If one were to compile a list of alienated housewives in film, it would be long enough to clog the kitchen sink. There’s something inherently cinematic about a pretty white woman picking furniture from a catalogue with a cigarette in one hand and a dead look in her eyes. But when a film lingers only at the surface of alienation, it becomes as tiresome as the patriarchal devices that the film is trying to subvert. Influenced no doubt by Todd Haynes’ masterpiece Safe and engaging with Margaret Atwood’s first novel The Edible Woman, Swallow leaves a disappointing aftertaste.
Written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis, Swallow opens with the first of many shots of the beautiful, porcelain-like Hunter (Hailey Bennett), standing on her balcony and staring off into the distance. Hunter does a lot of standing and staring in the film, but what goes on behind that stare doesn’t seem to interest Mirabella-Davis enough to explore in depth. Hunter and her husband Richie (Austin Stowell) have just moved into a big modern house which overlooks the Hudson River and is decorated to look like an Architectural Digest spread. She appears to have not a single friend of her own, a fact that is never addressed. Richie and Hunter don’t seem to especially like each other, despite Richie’s constant reminders of his love for her. He is the stereotype of the dismissive husband. He answers emails at dinner, interrupts his wife to say nothing of note, but always with an innocent smile.
Where some women may choose to take a lover to cope, Hunter develops a compulsion to swallow household objects. Her first foray into inedibles happens at dinner with Richie’s parents to celebrate her new pregnancy. Everyone is celebrating, except for Hunter that is, whose pregnancy feels more like the diagnosis of terminal illness. Bored and put out by his parents lack of interest in her, she finds herself lured by a glass of ice water. Seeing the ice glisten and shine like diamonds, she places an ice cube in her mouth and bites down, crushing it. Her husband and in-laws stare on, concerned. The following day her mother-in-law (Elizabeth Marvel) lends her a copy of self-help book. Inspired by one of the books’ lessons to “surprise yourself everyday,” she swallows a marble. She moves up the knick-knack food pyramid, swallowing a paperclip, a battery and pages from the self-help book.
But this doesn’t stay a secret for long. During a sonogram, the nurse finds something other than a healthy foetus. Prescriptions and chaperoned therapy sessions ensue, during which she’s diagnosed with pica disorder. In one of these sessions, Hunter reveals her dark secret: that her mother was raped and that she is the product of that rape. It’s unclear whether this offers an explanation for her eating disorder, or is an attempt at giving her a background story. Either way, the film tries to offer Hunter’s sickness as a substitute for the psychological depth that it avoids. If her compulsion gives her a sense of control over her life and a feeling of connection with the world, then there are no visual cues that show that shift from disconnection to connection. There is an almost comedic montage where 80s pop music plays as Hunter swallows and displays her various “snacks.” Despite the eating disorder itself and the reactions it inspires, there isn’t a radical shift in her outlook.
Swallow constantly reminds its viewers of its own goodwill as a film. Richie is a caricature of the bad husband, a Patrick Bateman-type without the axe-chops; the character’s emptiness reveals the film’s inability to capture any nuance in his manipulation of an oppressive relationship. His parents are demure, hob-nobbers who say things to Hunter like “you should grow your hair long; Richie loves his girls with long hair.” It’s as if the film is afraid of showing the complexities of patriarchy and the coping mechanisms deployed to deal with it.
Hunter articulates over and over again that the objects make her feel connected to her surroundings. That much is obvious. She likes the textures in her mouth and the sense of defiance it gives her. What she does with that feeling of control is wholly unoriginal. There’s a brief sex scene in which she prioritzes her pleasure over her husbands’, Eventually, Hunter makes an escape and tracks down her birth father. The confrontation is painfully awkward, no less so for the haphazard connection it appears to make between rape and pica disorder.
What makes Safe and The Edible Woman such compelling works about women asserting their agency through illness is the mystery of their conditions. No answers are given. No diagnosis is offered. It can’t easily be explained by a past trauma. It’s also important to note that they’re both set in ‘60s and ‘70s, a time when being a housewife was far from unusual and being stuck in a loveless marriage was even less unusual. So why set the film in present day? Why not make Hunter a working woman, with friends and a personality, yet still struggling with an unexplained urge to eat tiny objects? Female protagonists don’t all have to be likeable, but they do have to be fully fleshed out.
Swallow has all the makings of a great, unsettling film, but the only things that go below the surface are the objects that Hunter swallows. Too bad it plays it safe.
/Film Rating: 4 out of 10
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