2020, R, 94 min. Directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis. Starring Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, Denis O’Hare.
REVIEWED By Jenny Nulf, Fri., March 13, 2020
Swallow is a rare cinematic experience that manages to feel unexpected, yet oddly also tangible. Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ first feature-length narrative film explores the life of Hunter (Bennett), a pristine new housewife of the very wealthy Richie (Stowell), who begins to stuff inedible objects down her throat in an attempt to gain some sort of control over her spiraling sense of reality after she discovers she is pregnant.
“Are you happy, or are you pretending to be happy?” Richie’s mother interrogates Hunter, haunting her every step. It’s a question the follows her whenever she picks up an object – a marble, a pin, a battery – and plops it into her mouth, and one that especially follows her to her corresponding therapy sessions. Hunter’s refusal to acknowledge her own unhappiness drives her as much as it haunts her, and every item she ingests puts her health at risk as much as it comforts her.
Mirabella-Davis’ ability to conduct tone throughout Swallow is elegant and smart. He flips the switch from incredibly funny to sad on a dime, distinctly showcasing the direness of Hunter’s pica disorder and bringing light to an otherwise dark film without jeopardizing the seriousness of the situation at hand – keeping Swallow sleek without favoring style over substance.
He also delicately extracts a mysterious and beautiful performance from Bennett. The film orbits around her ability to bring Hunter to life without making her too vapid or quirky. Hunter struggles with her own body autonomy as it’s yanked away by Richie and his parents. She was plucked from retail, saved by Richie, and given a comfortable life. She’s an artist whose art will never be seen beyond the secluded prison of her new, grand home. As she moves further along in her pregnancy and her pica increases, Richie’s very 1950s-magazine-spread family – the men bring in the dough, and the women, in their wide skirts and modest shirts, stay home, cook, and have children – strip her of the very little agency she has left, leaving her a shell of what she could have been. Her exterior is immaculate for the onlookers, and as long as her body is creating a child for Richie’s family legacy, Hunter’s insides don’t matter. Her body doesn’t belong to her anymore.
Pregnancy is a very intimate bodily experience that has been viewed as terrifying through the camera lens for decades. In Swallow, Mirabella-Davis doesn’t present the act of being pregnant as horrific, but rather it’s the people surrounding Hunter who turn the situation sour. Vitally, Swallow’s unexpectedness comes from Mirabella-Davis’ ability to bring a true feminist perspective to a story that has previously been monopolized by the male gaze: Think The Brood or even Alien, both lauded films that deconstruct the horrors of a pregnant female body. The terror and heavy grief of a woman not feeling autonomy over her own body is extreme, and Bennett encompasses that particular anguish in a way other women have not been able to explore. Paired with cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi’s gorgeous jewel tones and striking sense of patience, this particular approach to the pregnant woman’s body lends Swallow an exquisitely subversive quality. It’s a film with women in mind, and one that does not judge their choices when it comes to the health of their own bodies and their own minds.