Shapeless begins with a woman is performing at a nightclub. She’s singing jazz with her bandmates in front of barely a dozen people. As she performs, the music slowly fades away and is replaced with tense strings. Something is going to happen. Alfred Hitchcock’s bomb under-the-table analogy is in full effect here. The tension builds and builds as her voice becomes frailer and frailer. She can’t hit those notes anymore. Her throat won’t let her. And when her throat hurts, she usually undergoes violent and horrific transformations.
And then… it ends. We cut to the next scene, she’s fine. Physically at least. Still not fine mentally, but we don’t have the release that we were expecting. Shapeless is wonderful at creating a sense of dread, an environment that you’re worried about and worried to be in. You KNOW that something is going to happen, but by the end of its 90-minute runtime, there is no release. There is no catharsis. All build-up with no way to let it out. Unlike Hitchcock would have intended, the bomb never goes off. Is that a good thing? Is that effective tension and effective horror?
Needless to say, Shapeless is probably going to be a polarizing film.
Director: Samantha Aldana
Release: June 12, 2021 (Tribeca Film Festival)
Shapeless is the latest in a long trend of horror movies to use its runtime in order to make some social commentary on mental illness. In it, Ivy (Kelly Murtagh) suffers from bulimia and it debilitates her life. Whenever she sees food or drink, she feels the need to go on a binge-purge, but not always for her mental wellbeing. When the desire to purge becomes overwhelming, she begins to have horrifying physical mutations. Sometimes her face will scar, other times her skin will begin to tear apart among many other monstrous changes.
It’s never fully stated if these are meant to be mental delusions that she has to justify her eating disorder or if these are actual transformations. A part of me wishes that the film was a bit clearer on it since the body horror element is one of the movie’s strongest suits. Ivy does whatever she can to hide her transformations from her bandmates or her coworkers, but it stops short of just saying how much of it is real versus fantasy. I know, I know, some may accuse me of wanting a simpler story with easy-to-follow metaphors because I’m a pleb, but Shapeless never fully commits fully to one idea or the other, leaving it rather shapeless itself.
The film is Samantha Aldana’s directorial debut and unlike other films where you can clearly tell it’s someone’s first time, Aldana makes several smart and informed decisions to her craft that I can respect. For example, nearly every character that’s in some position of authority over Ivy, whether it be her boss, an idol she looks up to, or a potential business partner are all shown through mirrors. The focus always stays on Ivy and keeps these other, far more important people, at a distance, reinforcing that Ivy is the center of this story. Not them, her. And when we do see Ivy’s reflections, they’re usually fractured, making her look inhuman, an accurate (I would assume) depiction of how she sees herself.
All of this is to stay that visually, the movie is great to watch. It’s a solid character piece about a woman that lives with an eating disorder and how it haunts her everyday life. Like I said earlier, the body horror is equally great. My favorite scene comes a little over the halfway mark with Ivy, hunched over a toilet, has grotesque hand-like protrusions reaching out of her spine, more like tentacles than anything that would even be considered human. It’s a great visual and one that I’ll remember for some time. But for as visually arresting as it gets, Shapeless never offers up that release in tension.
A movie like Shapeless needs to have a little give and take. You can have this ratcheting up of tensions as Ivy’s life slowly crumbles around her, but it’s hard to feel truly engaged with it when it doesn’t change its tone whatsoever. It gets to the point where it’s hard to even identify what the climax of the movie even is. Or for that matter, where is there even resolution?
For as well shot as this movie is, the writing feels like something out of the first draft of a script. It lacks a solid structure that just leaves audiences unfulfilled. Does that make the movie poor, providing a taste of terror but never actually realizing it? I don’t really have an answer to that, but when it comes to Shapeless it just makes me feel like something is missing.
Shapeless is hard to recommend if you’re looking for a traditional horror movie or even a good horror movie. Going into it with those expectations will only set you up for disappointment. However, as a deep dive into the psychology behind a woman with bulimia and how it ravages her body of her own volition, it’s definitely worth a watch. Those two sides never fully meet and mix together to create a cohesive experience, so go into it with tempered expectations. It’s one of those movies you really need to go in and see for yourself to make an informed call on it.