Ruth Paxton’s debut feature A Banquet is yet another addition to the slow-burning, symbolism-heavy subgenre that’s been thriving amongst indie horror since Robert Eggers cursed the woods with The Witch. Paxton is an admirer of Eggers and, like the beloved auteur, her first film features a woman on the edge of her sanity, embracing a metaphorical other that disrupts her very own nuclear family. The descent into cosmic madness begins when Betsey’s (Alexander) terminally ill father suddenly ends his life in front of her mother, Holly (Guillory), gagging down a bottle of bleach that he bloodily retches back up.
There’s a focus on food throughout the first act of A Banquet – sauce from a chicken wing slopping on the floor, bacon sizzling in a crackling fry pan, the squish of sushi stuffed into a mouth. Paxton’s film delves into the psyche of Betsey, to feel her nausea in relation to food after her father’s visceral passing. Sounds of panting, retching, and throaty choking are amplified to create a queasy unease. Peter Strickland’s former editor Matyas Fekete creates an atmosphere that is grotesque, but the story’s languid pacing and expositional obscurity sucks the life out of its ambience, and the finished product is heavily favorable toward style over substance.
Paxton’s film is a tumbling allegory of a blend of ideas: grief, eating disorders, motherhood, and religion. It’s an overambitious problem to have, but means the film’s themes are undercooked, leaving A Banquet’s final climactic minutes a blur of hollow spiritual imagery and wailing women. What the film has to say about eating disorders is a bit more fragmented, blurring the line of monstrous and divine. Betsey quickly loses her appetite after her father’s passing, refusing to eat even a single pea, gagging when forced to. She doesn’t lose weight, and after a walk in the forest she’s certain her repulsion toward food and lack of hunger are connected to the stars, a godly sign that she has been chosen as a vessel to connect her and Holly to the beyond. Control of food intake is often found in religious practice, albeit usually in the form of fasting, but even so Betsey’s anorexia (even though she herself refuses to call it that) is a bit disconnected from her empyrean destination.
A Banquet focuses on the mother-daughter relationship, even spanning generations when Holly’s mother (Duncan) arrives to verbally smack Betsey for always trying to be the main character. Holly tries to push away her mourning and suffering to serve as a tough presence for her daughters, but Betsey’s newfound enlightenment constantly stabs at her efforts, creating a toxic rift that disturbs the peace of the household.
However, the further the movie proceeds away from the gruesome opening scene, the more detached A Banquet feels from its own catalyst, entirely muddling its potency as a grieving allegory. When the chaos begins to intensify, the roots of it are fuzzy to remember, left dangling in hopes that somehow this all connects. Despite Paxton’s high ambitions to serve up be the next great elevated horror movie, there’s not enough meat on its bones to ultimately feel satisfying when the final holy image is served.
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