A common theme among my personal selections at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival was that every single movie felt oddly low-key & unrushed. Beyond the obvious scaling-down that all film festivals have suffered throughout the pandemic, the movies themselves just felt unusually relaxed. I expected that lack of momentum from filmmakers on the schedule like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but even the reliably frantic Sean Baker’s latest feel-bad comedy Red Rocket felt like more of a hangout than a nonstop plummet into chaos. There’s no way to tell if that lack of narrative urgency appealed to the festival’s programmers when making their selections for this year’s docket, whether it reflects a communal headspace the filmmakers themselves shared as a response to the rapid escalation of global collapse we’re all suffering right now, or if it was just happenstance that I selected a few movies in a languid key this year. What I do know is that the low-key vibe of the festival at large was most sharply felt in the local low-budget horror film Shapeless, which even indicates in its title a laidback formlessness that you wouldn’t expect in its genre.
Whatever Shapeless may be lacking in narrative momentum, it makes up for with a killer hook in its premise. Kelly Murtagh stars as Ivy, a dive-bar lounge singer & street busker struggling to catch a break on the New Orleans music scene. Her professional stasis is partly a result of working in a city that’s overcrowded with phenomenally talented musicians vying for the same spotlight (notably, in her case, a chill-as-fuck bartender played by The Deuce‘s Jamie Neumann). Mostly, it’s a result of her personal struggles with mental illness, namely an eating disorder that isolates her from peers who are much more at ease around public consumption of food & drink. Whenever Ivy’s not singing for tips or working her shitty day job at the dry cleaners, she shrinks away to the privacy of her apartment where she can binge & purge in peace. Only, the longer she spends in isolation, the more damage her disorder does to her body – shredding her vocal cords and, most notably, mutating her into a Cronenbergian monster with excess digits & eyeballs emerging all over her body.
Translating eating disorder dysmorphia through body-horror genre tropes is a genius idea for a movie, but Shapeless isn’t especially interested in pushing its narrative past that starting point. Its flashes of body-mutation gore are upsetting & wildly varied—including lesions, swelling, and the sudden growth of extra fingers & orifices—but there’s no discernible escalation of their severity as the movie drifts along. After the initial discomfort of Ivy’s isolation & mutation settles in, I struggled to latch onto the tension the movie was trying to generate during its long stretches of eerie silence. We spend a lot of time hanging around Ivy’s apartment waiting for her dysmorphic horror to exponentially escalate, but instead it stagnates – par for the course, considering the unrushed quality shared among every film I saw during this year’s NOFF. However, I will admit that Shapeless really made me squirm in those long stretches of quiet discomfort, especially in scenes when Ivy was visually repelled by food. One thing that will always be effective for me is when movies make the sights & sounds of people eating grotesque. It gets me every time, and in this case that particular gross-out tactic was one of the main drivers of the plot.
Oddly, most of the outright horror programming selections I’ve seen at the New Orleans Film Festival over the years have been centered around the grotesqueries of eating disorders. I’m thinking of 2019’s Swallow, and 2016’s Are We Not Cats?, to be specific. Again, I will not speculate on whether that programming reflects a thematic preoccupation among the festival’s programmers or just a happenstance of the movies I personally have the time & money to seek out on my schedule. I will say, though, that Shapeless is the least vibrant & energetic movie of that trio, so it fits right at home with this year’s festival selection at large – which leaned heavily towards low-key hangouts over shocking bursts of energy.