Warning: contains spoilers.
Hunter Conrad (Girl on a Train’s Haley Bennett) is wrapped in a time warp sweater of baby-blue cashmere. For a would-be artist who favors color, the surrounding décor is surprisingly minimalist, carpet and cabinets of blanched beige and white. The only brilliance comes from the clashes of red and blue that stain the scene with the Technicolor tones of a Sirkian melodrama— or rather, the primary shades of a Giallo slasher. Hunter picks a marble from the carefully curated display case, holding it up to the light to capture the raspberry and white whorls of its mottled shell. Slowly, she places the object into her mouth, curls her lips over it, and swallows. Ingestion is almost an act of communion.
Carlo Mirabella Davis’s first scripted feature Swallow joins the contemporary insurgence of feminist body horror— such as Marina de Van’s In My Skin and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook— in an unnerving exploration of the female experience. Though it lacks the visceral gore of its contemporaries, the desperate precision of Hunter’s domestic living strikes the viewer with an ironic and unsettling familiarity. On the surface, Hunter is a veritable Sandra Dee, almost passing for a housewife of the Cold War era were it not for the sleek modernism of her Hudson Valley home and her ennui-abating iPhone games. But beneath the glean of color co-ordination and gourmet cooking, Hunter struggles with a growing sense of discontent. Once she falls pregnant by her wealthy husband Richie (Austin Stowell),she comes perilously close to losing control of her life, and her Self.
We follow a protagonist who is little more than a doll in a playhouse, spending her days listlessly vacuuming and choosing drapes, her only available creative outlet. Hunter’s pregnancy simply propels what has long been bubbling beneath the surface, and triggers Pica, a psychological disorder characterized by the ingestion of non-nutritive substances. Over the course of the film, the objects Hunter swallows become increasingly hazardous— a push-pin, a chess piece, a battery— until an ultrasound scan eventually uncovers her secret. Richie’s response is less than empathetic, coming in increasingly abusive tirades of gaslighting and emotional coercion. His overbearing parents (Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche) can barely conceal their contempt for Hunter; she is an inconvenience that must be managed, their suffocating ‘assistance’ reminiscent of the meddlesome Castevets of Rosemary’s Baby. Consequently, the family hires a male nurse (Laith Nakli) to “care” for Hunter— or rather, to guard the foetus Hunter carries from the protagonist’s dangerous little habit.
The white Western housewife stultified and silenced is no novel tale. We immediately hark back to Betty Freidan’s epoch-making The Feminine Mystique, the anxieties of Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and the eerie automations of Bryan Forbes’s The Stepford Wives. However, Swallow’s inspiration falls much closer to home, loosely recalling the plight of Mirabella Davis’s grandmother. A homemaker of the fifties, she developed rituals of control such as obsessive hand-washing, going through four bars of soap a day and twelve bottles of rubbing alcohol a week. “I think she was looking for order in a life she felt increasingly powerless in,” the director told Entertainment Focus. “My grandfather at the encouragement of the doctors put her into a mental institution […] I always felt that there was something punitive about it, that she was being punished in a way for not living up to society’s expectations of what they felt a wife or a mother should be and for being different.”
Indeed, Hunter’s struggle recalls a long and problematic history of female mind-management and the coercive control of patients, a subject that has birthed an expanse of scholarship. From the Victorian period to the mid-twentieth century, Europe and America saw husbands take liberties to commit their wives to asylums and privatized psychiatric care, intended to “correct” any unconventional behavior— notably the refusal of, or dissatisfaction with, traditional gender roles. Over the years, treatments have infamously ranged from the repressive to the violent, including strict rest cures, electroconvulsive therapy and lobotomy, the latter of which Mirabella Davis’ grandmother fell prey to. In Swallow, as Hunter’s behavior continues, Richie and his parents attempt to forcefully tussle her off to a psychiatric facility without prior discussion or consent.
Speaking to Bustle, Haley Bennett stated, “[Hunter’s Pica] is an act of rebellion to gain her independence […] [To] break free from the situation and from the confinement of patriarchy.” Of course, feminist scholars including Elaine Showalter, Carrol Smith Rosenberg and Lisa Appignanesi have hypothesized that the high incidence of mental illness in women— especially within “feminized” diagnoses such as hysteria, neurasthenia, eating disorders, schizophrenia and Borderline Personality Disorder— stems from the cumulative effect of being encouraged to lead a circumscribed lives. “What we call madness can also be caused and exacerbated by injustice and cruelty within the family and society […]” Phyllis Chesler writes in the 2005 revised edition of Women and Madness, “freedom, radical political reform, political struggle, and kindness are crucial to psychological and moral mental health..”
Of course, this is only one explanation for female dominated statistics, and a narrow one at that, but it appropriately outlines Swallow’s feminist ethos. Hunter’s disorder provides her with the temporary relief of something illicit and quickly transforms into a bodily protest of circumstance. As Mary Cappello notes in the aptly named Swallow: Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration, and the Curious Doctor Who Extracted Them, “The hysterical swallow relieves but does not satisfy […] It’s a form of self-soothing, and a form of self-harm.” Indeed, we often hear of self-injury and eating disorders as a form of control (the anorexic controls what goes in, the bulimic orders what comes out). Ironically, Hunter’s disorder does become the catalyst for regaining control— albeit through the most unpalatable of means—forcing her to recognise that the life she leads is not the life she truly wants. “Pica itself is a compulsion that is dangerous,” says the director, “but I liked the idea that it served as a kind of catalyst that allows her to break free from this oppressive paradigm and also discover her true self.” Obviously, it would be wrong to wax lyrical and name an eating disorder her saving grace; Pica is, of course, a life-threatening disorder. Rather, it shakes Hunter from her passivity to acknowledge her desire for autonomy and her corporeal flesh as a body, not a vessel.
Employment of mental illness as metaphor will understandably be problematic for some viewers. However, scenes of ingestion and the bloodied aftermath maintain enough discomforting viscera to keep Hunter’s mental and emotional turmoil in the foreground. Indeed, Pica as a motivation for change is merely the first step in a long and painful road to wellness. Bennett gives an outstanding performance as Hunter, for which she was awarded “Best Actress” at the Tribeca Film Festival. Fear and uncertainty are communicated physically, through the placid smiles and glassy eyed stares of one about to break. When the protagonist does speak, it is in the timid intonation of a woman diminished. Credit is also due to cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi. We long to free the proverbial caged bird as we watch Hunter gaze meditatively over the Hudson Valley river, an abundance of close-ups capturing every flicker of fear.
The focus of the film will also raise concerns; is the trope of the white, wealthy housewife not a tired and reductive tale? White middle-class feminism has a long legacy of side-lining the experiences of women of color, and unfortunately, despite best intentions, Swallow does not reach much further. Nevertheless, Mirabella Davis hopes the feature will resonate with a broader audience. “I think it’s a film that is about embracing who you are and fighting back against the modalities that are constraining you and restricting you and also dealing with the trauma from your past that may also be factoring in,” he told Vice, “I think that’s, hopefully, something that is a universal tale.”
The film does, however, venture into little explored territory. In perhaps the most potent narrative thread, we discover Hunter is a product of rape. A climactic confrontation with her mother’s abuser provides an important meditation on the effect of generational trauma and the anti-abortion legislations which continue to police women’s bodies. It is only dishearteningly redolent of US government restrictions to abortion access and Trump’s promises in January 2020 to veto any legislation weakening to pro-life policies. Hunter’s eventual decision to terminate her pregnancy is at once a powerful declaration of autonomy and a salient reminder that for many women, this is simply not an option. Indeed, in the United States, poor and minority women are disproportionately affected by anti-abortion legislations due to gaps in access to affordable healthcare and contraception, not to mention the impact of historical racism and discrimination. The ingestion of sharp objects is not the real horror here; it is the patriarchal impositions that still enact control over women’s lives on a daily basis.
Swallow redefines what we recognize as horror in its unsettling twist on the feminine and the familiar, eschewing the grotesque of the Cronenberg style for the very real threats of the female experience. Though viewers may find the focus on the white middle-class female diminishing, it is nonetheless a beautifully executed psychological study, a body horror in the sense of what the body is capable of and a defiant gesture of female self-ownership. The most promising takeaway of Mirabella Davis’s production is the powerful rumination on female trauma, and the hope it provides for the capacity to heal.
Laura Glancy is an English graduate, writer and Jean Rhys fan-girl from Liverpool, England. She can be found at twitter.com/clarabl0w