Shapeless, at the Tribeca Film Festival, like its title remains fairly opaque if one doesn’t recognize the signs of Ivy’s (Kelly Murtagh) illness early on. Cleverly directed by Samantha Aldana and written by Kelly Murtagh and Bryce Parsons-Twesten, the film premiered at Tribeca in the “Midnighter” category. Thus, this review will provide no spoilers. Rather than to ruin the eerie emotional dislocations and frightening weirdness the director brilliantly conveys with sound (specifically music) and visuals, let Shapeless wash over you when you see this intriguing film.
The impressionistic Shapeless centers around this singer/entertainer who must confront her inner demons but doesn’t. By degrees we understand how Ivy’s unconscious undercurrents surface, then retreat, then repeat in ever-widening circular patterns. During her isolated moments at home we gradually come to understand her entrenched and frightening conflict. However, we never see beyond to the reasons or logic of what she created that fuels her addiction. Because the film avoids the psychological, a huge chasm of uncertainty opens to engulf us in Ivy’s misery. For what she wars against, no cure presents itself. And Ivy doesn’t seek one. She just charges on and moves deeper and deeper into denial.
Fittingly, this Tribeca Film Festival Midnighter takes place in the eerie, atmospheric and elusive city of New Orleans. Known for its jazz backwaters, ghostly tales, haunting sounds, sights and smells and voodoo, the city is the perfect setting. The film suggests, infers, intimates. No substantive clarity surfaces. We just get to watch Ivy grow more and more debilitated with little explanation.
Her choice to sing in clubs does contribute to her addiction, and her sickness threatens to destroy her singing career. In some ways, dependence on drugs would be easier for her to overcome. What she battles instead runs so deep that it refashions her into a strange creature. Thus, the fantastic becomes a part of her nature and in turn devours the health and wholeness she would seek.
Finally, addicted to self-destructive behaviors, she becomes on one level further addicted to her fantastic response to those behaviors. Two people, the creature and the woman who seeks salvation; her outer and inner life rock her soul.
The director’s decisions about sound, editing and set design to imbue characterization are spot-on. And the overall effect unbalances the viewer. Enthralled, one becomes more displaced about understanding Ivy. Conclusively, when one comprehends the addiction that threatens Ivy’s life, and that she can’t overcome it, the shock settles into numbness. This parallels Ivy’s experience. Her situation can’t be that bad, we think – as she thinks. Gradually, one is swept up in Ivy’s denial, accepts it as circumstance: “It is what it is.” Yet the director clues us that her condition must not be ignored. And eventually we understand why, though we don’t ever really find out the “why” of it.
Based on a true story of Kelly Murtagh’s personal struggle (she also co-wrote the screenplay) Shapeless becomes a cautionary tale of lies, denial, addiction, and self-destruction with no resolution. Murtagh’s performance elucidates the hopelessness of those addicted and swept up in illnesses like hers. Her performance in effecting Ivy’s gradual decline through her singing voice, which starts out as merely adequate, shines with understanding. Murtagh portrays Ivy’s denial and acceptance of what she does to herself with brilliance.
In conclusion, the film should be seen for many reasons. Two key reasons are Murtagh’s subtle, nuanced portrayal and Aldana’s stylized rendering of Ivy’s condition and its impact on her life. Shapeless screens at Tribeca Film Festival 2021. For tickets and times click here.