mouths popping up on her own body as she interacts with others. Fingers and hands protrude out of her back, digging into her insides. It’s a sight that is hard to behold, but somehow manages to be sublimely captivating.
It’s a shame there isn’t much else there to sustain this promising film. Shapeless is a style-over-substance horror playing with incredible practical effects but tragically light on structure. To brand the film as spineless sounds harsh given Murtagh has visibly poured her own experience into it. Nonetheless, the script is too flimsy for the audience to truly invest in the story, to the detriment of an important message and of Murtagh’s performance.
Lacking structure and a twist
A visually harrowing look at eating disorders, Shapeless provides the general public with the tools to grasp the reality of bulimia through inventive, spot-on depictions. Clearly, the film had this ultimate goal in mind, rather than aiming directly at those who have battled EDs. At times, one is under the impression that such a beautifully shot film could have worked better as performance art or a short movie. It’s significant that the movie’s strongest moments aren’t to be found in Ivy’s interactions with others.
Shapeless is at its most powerful when Ivy allows herself to just be, away from prying or concerned eyes. Whenever she is alone, the perfect image she wants to project cracks under the weight of the pile of junk food she is hoarding in the cupboard. In her car. Under her bed.
Even when she appears to be on her own, however, the character is never free. It is commendable and refreshing that Shapeless doesn’t try to fix or cure Ivy within its relatively short narrative arc. This decision is a heartbreaking testament to the long, uphill road to recovery, which, more often than not, isn’t consistent and includes relapses. At the same time, the audience awaits a climax that is never really delivered. All the genre’s clues point in the direction of a big twist waiting to happen, and it’s disappointing to see that promise unfulfilled, especially in the haunting but rather empty finale.
Stefania Sarrubba is a feminist entertainment writer based in London, UK. Traumatized at an early age by Tim Curry’s Pennywise and Dario Argento’s films, she grew up convinced horror wasn’t her thing. Until she sank her teeth into cannibal movies with a female protagonist. Yum.