SWALLOW ***** USA / France 2019 Dir: Carlo Mirabella-Davis. 94 mins
There are echoes of Todd Haynes’ [SAFE] in this haunting psychological horror piece about an alienated woman’s desperate retreat into a condition that provides her with the comfort and fulfillment lacking elsewhere – though Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ feature debut is one of the most distinctive and empathetic character studies of recent years. Anchored by Haley Bennett’s astonishing performance (the kind of multi-layered portrayal that would be a shoo-in for an Oscar if this the kind of film that attracted Oscars), it’s a beautifully shot and paced film inspired by the filmmaker’s experiences with his own mother’s illness and his fight to stop her from being institutionalised.
Mirabella-Davis favours long takes and precise framing, typically entrapping his protagonist within scenes via windows, mirrors, doors, etc. Bennett is Hunter, a young woman who leads a boring existence, reduced to playing games on her smart phone to pass the time and conforming to housewife expectations. She has married into money, betrothed to handsome Austin Stowell, the youngest CEO yet in his father’s (David Rasche) money-spinning company. He’s too busy for her and she is routinely patronised by his parents. When Hunter falls pregnant, she is compelled to swallow random, often dangerous objects – storing them as mementos once they have passed through her body: batteries, nails, ornaments, rocks. While her significant other freaks out, she is referred to a shrink who unearths a backstory no one cared to discover – and becomes ever more isolated.
SWALLOW dabbles with Cronenbergian body horror in the discomfort generated by Hunter’s ingestion of deadly items and their subsequent removal – but a routine medical procedure is rendered just as horrific and the everyday emotional cruelty Hunter suffers is more harrowing than anything else. And,yet, there are glimmers of hope: we see Hunter taking control of her life in other ways, including during sex and in an extraordinary, one-take confrontation with a pivotal, previously unseen figure in her life. It’s a bold, confident picture, juggling both tenderness and black humour in its portrait of her plight and finding witty incidental details in even the smallest of character parts: note the dysfunctional workmate of her husband, who seems on a constant mission to receive a hug from female strangers. In any other movie we would be prompted to find humour at his expense, or be simply disgusted – but, in the context of Hunter’s story, we are prompted to pause and consider what this “peculiar” man’s compulsion might be hiding. And the same for all those women who pass through the frame at the very end.
Review by Steven West