When looking at the various types of conflicts which can arise in plots, most stories fall into three categories: man vs man, man vs nature, and man vs self. Taking gender into consideration when analyzing conflict, the horror genre tends to place women into dangerous conflicts far more than men...
...Masked serial killers hunting women over an uneven terrain (man vs man) or some mutated or ferocious creature feeds on its terrified prey (man vs nature), but what about a horror movie which focuses on the inner conflict between a female character and herself? A common theme in the genre involves a woman receiving a diagnosis which puts her mental health in question, but by the end of the movie we learn a ghost or demon is actually the culprit, so a lot of movies begin with a woman’s struggle with herself, but turn into a conflict with an outside being. A few films actually fit into the category of woman vs self, such as Repulsion (1965), In My Skin (2002) and May (2002) and all three movies provide the audience with a terrifying look into the mind of an unstable person. Fear, obsession, and body mutilation occur as the female-leads mentally and physically torture themselves. Even though this type of conflict might not occur as commonly as others, the traumatizing ordeals women undergo because of their own mind, leaves a lasting mark on the viewers. So, making a bold move with his first feature length film, writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis delves into the lesser explored conflict of woman vs self with his film Swallow, which recently played at the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival.
The upscale life of newlywed Hunter (Haley Bennett) and Richie Conrad (Austin Stowell) presents as a spotless and perfect existence. The large house, fancy dinner parties, and pools all lie within the transparent boarders of the large and numerous windows which make up most of the property. Viewing the world through so many glass panes gives the illusion the couple has nothing to hide but taking a closer look at the interior of the house we begin to see the slow deterioration of Hunter’s mind. The first sequence of shots shows the wife carefully placing and lining up all the shiny perfect objects of the house, but mixed in with Hunter’s obsessive behavior are clips of a messy butchering of a lamb. Both scenes depict a carefully planned out process and we also witness the slow dismantling of the lamb and Hunter.
Marrying into money, Hunter finds her days filled with a great deal of nothing as the bored housewife syndrome sets in. The doldrums of an empty house do not end when her husband arrives home because busy businessman Richie cannot look up from his phone long enough to acknowledge his wife’s boredom and neglect. Hunter has nothing to fulfill her during the day and becoming pregnant only further robs her of any identity. When her husband begins sharing the news of the pregnancy, we witness a very emotionally and physically distant Hunter. The idea of the upcoming baby brings no joy to the expecting mother as she still struggles to be seen by anyone around her.
Ignored, interrupted, and dismissed, Hunter lacks any method of self-expression or freedom, so she turns inward. Like any bored housewife, Hunter finds new and exciting things to do to occupy her day. But, instead of reading 50 Shades of Gray or turning to day-drinking like most housewives, Hunter takes it up a notch and finds herself unexplainably compelled, but also ecstatically happy, when she eats strange and inedible objects. While glancing around her picture-perfect and sterile home she finds herself staring at a glass marble sitting in a dish of knickknacks. The tiny item grows more and more appealing until finally Hunter swallows the object. The marble was small and insignificant, no one will notice its absence, but Hunter knows. This fact brings her great joy because doing something out of the ordinary or finding even some small way to disrupt her surroundings makes her happy. She controls no part of her life, but consuming (and passing) any non-food item she can fit in her mouth allows her a sense of autonomy. Alone with her thoughts and her appetite, Hunter fills her empty days (and stomach) with whatever she can find. The pretty perfect items filling her life become a physical part of her as she consumes everything.
On one hand, swallowing household objects brings a great deal of happiness to Hunter, but on the other hand items such as safety pins and batteries cause a great deal of damage and raise a great deal of concern with the family. Her husband, expectedly, responds quite negatively to the discovery of his wife’s condition (medical term: Pica) and struggles to understand why his wife would want to ruin his life. Even with Hunter revealing her mental condition, she receives no support and her husband makes it very clear the health of the unborn baby is his only concern. However, the act of swallowing nonfoods progresses from curiosity to addiction. And like all addicts, Hunter finds a way to continue her self-harm regardless of the damage it does.
The film presents a lot of commentary on the personal autonomy women (especially pregnant women) experience on a daily basis. The actress Haley Bennett expertly portrays a woman forced to wear a mask and the breakdown which ensues from being forced into her insignificant role in life. Visually, the film’s use of color and mirrors draws the eye into Hunter’s world and forces you to witness a woman battling with herself. And while the film earns the label of ‘body-horror’ do not expect a Cronenberg-caliber of grossness. A lot of the body related horror happens off screen and instead of showing you all the details, you get to imagine the experience of such joyous activities as swallowing and passing a thumbtack. So, between the acting and the visuals (both seen and unseen), Swallow offers a lot to make the audience cringe.
Get a taste of Swallow when it releases in select theaters, digital and VOD on March 6th, 2020 from IFC Films.
By Amylou Ahava
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