May 28, 2003 -- Moral principles are at the heart of life and art. Choosing the right ones leads to happiness and beauty. Choosing the wrong ones leads to misery and ugliness—spiritual ugliness most of all. In his thoughtful film The Shape of Things, writer/director Neil LaBute demonstrates these truths masterfully through the choices and fates of his characters.
Adam is a nerdy, awkward English major working part-time in a museum as a security guard. He encounters Evelyn, an art student working on her thesis project, about to vandalize a classical nude statue because it sports a fig leaf placed by community prudes. She doesn't like art that isn't "true." As he tries to persuade her to step away from the statue, she tells him that he's cute. Rather than giving the would-be vandal the boot, he finds her intriguing and asks for her phone number, which she spray paints on the inside of his favorite corduroy jacket. He then leaves her to do as she pleases.
In the following months, at her suggestion, Adam loses 20 pounds, gets a better haircut, and dumps the corduroy for more hip attire. He's really looking good and has more self-confidence—changes noticed by Phillip, his boorish friend, and Phillip's fiancée Jenny, who years before had an unrequited crush on clueless Adam. But the couple also senses that Evelyn is more than a loving girl trying to improve her man.
Adam senses this too when he expresses surprise that Evelyn could like a guy like him. Rather than listing shared interests, values, or dreams, she simply points out that she seems to like him and that that should be enough for him.
But Evelyn at times sports a Mao Zedong button or Che Guevara T-shirt, not apparel that conservative Adam would appreciate. Adam is initially uncomfortable and nervous with public displays of affection. Certain things should be kept private, he believes. “Who cares?” she replies; so Adam drops his principles and dives right in.
Evelyn takes Adam to see a modern "performance artist" who uses a bloody tampon to draw pictures of her father. The display disgusts Adam. Evelyn, the vandal in the name of "truth," thinks it's an amazing expression of self. He maintains that there's a fundamental difference between therapy and theater.
But rather than recognizing that they are not soulmates, Adam continues the relationship, allowing himself to be manipulated by Evelyn, who plays to his insecurities. He allows her to videotape their private bed-play, and allows her to convince him to get an unneeded nose job. When Phillip presses him about the bandage on his nose, he keeps insisting that he fell. Adam more and more must deceive others and, most tragically, himself.
When Jenny meets Adam privately to discuss her misgivings about her upcoming marriage, Adam is faced with his honest feelings for this caring and unpretentious woman. Jenny, attracted to the real Adam, on the spur of the moment begins kissing him. The two recognize that their authentic selves do not belong with their respective partners. But both decide to lie to and stay with their partners. Evelyn finds out by reading Adam's diary and has a kissing session with Phillip to make things "even"
I will not reveal the movie's powerful ending, which involves Evelyn's art thesis project. Suffice it to say that filmmaker LaBute throws in a twist that shows that in art and real life, principles have consequences.
Adam is an everyman, generally a good guy who could use some improvements. But his superficial changes are at the expense of his real happiness, as bit by bit he abandons his authenticity and integrity for a false sense of self-esteem. Although Evelyn manipulates his flesh and his will, he ultimately is responsible for his choices. Evelyn maintains that love is subjective; if Adam feels love, even if she only pretends to reciprocate, that is reality. He realizes too late that fooling himself into love doesn't work. Love is a deep and private thing. As Evelyn destroys the private world, she destroys the chance for real love.
Evelyn and her art represent the logical consequences—in art and in the artist's soul—of the rejection of all objective moral standards, to say nothing of standards of beauty. On the wall of Evelyn's exhibit is the phrase "Moralists have no place in an art gallery." For Evelyn and purveyors of such "art," this does not merely mean a rejection of silly censorship, like fig leaves. Evelyn's thesis adviser tells her, "Strive to make art but change the world." But to what, and by what standard? Bloody dictators change the world. Evelyn the sociopath, ruining statues and souls—including her own—for a faux principle, has no moral qualms or remorse. The nihilistic art establishment would ruin the culture but for the fact that few take them seriously, aside from themselves and government bureaucrats passing out grants.
LaBute's film has been trashed by elite critics. No wonder. Many in the American arts community will be extremely uncomfortable watching this film because it holds up a mirror to them. Too many of them will not like what they see.
Originally published in the National Review Online .
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.