In Felt, our lead Amy is haunted and, it would seem, somewhat damaged. We’re never told the exact nature of the trauma that has plunged her into a barely communicative fugue state, but it’s clear it was related to men and to some sort of (likely sexual) violation.
An artist, she prefers the world of made things to the humans around her, sometimes including her girlfriends, who seem to genuinely want to help. In a more general sense, she’s a wounded soul attempting to survive society’s war on women, hanging on to her sanity by a literal thread.
The film’s plot is meandering and, in true post-mumblecore fashion, much more interested in subtext and evoking moods than in telling a story, exactly. Amy goes to a party and alienates the men in attendance. Amy walks in the woods, dressed in one of her bizarro superhero costumes that she creates by hand, always adorned with a phallus or vagina.
She goes to a soft-core porn shoot dressed in possibly the least sexy outfit imaginable, a grotesque caricature of the female form, and giggles about how she can’t stop farting. She ends up befriending the other woman there, her profane undermining of the photographer’s attempt at “sexiness” paving the way for sisterly solidarity and a new ally.
Eventually, she meets a man, Kenny, who is kind and understanding enough of her to throw a surprise birthday party, where they both emerge into a room full of her friends via a mock birth canal he made.
The two traipse about San Francisco, have romantic outings by the Golden Gate Bridge, and act the way such people behave in indie rom-coms. But something is off. Felt is not an indie rom-com, Amy is no manic pixie dream girl, and, like so many others, Kenny may not be what he seems, either.
In a film so obsessed with oblique resonances and multiple meanings, it’s appropriate that Felt’s title does (at least) triple-duty, semantically. It’s a film about touching and not wanting to be touched, with “felt” implying a passivity and a lack of autonomy. It’s a film about trauma and emotional experience, what it feels like to be a woman under the heel of patriarchy. And it’s a film about an artist who works with felt as a medium, for reasons that aren’t crystal clear and that she may not be able to articulate herself. Her art is tactile and steeped in dream-logic – superhero suits, nightmare masks, a felt baby Hitler fetus she “killed in the womb” and now keeps in a box (“think of how many people I’ve saved,” she notes), countless felt cocks decorating her bedroom. She shrinks from human touch, yet seems to gain a kind of agency and power from the symbolically castrated nature of these inanimate objects, created by hand. She disappears into her various fraught uniforms, like a warrior collecting parts of the enemy to ward them off by, in part, becoming them.
The frame is constantly filled with images that are hard to shake. (See above image.) Some are horrifying and others are comic in a Lynchian sort of way. Apropos of nothing (apart from more costuming and felt outfits), Amy has a job wearing a chicken suit and waving a sign for a restaurant on the side of the road – one memorable sequence features her sitting, still in uniform, drinking soda into her chicken-mouth through an extra-long straw in an empty fast-food joint. The human-sized chicken serving as a hype-man (or woman) for its own consumption calls to mind both Carol Adams’ classic The Sexual Politics of Meat and, more recently, the online collections known as “suicide food”, the most emblematic example of which would be the busty, sexualized cartoon chicken so excited for consumers to literally devour them.
For 9/10s of its brief, 88-minute running time, Felt is a moody, misandrist, mumblecore masterpiece, but it closes on a (to keep the alliteration going) maximalist note of gruesome rage. Its climax – and that is definitely the right word – might make thematic sense, but it feels too on-the-nose and, I suspect, will be filed under “way, way too much” for many if not most viewers who even make it that far (particularly any penis-havers in the audience). In addition, the largely improvised dialog and jittery hand-held camerawork may be stumbling blocks for some, and, though the on-screen violence is minimal (up to a point), there is a deeply unsettling aspect that may turn off people who don’t consider horrifying masks and people casually pricking needles into the felt urethra of a penis puppet inherently engaging.
But Felt is also a daring feminist vision, boiling over with portent and haunting, skewed images, and it’s unlike anything else around in 2015. Star and art director Amy Everson has indicated she drew from her own experiences, as though the personal nature of her provocative film, in which every character shares a name with the actor portraying them, needed to be confirmed. For all her film’s shortcomings, Everson has staged a full-frontal assault on rape culture and the patriarchy, and Felt has more than enough ideas coursing through its strange veins to make it an essential watch for the adventurous.