SXSW Review: Excess Flesh is Angry, Gross Body Image Horror

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ExcessFlesh

Displeased and displeasing, repulsive and repugnant, Excess Flesh is consuming vitriol and spewing it back in our faces. Director Patrick Kennelly’s feature debut is stylish on a low budget, boasting a synth score from Jonathan Snipes (Room 237, Starry Eyes) and slick, slo-mo visual palette, which he then stuffs with graphic eating, and sadistic and self-destructive behavior. This is a film as informed by the veneer of Los Angeles as it is sickened by it; a layer cake of aggression, shame and madness. It’s pretty exhilarating. 

Excess Flesh is body image horror, akin to recent L.A.-based works like Starry Eyes and Eat, where a character is overcome by an ideal, in this case the harsh standards of the fashion industry. Jill struggles. Jennifer doesn’t. One’s in a depressed rut, the other an in-demand model tearing through life, friends, lovers and plates selfishly. Jennifer (Mary Loveless) is all-consuming, especially of Jill’s all-at-once adoration, utter disgust and envy. At a breaking point of psychosis, Jill traps Jennifer in their apartment, and a brutal two-hander ensues.

What’s most visceral in Excess Flesh isn’t the captivity, it’s the inhaling of chips, burritos, cake, etc. Sound and image conflate into violent bursts of gnawing and gnashing, intimately close and a little too loud. Jill goes in for fierce snack attacks, growing angrier with each bite. Her struggle to achieve balance and ideal in a city, culture, nightlife where neither is rewarded is an extreme portrait of us all. It’s most brilliantly, challengingly realized in the film’s centerpiece, a seemingly hours-long couple of moments in which a fearless Orr punishes each bite of macaroni and cheese with an autonomous slap to the face. Kennelly just holds on this half-scene/half-performance art of inner turmoil as the viewer is forced to stare into the abyss of cheese dripping self-disgust.

Eating accompanies nearly every tornado of Jill’s emotion; flirtation, hatred, desire, sex. Excess Flesh is a storm of self that Kennelly wisely lays bare.

[Note: Revealing spoilers for the film follow]

There’s no twist to Excess Flesh. Jill (Bethany Orr) and Jennifer are the same person. The former is suffering from dissociative identity disorder, but there’s no heavy handed reveal, and thankfully no sequence of alternate flashbacks. The film’s language of blocking and character interactions, especially when others intrude on the girls’ lives, make the situation clear early on. With that the case, working against being a surprise, Excess Flesh can instead focus on what it means to be so trapped, and the tiers of aggression which rail within. Jill, Kennelly and the film itself are raging, both at the oppressive presentation of beauty and at themselves for being affected by it and mentally slavish to it.

It’s frustrating to be aware. Jennifer, the Skinny Minnie floats through oblivious. Jill’s vision and ultimate hell is one of selfishness, the ability to eat whatever, while conforming to what’s expected. Jill is too aware, of both the unnatural expectations and her wish to meet them. That’s how Excess Flesh visualizes true discontent. That’s what unhappiness looks like, hatred on all sides, even informing the way you chomp down on dessert.