Director: Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Stars: Haley Bennet, Denis O’Hare, Elizabeth Marvel
Around the turn of the last century, a popular ‘exhibit’ at a touring freakshow would be the ‘geek’; a person willing to eat anything at all – living, inanimate – to the delight and revulsion of incredulous spectators. The shock of this disturbing impulse – pica as it is known medically – resonates through the ensuing years, manifesting here in Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ icy body-horror missive. The grotesquerie remains as powerful as it may ever have been, but is here used as a tool for a discussion on consumerism and middle-class malaise. A far cry from the old gothic big-top, or so you might think.
Hunter (rising star Haley Bennet) is married to Richard (Austin Stowell) and has it all. He is a successful businessman (thanks, in no small part, to nepotism) and she is comfortably provided for. They have a chic, sparsely furnished home overlooking the river. Swimming pool. Nice clothes and finery. Baby on the way. She has all she could want. Yet there’s a passionless detachment to her life and her relationship, something physically displayed by the distance between the couple at their elegant dinner table. A mid-film sex scene shows Hunter’s evident desire for rougher, more meaningful interplay, and also suggests a mode of regaining power.
Mother-in-law, Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel), addresses the elephant in the room that we’re predisposed to contemplating when she asks Hunter if she really is happy. Hunter dismisses the possibility that she couldn’t be, but her actions already belie her true feelings. Increasingly, she has been filled with the compulsion to eat unusual things. It starts, innocuously enough, with an ice cube out of her glass at a restaurant (right when she’s been interrupted). Then a marble. Then a tack caught in the vacuum cleaner. Hunter is disturbed at how she is overcome, but she is sated after, even when the things she ingests cause her suffering. Especially so, actually.
What’s on the table here (pun intended) is a discussion on eating disorders taken to a grim – and occasionally darkly comic – extreme. Not only that but the psychologies that create such disorders; the insecurities and the societal pressures that compel people to tilt toward these irrational and damaging urges. Hunter prides herself on her housekeeping. The place is always just so. She’s the very model of the classic ’50s housewife trope, actually. In keeping with that character-type, Mirabella-Davis exposes the innate dissatisfaction of such a lifestyle. Swallow is a critique of a particular set of aspirational goals that have been woven into the fabric of American ideals for generations. TV and magazines encourage the idea that one should be satisfied being a good consumer. Swallow investigates how it feels when the result isn’t as gratifying as expected. And how others react to such a rejection.
I remember being a child or teenager and looking at adults over 30, assuming that they were ‘finished’ in some way. That by attaining a life partner, a house, a car and children, they were ‘complete’ with no further need or desire to grow as individuals. I’ve had to unlearn this. Hunter, having arrived at such a point at which she ought to be ‘finished’ has found that she isn’t. Her compulsion – a very real variation on self-harming – is an act of destructive rebellion, but it’s also gives her something that she can control. It’s hers. Her husband is distant, she often feels ignored or infantilised. Her actions fulfill a need that has been nestled within her for years. In this way Mirabella-Davis is chiseling at the rot of consumerism. Our obsessive urge to gorge ourselves as we’ve been instructed to. When you have everything and still feel empty, what can be next?
Hunter does take pride in her new obsession. During a montage to swiftly convey her escalation, we pan over to a delicately arranged display of objects, beginning with the marble and tack. The item at the other end of the curve playfully invites us to consider events unseen. Hunter is discovered and says she wants to get passed her predilection, but her words feel insincere. She’s on a path now. And while the churlish might dismiss it as an act of attention-seeking, Hunter’s compulsion also coincides with her burgeoning pregnancy, so there’s a conversation about perinatal depression happening here too.
As is fashionable in so-called ‘elevated horror’, Swallow has a decidedly wintry feel, and opts for a chilly aura of detachment to match the psychosis of its subject. The spick-and-span neatness of the family home makes the sporadic moments of blood-letting seem all the more starkly defined, bringing to mind similar aesthetics found in the Soska sisters’ feminist surgical horror American Mary (a perennial favourite here at The Lost Highway Hotel). But, where that film investigated financial shortcomings, Swallow is about having too much.
Guilt also seems like a root cause for Hunter. It is established that she comes from a less privileged background to Richard and his family, growing up working in retail. Given especially that Richard’s success appears unearned, Hunter’s compulsions also read as a form of sabotage to these ends. Given voice during therapy sessions, Hunter also reveals a vital puzzle piece from her family history that furthers an ingrained sense of Impostor Syndrome and prefigures an intense confrontation to come.
Douglas Sirk was merrily shredding the veneer of domestic bliss back in the 1950s. Seventy years on, we’re still struggling to unlearn the emptiness of those values. Bennet is an eminently watchable, scene-holding presence with qualities similar to a young Shirley MacLaine. Swallow suggests that she and Carlo Mirabella-Davis might both go far. Dark, uncomfortable and only occasionally a bit too on-the-nose, make sure you’ve got a strong stomach for this one.