SWALLOW – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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Chances are, unless spurred on by the recommendation of someone who had already seen it, the bulk of those who’ve been fortunate enough to catch Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s extraordinary Swallow were lured in by its almost vaudevillian promise of a brief synopsis. Roll up! Roll up! Watch a prim, pretty young thing eat household items! Marbles! Batteries! You name it, as the title virtually guarantees, my friends, she’ll swallow it!

Starring Haley Bennett in a career-defining role, she plays rich white-bread housewife Hunter. She’s young, pleasing on the eye, and devotes herself wholly to being the perfect wife for her perfect husband Richie (Austin Stowell) so as to maintain the perfect surface appearance of their perfect life. Falling perfectly pregnant at the perfect time, her perfect mother-in-law Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel) gifts her the perfect self-help book which contains the perfectly perfect advice: do something to surprise yourself every day.

Trouble starts when Hunter interprets this advice, well, imperfectly. It starts with a marble and escalates from there. Finding the smallest outlet for autonomous action, we travel with Hunter as her backstory and secret insecurities start peeking through the cracks of her painstakingly constructed façade of perfection. Early in the film, when the first signs of Hunter’s eating disorder appear there aren’t just giggles, but widespread guffaws that spread throughout the cinema. Look at the perfect little blonde woman! Look what a funny thing she is doing! Slowly, however, it dawns with what is nothing less than an immaculate sense of timing on writer/director Mirabella-Davis’s part that this isn’t even remotely funny.

Hunter has a real psychological disorder called pica, which has been formally identified by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. As we journey with her, she experiments with non-nutritional variants of the disorder that focus on specific things; she eats ice (pagophagia), sharp object (acuphagia), metal (metallophagia), and dirt (geophagia), amongst other things. Mirabella-Davis has done his research, too, as pregnant women are particularly susceptible to pica. In his collaboration with the impressively cast Bennett, Swallow subtly paints a compelling, sensitive portrait of someone living with pica.

Importantly, however, the film is so very much more than this. Frankly, so confidently and intelligently addressed is pica in the film in relation to Hunter’s subjective experience that this would easily be enough to warrant the film significant praise on its own merits. But it goes further – much, much further – than this through its fearless examination of how this deeply troubled young woman can change her life.

The risk of spoilers with Swallow is high, so to avoid this it is suffice to say that Hunter’s journey takes her exactly to where her story should logically go. Mirabella-Davis actively embraces subject matter so taboo that almost all other filmmakers would automatically deem it off-limits. By doing so, Swallow thus becomes a film as much about striving for creative freedom as it does a woman desperately clawing her way towards a sense of autonomy, one mouthful at a time. Brave, challenging and desperately needed right now, Swallow is a perfect film about facing our imperfections.

The risk of spoilers with Swallow is high, so to avoid this suffice it to say that Hunter’s journey through her eating disorder takes her exactly to where her story should logically go. Swallow is a film as much about striving for creative freedom as it does a woman desperately clawing her way towards a sense of autonomy, one mouthful at a time. Brave, challenging and desperately needed right now, Swallow is a perfect film about facing our imperfections.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi award-winning film critic from Melbourne, Australia. She was an editor at Senses of Cinema from 2015 to 2018, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic for ABC Radio in Australia, She has written for Film International, Diabolique Magazine, Vulture, Overland, The Big Issue and her own website, The Blue Lenses. She has written eight books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema and co-edited collections on Elaine May, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Peter Strickland, and Alice in Wonderland in film. She frequently contributes commentaries, liner notes and video essays to home entertainment releases from companies such as Arrow Video, Kino Lorber, Eureka Entertainment, Second Sight and Severin Films. She is a Research Fellow at RMIT University and an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).