Director: Ruth Paxton
Stars: Sienna Guillory, Jessica Alexander, Lindsay Duncan
There is, both ironically and fittingly, a lot to digest when it comes to Ruth Paxton’s spiky debut feature A Banquet.
In it’s strenuous cold open, we’re presented a brief portrait of long-term care. Holly (Sienna Guillory) has been looking after her terminally sick husband for who knows how long. His wretches and convulsions bring us into Paxton’s world with an unsettling, queasy jolt, telegraphing the bodily fixations to come. Almost immediately we’re presented with Holly’s dark wish-fulfillment. Why can’t it just… end? Her bloody thoughts contaminate a smoothie as it blends. Then, in the first of the film’s traumatic acts of ingestion, she is alerted to her husband’s successful bid at suicide by drinking bleach and his crimson regurgitation. Wish fulfilled in violent self-harm. And, at this moment, Holly’s daughter Betsey (Jessica Alexander) arrives home.
A shift of focus. We’re in Betsey’s world. Shes coming to the end of school and the pressure is rising to make her decisions. The future is calling. Oral fixations escalate. Mouths kissing elicit revulsion, and Betsey can no longer stomach the prospect of food. While Holly – a control freak whose obsession manifests in many ways – grows increasingly concerned for the health of her daughter, Betsey is calmly accepting of her change in constitution.
Betsey’s aversion to food is presented in contrast to her younger sister Isabelle (Ruby Stokes), who exhibits the demeanor and behaviours of a more normative teenager. Lindsay Duncan is impactful as grandmother June, who tersely provokes Betsey with a memory of childhood fabrications. “Don’t be the show”, she warns. But Betsey’s new condition isn’t a rouse. She – and we – have reason to believe something more supernatural is at work. Something in the woods, beneath a blood red moon…
Like many teens, Betsey finds an edge of nihilistic solace in thoughts of End Times. While school and her mother prick her anxieties with questions of the future, she finds refuge in it’s non-existence. Freed from such concerns, her temperament turns to the gothic. A quasi-religious ecstasy in embracing death. Part of the grieving process? Or the taint of some other dark influence? A Banquet plays out, in some respects, like a macabre coming-of-ager, and Betsey often sounds like a proto-Justine from Melancholia. At her most chilling she seems like a possessed prognosticator, telegraphing a familial apocalypse.
The house in which these women live is subdued; darkly painted and sparsely adorned with grim and funereal art. It feels like a space suffused in death; suspended in grief. A place where time has stopped. Guillory – best remembered by this viewer as Jill Valentine in the Resident Evil movies – unfurls a sensational monster in Holly, seemingly willing an eating disorder into being out of sheer spite. Late conversations reveal much about her reactions to the situation, and suggest a heritage of mishandled mental illness. Toe-to-toe with her is the striking work of relative newcomer Jessica Alexander, whose confidence and intelligence in front of the camera recalls early work by Scarlett Johansson.
Betsey’s life is privileged. Her family has money. Holly is able to afford to send her to every conceivable specialist. There is – as in Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ similarly-themed Swallow – a sense of middle-class malaise about A Banquet. Perhaps not just grief but guilt factors into the malevolent force that broods in the household.
There’s a mild sense of scattergun approach from Paxton and screenwriter Justin Bull. Folding in a Japanese folktale leads to some effectively nightmarish moods and visuals, but runs the risk of obfuscating rather than illuminating. Still, it remains in the remit of her line of enquiry; the roots of eating disorders, our fears of them, and our misconceptions. A Banquet is a stylish effort, both oppressive and impressive. Where Paxton goes from here will be of particular interest. She’s manifested a clutch of incredibly strong performances from her multi-generational female leads, and shown a cinematic verve for getting to the guts of things.