Every film festival has at least one movie that causes an audience member to faint. Sundance had V/H/S in 2012, TIFF had Raw in 2017, and now, Tribeca Film Festival has Swallow. According to Indiewire, a woman blacked out during a screening of the film on Monday during one particularly fraught scene.
Having spent the film’s 94 minute run-time in various states of discomfort, I can empathise.
Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ feminist psychological horror film stars Haley Bennett as Hunter, a housewife who develops pica — an eating disorder that causes someone to crave non-food items — after learning that she’s pregnant. What starts with her loudly chewing ice during dinner with her in-laws quickly devolves into her ingesting increasingly physically harmful objects: a marble, a thimble, a paperclip, a thumbtack, a battery, a nail.
As I said, not for the faint of heart.
Still, the film’s shocking premise is counterbalanced by its quiet, almost ethereal vibe, a product of Kate Arizmendi's beautiful cinematography. In a way, the movie begins at the end of the traditional fairy tale: the beautiful blonde princess has married the handsome son of a businessman, and they’re poised to live happily ever after.
Bennett gives an arresting, calibrated performance, playing Hunter as a modern Stepford wife. Her days are spent waiting for husband Richie (Austin Stowell) to come home from work, decorating their palatial upstate New York home, and playing Candy Crush. Some days, her mother-in-law (Elizabeth Marvel) breaks up the monotony with a visit. But when Hunter discovers she’s pregnant, that placid, marble veneer starts to crack. Suddenly, the only thing that proves she still has some control over her body is the sensation of cold metal in her mouth.
As she tells a concerned Richie at one point in the film: “I wanted to, so I did it.”
On the eve of the film’s premiere, Refinery29 sat down with director Carlos Mirabella-Davis, Haley Bennett and Austin Stowell, to break down one of the festival’s most controversial and powerful films.
Refinery29: How did you come up with the premise for the movie?
Carlo Mirabella-Davis: “The film was inspired by my grandmother Edith, who was a home-maker in the 1950s in an unhappy marriage, and who developed rituals of control. Like obsessive hand washing. And she was institutionalised by her husband, and I always felt that she was being punished for her sensitivity, for not living up to the expectations of what society felt what a wife and mother should be. And it impacted our family a lot; I just want to make a film about that. And then I was also drawn to pica because I had seen a photograph somewhere of all the contents of someone’s stomach laid out. I have my own sort of OCD rituals and rituals of control, and so I wanted to make a film about someone who had these private rebellions against the status quo, and the patriarchy. “
Haley Bennett: “You should go see the film after dinner rather than before dinner.” [Laughs]
Watching the film, I felt that Hunter sees her pica as this secret that keeps her in control of her own body in the face of constant pressure to act a certain way — especially as a pregnant woman.
H.B.: “She got pregnant because she thought that's what she should do. She thought Oh, well this is the obvious next step, and it'll make everyone really happy, and they'll love me so much if I get pregnant and have a baby. And you don't think about the consequences of what it actually means to have another being inhabit your space especially if you're in an unhappy relationship.”
C.M.D.: “And that the family sees her as a vessel.”
Austin, your character Richie is so interesting, because he’s not really a bad guy. He’s just a man who’s been raised a certain way, and can’t get past that to empathise with his wife. What was it like to play that?
Austin Stowell: “For me, it was about his assumption of happiness — and not just his happiness, but others’ happiness. Richie wanted to have his cake and eat it too, and he saw Hunter as the side of him that he's not allowed to be: The artist, the creative. I think he believes that he is in love with her. It's just that his conceptions of love are quantitative instead of qualitative. He means really well; it’s just that it would never occur to him that he has to give something more.”
C.M.D.: “Richie's an interesting character to write. I thought a lot about Don Jr. in a way. The film's a lot about gender expectations, and I think that he feels he has to be this kind of alpha male and feels a security there, and then gravitates towards controlling Hunter, and then containing her and oppressing her. But it's tragic because he could be an ally, but he winds up defecting and going with what's familiar, what he's trained to see as his right and his privilege. He sees himself as a main character.
Haley, what was your reaction when you first read the script?
H.B.: “I felt really empathetic towards Hunter. There's so many twists and turns, and she's revealing herself layer by layer. You start to feel the walls closing in on her. It's like she's in this gilded cage, and it's extremely unsettling. And I really felt that sense of danger for her being in this oppressive world. I never heard of Pica before, but what was interesting to me about [that] wasn't necessarily the Pica itself but [why] somebody would develop a compulsion like this.
“I was interested in this kind of very specific sense of perfection and normalcy that starts to slowly decay and crack over time. And it's just written so beautifully.”
You had great costumes!
H.B.: I was very, very specific and into the costumes, and I was interested in how her life forces kind of drained over time in this marriage, and how the environment kind of devoured her. And we really played with that with production design. We did a lot of brainstorming around that, and I was quite obsessed with the costumes and how they interact with the environment.”
C.M.D.: “That was such a brilliant idea that you came up with, that wardrobe journey, the house vampirically draining her of her essence. It was really wonderful to see that come to life.”
H.B. “I would stalk our production designer! ‘So, that room isn't going to be too bright, right? Is that okay? Because I don't think that works for the costume.’”
The idea of a pregnant woman living with Pica feels very disturbing — how did you balance the shock value of that with the more subtle story about patriarchy and womanhood you were trying to tell?
C.M.B.: “Honestly, casting. When we had the scripts, we knew that we had to find the perfect Hunter and we had to find somebody who you immediately empathise with, connect to and could bring you into their psychological universe so that the story became universal and human. We needed an actor who could bond the audience with her, so that you were there, and it became relatable. And Haley was the perfect Hunter.”
Over the course of the film, Hunter ingests a number of items including a marble, a battery, a thumbtack and dirt. How did you decide what things she’d crave?
C.M.D. “I have my own OCD, and rituals of control. Each object represented something different emotionally for Hunter. So, What did you feel the marble represented for your character?
H.B.: “It was this beautiful distraction. I remember when you were directing that scene. You talked a lot about unicorns, I think. It represented a certain kind of purity, and this luminescent magical quality. I liked the relationship that she has, because she goes through an entire journey when she decides to eat an object.”
Haley, your character goes through a pretty intense psychological journey. Did that take a toll on you while you were filming?
H.B. “No. I don't know, did it? Maybe it did. It was only shot in twenty one days. A small blip of life that felt like a total revolution within me.”
What do you hope young women take away from this movie?
H.B.: “It's okay to not be perfect, and it's okay to screw up and mess up, and it's okay to live your life on your terms, and it's okay to marry the wrong person, and it's okay to let your life get really messy. And it doesn't matter because you will learn lessons and grow from even the most devastating interactions.”
C.M.D. “Hopefully it's a movie that people see as about empowerment and discovering who you really are. There's so much repression that we're taught just — you know, swallow who we really are, keep it buried.
H.B.: “Rage, rage, rage. Rage, rage, rage.”