One reason why I loved Julia Ducournau’s Raw is that it paralleled the protagonist’s sexual awakening with her literal desire for flesh. To put it simply, it was a tasteful metaphor for something deeper. No matter how hard you cringed and squirmed at the visuals, you were inevitably impressed by how imaginatively the script honoured its premise.
Swallow is yet another example of this success. It takes a premise that initially seems like a stomach-turning gimmick, but as it progresses, it demonstrates a deeper understanding of its subject matter.
Not Just Pica Disorder, But Life Disorder
On the surface, Hunter (Haley Bennett) suffers from pica disorder, which is the urge to consume and swallow non-nutritive and inanimate objects. However, writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis is interested in doing far more than making us gag. Hunter is a housewife, more like a trophy wife, and Mirabella-Davis ensures we live inside her head for the first two acts to better understand her struggles.
She takes care of the apartment at home alone. She keeps everything nice and neat in relatable OCD fashion. She’s married to a wealthy businessman named Richie (Austin Stowell) who barely gives her any real attention other than the sweet nothings that any guy can make. Anything Hunter has to say is frequently interrupted by someone else, who always seems to be far more important. Frankly, she’s a woman who is never seen or recognized. This anxiety is further escalated when she’s revealed to be pregnant. All of a sudden, it’s as if her body is no longer in her control.
So begins Hunter’s compulsion for swallowing things. Then come bigger objects. The swallowing hurts, but Hunter finds something invigorating about letting an object pass through her body. Pretty soon, Swallow becomes a physically exhausting ordeal that feeds one’s sheer curiosity about Mirabella-Davis’s premise. That being said, Mirabella-Davis centres the story on a power struggle. When everything is beyond Hunter’s control, this one thing that people call a disease can feel like freedom.
Bennett Commands the Screen, But Everyone Else?
Bennett carries the film from start to finish. Almost like the women in David Fincher or Darren Aronofsky films, Bennett excels in the psychological game. She exposes Hunter’s insecurities and demonstrates with talent and precision how such insecurities can fester in domestic boredom.
When it comes to everyone else around Hunter, on the other hand, the film falls a bit short. Stowell’s Richie is the epitome of an ignorant douche-bro with a punchable face. Every line he delivers and every decision he makes are disastrous for both their marriage and the basic act of just plain giving a damn. When Richie and his parents first learn of Hunter’s situation, their reaction is to hire a guard to watch over her 24/7 at home. (Ironically, the guard is the only man who gives Hunter proper attention.) In the end, the people in Hunter’s life eventually resemble cardboard cutout villains.
Some of the dialogue also leaves something to be desired. Someone might say a line that probes the other person to answer, but the scene almost always cuts away before we hear anything. It may be an intentional choice to create a cold, distant atmosphere, but it can feel like the film cuts a few corners for the sake of tonal consistency.
What an Ending
Then the third act and ending of Swallow come into play, and the moving pieces finally align. Everything clicks in place in the final ten minutes. When Swallow finally reveals itself, it’s quite poetic, moving, and killer.
Mirabella-Davis knows exactly what he wants in tone and thematic execution. He knows how to convey a provocative message and how to arrive at his destination through a premise that’s both fascinating and stomach-churning.
Even without the nuanced exploration of gender roles and daily order, Mirabella-Davis fills Swallow with colour, gorgeous cinematography, and neat set design that contrasts the chaos that brews inside Hunter.
Though the supporting characters have major setbacks, this is Haley Bennett’s show and she delivers. Swallow is a confident, uncomfortable, and nasty little film that will make you think twice about what it truly means to have agency. Frankly, I’m here for it, and I want to see more weird films that showcase this much talent.
Swallow opened in limited release on March 6, 2020.
For a second take, read Ben Shane’s review from Fantasia!