In Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ peculiar first-feature “Swallow,” a woman’s existence is questioned every now and then. His protagonist is Hunter (Haley Bennett) – A young wife whose life is nothing short of being called ‘Picture perfect.’ She lives in a well-off, posh house that feels straight out of a home-deco magazine. Married into a family that is wealthy enough to put the rich to shame, she is happy and self-contained. Her husband adores her and lets her play with the aesthetic of their house. In her free time, she even ends up cleaning the pool or just swapping away on her favorite mobile games. However, this domesticated, uber-perfect life starts creating a kind of alienated atmosphere for her. Nonetheless, she quietly takes it all in until she finds out that she is pregnant.
Hunter’s obedient, charming exterior slowly starts betraying her interiors. Her body starts revolting against the patriarchal control that has been forced upon her. This dissimulates into the most obnoxious version of pica (a medical condition). First, it’s a marble that goes down her throat and then sharper, more dangerous objects that uproar havoc in her calm life. Her husband Richie (Austin Stowell) is enraged by her behavior. He feels that she is being ungrateful for the life she is provided and starts strapping more obligatory confinements upon her. Hunter – who is trying to figure out this for herself is alarmed. Her obedient nature keeps putting her in more and more uncomfortable positions that question the very fabric of a homemaker’s livelihood.
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Shaped as a body-horror and constantly orbiting under the ‘genre-film’ category, “Swallow” is more complex than it actually feels. The messaging is really vague which might confuse a lot of viewers. But that’s exactly where Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ brilliant drama subverts the pathos of what a film should be. Much like the protagonist, the film chooses to independently be a tale about loneliness, about trauma, about patriarchy and above all a devastating look into how and why a woman should have full control over her body. Even in the progressive world we live in brethren always tell women to be submissive. Especially when they have conceived a child. In “Swallow” Richie almost instantly declare the child to be ‘theirs.’ Even before Hunter could figure out if she is actually ready to have one more role in her life.
The film also talks about the need to open up. From the very beginning, we see Hunter following a cyclic routine. It almost feels like she is too-content and there’s a lack of purpose that stems out of her past. Initially, we only know that she used to work in retail. Her entire life is surrounded around her husband but she doesn’t complain. There is a possibility that she doesn’t mind this life. However, the slight hint we get when we see her patiently waiting for her husband at the end of the day only to be subjected to a cold ‘You did well with this dish’ evokes some kind of incompleteness. The fact that she is unable to emote what she is feeling and just swallowing (oh yes! you get the metaphor) her desire and sadness is a major theme here.
Carlo Mirabella-Davis even touches upon mental health and how empathy is such an important asset in today’s fast-moving world. In one of my favorite segments, we see one of Richie’s colleagues coming up to Hunter and asking for a hug. “I am just lonely” he claims. For a split second Hunter lets her guards down and hugs this random stranger. This is possibly the only time in the film that she actually feels the real warmth of being alive. The film showcases the condescending attitude that a house-maker has to digest. Richie’s parents are aristocrats. But for them, Hunter is merely an object who will conceive the heir to their family’s fortune.
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This is an empowering little film that doesn’t necessarily push its theme over its horror elements. The director, however, makes sure that he doesn’t overdose you with gore. His clear, concise yet complex narrative is full of visual cues. The use of color is really evident and Davis does some really sharp foreshadowing to clue the viewers into what’s about to unfold. Much like Julia Ducournau’s “Raw” which used a strange metaphor to showcase the protagonist’s gradual self-actualization, Davis uses the process of swallowing sharp objects as a metaphor for a woman trying to regain control over her body.
There are times when “Swallow” seems to wither around its edges. The themes overpower the narrative and the tone can’t seem to find the right balance. In times like these Haley Bennett’s Tribeca winning performance comes to the rescue. Her performance as a gentle, obedient woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown is arresting. There’s not a single wrong note in a performance that encompasses a wide range of emotional trajectory. Austin Stowel, Elizabeth Marvel and David Rasche as the patriarchial trio, on the other hand, could have used some intelligent re-brushing.
“Swallow” is occasionally a tough watch. The uncomfortable vibe is however ably counter-balanced by the exceptional set design and breathtaking cinematography. Leaving its ethereal beauty to engulf you. If you aren’t shocked and moved by that ending I’m not sure what will.