Good films about eating disorders are hard to come by. With such well-known and distinct physical manifestations, the narratives usually revolve around food consumption and body weight and inevitably descend into voyeuristic fascination by sexing up the characters and glamourising their struggles. The feature-length drama To The Bone is a great example of the shallow, exploitative and cliche-studded rubbish that has provided as much insight into anorexia as the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why did into teenage mental health – none whatsoever. Thankfully, there are a few short films, which delve into the internal issues fuelling eating disorders in an original and authentic way, and as a result unravel a deeper truth that resonates. One of them is Egg – Martina Scarpelli’s animated fantasy horror that exposes the lesser-discussed seductive side of anorexia. Nervosa is another.
Directed by Thessa Meijer (The Walking Fish), Nervosa grasps the ugly truth about the illness and handles the isolation and relentless struggles of those living with it, with unflinching honesty. Drawing from her own experience of battling with anorexia, Meijer immerses the viewer into a shocking reality, where self-hatred stifles any short-lived joy or pleasure, giving the audience a bitter taste of what suffering from an eating disorder feels like. The twelve-minute drama eschews outdated tropes and refuses to succumb to blatant thinspo, and in doing so delivers a shared experience that’s deeply personal, painfully real and at times tough to stomach.
The film opens on a close-up of Jade’s legs shaking in protest, as she pushes her body and mind to their limits during a strengthening exercise. A slow camera tilt reveals her sweat-streaked face, wearing a pained but determined expression. Tracking her progress is Rex – a fitness fanatic who lives with Jade in their isolated mobile home, along with their third housemate Bo, who soon joins them holding an ice cream and observing their regular exercise regime with feigned interest. This peaceful co-existence is interrupted when an unknown woman phones Jade, worried and desperately trying to find where she is hiding and it soon transpires that Jade’s relationship with Rex and Bo is far more complex than it initially appeared.
“The reason we chose the two characters of Rex and Bo is because features of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia can coexist” – Meijer shared in an interview with S/W – “An eating disorder can offer different things to someone; a sense of warmth or a sense of control, but also a numbness that somehow feels safe, which is why Rex and Bo couldn’t be just one person with one particular image.”
“We hope that the film can be a starting point to open a conversation”
By personifying the eating disorders, Nervosa solidifies their physical presence, making it impossible for the lead character, or the audience, to dismiss or ignore. Jade is forever torn between satisfying her anorexia (Rex), by keeping up with the demanding fitness routine, controlling her calories and counting every bite, or succumbing to the mouth-watering temptations of bulimia (Bo), eating whatever she likes, then purging to make it all go away.
When we asked Meijer about the inspiration behind the film, she explained that it all stemmed from her own experience of anorexia and the effects the illness had when it was no longer visible – “It is quickly thought that someone is fine again if they have a healthy weight, but that is not always the case. We hope that the film can be a starting point to open a conversation. That someone who recognises the struggle can show the film to a loved one and tell them that this is a bit of what that person feels. An eating disorder can already make someone so lonely, which only gives the illness more space”.
This sense of loneliness and self-imprisonment are most evident in the particularly distressing scene where Jade spends the night binge-eating. Rather than force-feeding her, Bo offers her whipped cream covered rice cakes from the open palm of her hand, and a frozen pizza straight from the freezer. She even helps her retrieve food from the bottom of the waste bin, then lovingly strokes her back whilst Jade makes herself sick. This increasingly upsetting sequence playing out against the gentle notes of the classical score, perfectly encapsulates Jade’s love-hate relationship with food by marrying the beautiful with the grotesque, the enticing with the revolting, the nurturing with the devastating. Jade is powerless against the pull of these conflicting forces and a prisoner of their destructive nature.
Nervosa is a disturbing visualisation of someone being eaten up from the inside by forces they can’t control, and much like an eating disorder, the film’s penetrating lens is brutal and unforgiving, painting the physical and emotional struggles in a stark and unflattering palette. Because eating disorders are not all flat stomachs, thigh gaps and eyeliner. They’re all-consuming and toxic, and portraying them any differently onscreen is not only misleading and irresponsible but also extremely dangerous. Meijer is not offering a solution or a cure. Instead, she has depicted her individual experience in the hope that it would help even just one of the countless women and men who fight for their lives on a daily basis.