By Peg Aloi
This carefully crafted chamber piece revolves around a woman whose compulsion to eat nonedible things is both fascinating and disturbing.
Swallow, directed by Carlo Mirabello-Davis. Screening at ArcLight Boston.
The cinematic subgenre of body horror is receiving increased critical attention these days, in part because a number of daring female filmmakers are powerfully exploring the terrain. The focus of body horror is often the female body, so their perspective is often feminist, their analysis concentrating on gender tropes. Contemporary directors such as Kathryn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body), Claire Denis (Trouble Every Day and High Life), Julia Ducorneau (Raw), Julia Leigh (Sleeping Beauty), and many others have probed the excesses of the human body and its behaviors in ways that are frightening as well as erotic. Still, despite the inevitably graphic visuals, their films are often lyrically beautiful.
Of course, body horror stories from male filmmakers can be similarly lush. David Cronenberg returns to body horror again and again (my personal favorite is Dead Ringers). Then there’s Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth, Roman Polanski’s pregnancy thriller Rosemary’s Baby, which doesn’t contain a hint of physical violence, and John Carpenter’s shape-shifting classic The Thing. Body horror can be gruesome and bloody; it can also be subtle and psychological. Both approaches can be equally terrifying. It’s been theorized that, at least for some, watching horror films can be oddly calming, a soothing response to stress. It may be a way to control (or sublimate) fears of pain, violence, or death. I’m drawn to watching horror movies and, yes, I am one of those people who, when I’m winding down after a stressful day, usually reaches for something scary.
But I love visually rich films also, and Swallow from Carlo Mirabello-Davis does not disappoint. This carefully crafted chamber piece revolves around a woman whose compulsion to eat nonedible things is both fascinating and disturbing. The filmmaker was inspired to tell the story after witnessing his grandmother’s obsessive-compulsive hand washing. The narrative’s protagonist, Hunter (Haley Bennett, in a quietly brilliant performance), has a legitimate disorder known as pica. People with pica sometimes crave strange non-foodstuffs because of mineral deficiencies. But Hunter’s circumstance, a luxurious but lonely life in a modern mansion high above the Hudson River, makes her a sort of canary in a coal mine for the restless dissatisfaction of a trophy wife’s existence.
The film begins with Hunter, in a silky pink short robe, standing outside the million dollar home she shares with her husband Richie (Austin Stowell). She’s like a piece of blushing soft sculpture peering over the milky glass wall at a grand sylvan vista as she drinks her morning coffee. We see the back of her perfect helmet of blond hair as she smooths it with her hand. We see her husband getting dressed, then cut to a later scene where she is cleaning the pool of leaves while wearing a purple dress and bright yellow wading boots. Hunter is also slowly decorating their new home, purchased for the couple by Richie’s parents. We learn this at a dinner celebrating Richie’s promotion to a new position in his father’s company. The meal is lamb, freshly slaughtered; the metaphor could not be more blunt. It turns out that Hunter is from a low class background; perhaps she was on the prowl for wealth and landed herself a Richie Rich and a grand house on the Hudson. The catch is that she has become like a caged animal there.
Every moment of Hunter’s existence, everything she does, is color-coordinated and intentional, down to the meals she prepares for Richie, which she eats carefully and self-consciously. As she decorates, Hunter chooses spots of bright color: sky blue curtains, hot pink shades for the windows. The cinematography paints a too pretty picture: a beautiful blonde woman with flawless skin and raspberry lips who comports herself as merely another well-chosen object in the home. Noticeably, there is no art on the walls, and Richie’s parents (David Rasche and Elizabeth Marvel) live in a house with an elegant living room done entirely in shades of beige.
Little wonder, perhaps, that Hunter is drawn to colorful, ordinary objects like marbles, which she fondles and then swallows. She later retrieves them and puts them on a mirrored tray by her bedside. This strange behavior continues, even after Hunter finds out she’s pregnant. She begins to swallow increasingly harmful objects. Pica is not precisely an eating disorder, but Swallow suggests that Hunter’s alarming condition reflects her distorted sense of physical autonomy and her fractured perception of self. Richie and his parents treat Hunter like a misbehaving child; when her secret is discovered, their response is to ramp up her punishments. First, she is forced to go to therapy. While the therapist is caring and intelligent, Hunter remains in denial about her problems. They then hire a nurse to keep an eye on Hunter while Richie’s at work: an intense, quiet man who fled war-torn Syria. Though he is calm and respectful, Hunter resents his presence. Eventually, the two form a bond that helps Hunter confront her inner demons. Swallow is a closely observed study of a woman trying to break free of a prison within herself.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.