In the opening minutes of Tapeworm, a man (Adam Brooks) pulls into a gas station to use their restroom, only to find it occupied. Unable to hold it in, he runs into the woods where he empties his bowels on the ground. We’re then treated to a long close-up of his shit, which is covered in blood. The man, despondent at the sight of his bloody stool, continues walking into the woods. He comes upon a lake, where a young couple (Stephanie Berrington and Sam Singer) are having sex on a dirty mattress, where he startles them by taking a seat on an unused corner of the mattress. He tells them to continue, and they do.
Shot on 16mm, Milos Mitrovic and Fabian Velasco’s Tapeworm sets a tone where numbing mundanity rules over everything. It’s set in Winnipeg, and it follows the three aforementioned characters along with two others: an aspiring comedian (Alex Ateah) who inspires complete indifference from her audiences, and a slacker (Mitrovic) who spends his time playing video games and being a burden to his mother. Some of these characters and storylines intersect with each other over its brief, 77-minute runtime, but only on a peripheral level. What these narratives have in common are misery and failure, with each character forced to deal with their pitiful existence at every waking moment.
Mitrovic and Velasco shot Tapeworm on a shoestring budget, which they use with cinematographer Markus Henkel to establish a sparse, defined aesthetic. The camera almost never moves, and scenes unfold in long takes, usually in medium or medium-long shots to cover all the necessary actions. The screenplay has a similarly minimalist approach; each character provides a vignette that’s little more than an exercise in cruelty and humiliation. Both filmmakers describe Tapeworm as an “anti-comedy,” although there’s much more of an emphasis on the prefix than the comedy part.
The style evokes the films of Rick Alverson and Joel Potrykus, which have specialized in uncomfortable, cringe-inducing explorations of unlikable characters. But their films provide someone or something to play off of. In Alverson’s The Comedy, the interactions between its privileged lead and those around him led to near-unbearable moments of comedy and tension; in Potrykus’ Relaxer, the shamelessness of the protagonist pushed social interactions to uncomfortably funny extremes. The people in Tapeworm merely exist in their own morose universe, isolated and dealing with whatever degradation comes their way. Making characters both setup and punchline may be economical, but it’s not all that effective.
Mitrovic and Velasco have a style that’s uncompromised and well-defined, but to what end? Early on, the comedian falls down the stairs of her apartment, leaving her brain-damaged and unable to walk or speak. Her recovery process is slow and demeaning, until she finds her own way to get back on stage and continue telling her stale jokes to a silent crowd. The reveal of how she achieves her goal gets drowned out by what we’re supposed to be laughing at: a woman living a pathetic life, striving to continue doing something she fails at for no apparent reason. Punch down for too long and you’ll just wear yourself out.
Tapeworm premiered at Slamdance Film Festival.