Swallow movie review: Haley Bennett gives a whole new meaning to 'you are what you eat'

In his debut feature, Carlo Mirabella-Davis contextualises the eating disorder (known as pica) within a dialectic of control over women and their bodies.

Prahlad Srihari November 03, 2020 16:56:36 IST

4/5

In Swallow, a Betty Draper-type lonely housewife finds herself imprisoned in the gilded cage of domesticity. The title could mean two different things, but they both symbolise the same idea: liberation. Unable to escape and fly away like the bird, she instead births her liberation through tiny acts of rebellion. This rebellion manifests in a strange compulsion to swallow increasingly dangerous objects, from marbles to screwdrivers. In his debut feature, Carlo Mirabella-Davis contextualises this eating disorder (known as pica) within a dialectic of control over women and their bodies.

Swallow movie review Haley Bennett gives a whole new meaning to you are what you eat

Haley Bennett as Hunter

Hunter (Haley Bennett) is married to Richie (Austin Stowell), a rich white douchebag who flaunts her like she is just another trophy in their upscale mansion. She is an object of status, a body for pleasure, and an incubator for his family's heir. Her in-laws, Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel) and Michael (David Rasche), too treat her as such. During house parties, she plays the part of the perfect host to a T, always armed with a smile and hug when required. Between ironing his neckties and preparing dinner, she devotes herself to interior decorating to keep busy. It is obvious the marriage has hit safe mode: he is mostly busy on his phone while she contemplates the view outside her glass prison with an empty gaze. Displayed rather than loved, she feels isolated from the world.

Swallow movie review Haley Bennett gives a whole new meaning to you are what you eat

Hunter with her husband and in-laws

Her rebellion takes root during a dinner to celebrate her pregnancy. Once Richie proudly announces to his parents, "We're pregnant," they forget the person they should be celebrating. Hunter struggles to find a way into their conversation throughout the evening. Her voice drowned out and disregarded, she begins chomping on ice cubes. She experiences a joyous sense of control for the first time. When it quickly escalates to marbles, paperclips and batteries, even those with a strong stomach will feel nauseous (I, for one, have never held my breath and eagerly hoped for someone's hassle-free bowel movement in a movie). Unsettling auditory cues help ascertain the texture of the things she puts in her mouth. A marble dances across her tongue. A thimble clinks against her teeth. Moments before she tries to swallow a tack for the first time, a string score negates the horror and plays up the temptation, turning it into an almost sensual encounter. She beams with joy because it is her secret.

Each object she swallows empowers her, gives her a sense of ownership. They get bigger and sharper because she seeks physical pain to cushion her increasing psychological torment. When she swallows the object, it and that moment belong to her. They're the only things she can call her own, that she can control. Bennett perfectly embodies the terror of losing control and the courage to regain it. Each time Hunter swallows things she shouldn't, her face lights up as pain makes way for satisfaction and a sense of triumph. Her fleeting micro-gestures and barely discernible voice make her cries of despair all the more deafening, and her silent revolt all the more resonant.

Swallow movie review Haley Bennett gives a whole new meaning to you are what you eat

Hunter in her gilded cage

After these objects have made their way through the digestive tract, she recovers them from the toilet to add them to her own trophy collection on the mantelpiece. Some of the things she swallows take on a meaning of their own. The pawn reflects her status in the family, the dirt her position in society. In that dirt, she sows herself the fruit of a rebellion that will enable her to reclaim her autonomy and confront a painful secret from her past. Only then will she exercise full control over her body and mind — and the story builds to a powerful conclusion that is as much a celebration of Hunter's liberation.

Besides liberation, Swallow also explores the idea of invasion. Hunter's compulsion is after all triggered by pregnancy, which is in itself an acute form of invasion on a woman's personal space. Swallowing inedible objects thus becomes a way to regain some control from those who invade it. Only, on discovering her strange addiction during an ultrasound exam, her husband and in-laws insert themselves more into her life. Worried she may sabotage their lineage, they even hire a Syrian live-in nurse, Luay (Laith Nakli), to monitor her every move. Though Luay initially dismisses her illness down to first-world privilege ("No time for mind problems when you're being shot at"), he shows her a kindness her husband and in-laws don't. Under house arrest, her sense of loneliness becomes overwhelming, matched only by the demeaning restrictions imposed on her. With her life mapped by those around her, the open spaces of her luxurious home seem to shrink the more Hunter yearns to break free. On one occasion, when this feeling of suffocation devolves into a panic attack, Luay crawls under the bed alongside her to calm her down, until they both fall asleep. 

Swallow movie review Haley Bennett gives a whole new meaning to you are what you eat

Hunter ponders swallowing dirt

Sessions with a psychiatrist reveal Hunter was a child born of rape, and her mother's strict religious beliefs forbid the abortion of her pregnancy. Though she insists her mother didn't love her any less than her sisters because of it, a later phone conversation suggests otherwise. It also reveals a woman who has tried to win people's love all her life, only to be cast aside. 

Happiness has been an illusion: the more she chases it, the more elusive it becomes. When Katherine asks her, "Are you happy or are you pretending to be happy?", you sense a hesitation for a second before she puts on her dutiful wife face to give her the answer she wants to hear, that she is not pretending. We know the answer right from the opening shot, where a carefully cropped blonde bob is staring off into the distance. Standing on the balcony of her lakeside mansion, Hunter remains out of focus for a couple of seconds as the world takes shape around her. It exemplifies a woman trying to blend into any environment in which she is inserted. This is followed by a sequence which intercuts shots of a lamb being snatched and slaughtered with Hunter cleaning the pool, picking out matching drapes and preparing that very lamb for dinner in her immaculate home. This sets up the oppressive presence hiding beneath the manicured veneer and dictating Hunter's own fate.

Richie, Katherine and Michael may all sound like entitled white caricatures, but as Joseph Conrad once described, they "put the face of a joke upon the body of a truth." The truth here is the laughable notion of merit within the ruling class, as Michael congratulates his son for taking over the family business, a position he supposedly "earned" and not handed on a silver platter. The truth is Katherine slyly hiding her contempt for the once-toiletry saleswoman Hunter by reminding her she caught a "lucky break" by meeting her son. The truth is women continue to fight for control and ownership over their own bodies. It's a bitter pill to swallow, and Swallow doesn’t sugar-coat it.

Swallow is now streaming on Mubi. Watch the trailer here —

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