Thursday, February 10, 2022

Shapeless, Filmed in New Orleans

New Orleans would be a terrible place to suffer from an eating disorder, because good food is everywhere: muffulettas, po boys, beignets, Zapp’s, etc. Of course, nobody really has a choice in the matter. New Orleans is also known for great music. That is what Ivy is focusing on. The aspiring vocalist wants to focus on her career to the exclusion of just about everything else, but her bulimic impulses take on truly monstrous dimensions in Samantha Aldana’s body horror-ish Shapeless, written and produced by lead thesp Kellly Murtagh, which opens today in select theaters.

Ivy has talent, but she always keeps her trio and her few friends at arm length, except occasionally Oscar, her bassist (a hat-tip to Pettiford?) and once-in-a-blue-moon hook-up. She simply cannot allow anyone to see her secrets demons. Essentially, her eating compulsion manifests itself as Cronenbergian outbreaks all over her body that can only be staved off through binging. Subsequently, purges to maintain her frighteningly slim figure.

is the sort of horror film where the horror probably isn’t really happening. Most likely, it is really more of a projection of Ivy’s inner demons. Frankly, a lot of fans are getting tired of the serious issue, after-school-special trend in horror, so there might be some fatigue for Shapeless’s experimental style and sober themes. The truth is Shapeless would have been better served if it muted its genre claims and billed itself as a dark drama about compulsion set in New Orleans. It delivers a frequently harrowing viewing experience, but it is not “scary,” per se.

However, it understands the pressures of life as a musician pretty darned well. Murtagh uses “St. James Infirmary” as a touchstone tune throughout the film, which is a shrewd choice, because it must be one of the most achingly mournful jazz standards ever. Both she and Zardis Nichols (playing Marion, a NOLA singer Ivy idolizes) perform excellent renditions. In fact, there is a lot of terrific sounding music heard as part of Ivy’s world. While cast-members portray her trio on-screen, much of the musical combo duties are handled by Shea Pierre on piano, Gerald Watkins Jr. on drums, and Amina Scott on bass. They always sound great. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of dissonant freakout music that is not nearly as distinctive.

It should be further noted Murtagh doesn’t just sing as Ivy. Her performance is powerful and brave, especially since she based her screenplay on personal experience. It is very physical work and very disturbing. Bobby Gilchrist (her husband and co-producer) has some credibly awkward and halting—but still potent—chemistry with her. Plus, Nichols and Gralen Bryant Banks add some earthy NOLA flair as Marion and Ivy’s drummer Charles, a longtime veteran of the city’s music scene.

Murtagh and Aldana previously collaborated on a Mardi Gras-themed children’s book, so their affinity for Crescent City culture is genuine. That comes through in the film, which is cool. The hallucinatory vibe will put off less adventurous viewers, but it is an intriguing way to represent Ivy’s turmoil. Recommended for fans of Polanski’s less commercial films,
Shapeless releases today (2/10) in select theaters.