Why Swallow is more than just the most cringe-inducing film of the year

Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s arresting debut explores the true horrors of the body

“I think she was looking for order in a life she felt increasingly powerless in.” Writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis speaking about his grandmother who, in the 1950s, was confined to a mental institution and subjected to electroshock therapy, insulin shock therapy, and a non-consensual lobotomy for being an “obsessive hand washer”. But he could very easily be talking about the central character in his arresting and psychosomatic debut feature Swallow. Starring Haley Bennett as that “powerless”, doting, Candy Crush-obsessed housewife, Austin Stowell as her distinguished yet distant husband, and Elizabeth Marvel and Davis Rasche as his over-involved parents, Swallow was released theatrically earlier this year in the US and recently streamed exclusively on MUBI.

This “tiramisu of genres” — Mirabella-Davis’s own words again — traverses the narrow borderlines between horror and domesticity, stirring up memories of another one of 2020’s best offerings: Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man. We won’t delve into the “elevated horror” debate here — though for what it’s worth, it’s nonsense — but, like The Invisible Man, Swallow uses a reliable horror genre set-up to explore deeper, more relevant questions about power and gender dynamics within a marriage. While The Invisible Man leans into the more tropey, genre aspects of the iconic Universal monster mashes that it is rebooting — thrillingly so, and anchored by a sublime central performance from the always-brilliant Elisabeth Moss — Swallow subtly tiptoes the line, grounded in a bleak, razor-sharp reproduction of reality.

Haley Bennett, who also worked closely with Mirabella-Davis as an executive producer on this film, is Hunter, a young stay-at-home wife who, after falling pregnant and feeling emotionally distanced from her corporate heir husband, develops an unusual impulse to consume inedible objects. Marbles, pins, batteries — whatever she can find around the house. This real psychological disorder, known as “pica”, sees the film and its protagonist slowly spiralling into an absurd sense of psychological madness as Hunter’s mental decay becomes more and more prevalent.

Feeling hungry yet? Though Swallow might not get your stomach rumbling, the objects and ephemera that Hunter consumes are beautifully captured by cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi (Cam), who used a Master Prime lens to captures each item in meticulous, hyper-real, textural detail. In a clever sleight of hand, the same lens and camera trickery is used to capture the precise restaurant-level food that Hunter prepares for her husband, as well as to capture a slightly on-the-nose scene of animal slaughter. Swallow is fascinated with that carnal, sensual feeling of wanting to devour something; juicy red lamb chops, or a shiny red marble.

While the Cronenbergs of the world (David and Brandon) may have descended into full body horror freak-out — Possessor was another fantastic horror offering this year that carved its way through the fragile relationship between the interior mind and its fleshy exterior vessel — Swallow very delicately places us within a world of formal precision. Sure, it is still as cringe-inducing as they come, with some of its more lingering images including Hunter attempting to swallow a drawing pin, cutting her tongue in the process; hiding the after-effects of her internal injuries in the toilet as her husband bangs on the door; and being rushed into an emergency operating room, with all manner of objects being pulled from her throat and stomach, before being placed side-by-side like some morbid work of modern art. But the David Fincher-esque care that is taken to shoot the ultra-modern domestic setting, with its spacious architecture and opulent glass windows, bathed in a warmth of pretty pastel colours that wouldn’t be out-of-place in a Wes Anderson film, means that the film never allows itself to veer too far into the schlocky, ultra-weird of its more genre-inflected counterparts.

Hunter, with her expensive pearls and cocktail dresses, perfect blonde bob, and blushing porcelain barbie doll mask, is a Stepford Wife, plucked directly from the 1950s — or at least one Ira Levin’s domestic hellscapes. She is anachronistic to her habitat when placed within the modern walls of her twenty-first-century luxury abode, or the sterilised corridors and operating theatres of the hospital she inevitably finds herself in. How far have we really come, Swallow asks? Every day, Hunter dons her rose-cheeked mask and velvet armour, to step into the role of the post-war housewife. Hunter is imprisoned within her own domesticity, with its oppressive, sickly sweet colours and the large glass windows like those of a giant vivarium.

Swallow is a powerful condemnation of the male-centric medical profession that is often exercised as a means of control, trapping Hunter in her own domestic sphere, as her husband and in-laws attempt to control and manipulate every aspect of the medical and psychological “help” that she receives. In a further extension of his power, Hunter has a live-in “nurse” forced upon her, allowed no privacy even when she sleeps. This privacy is something that her husband has never respected anyway, as it transpires that he has told all his work colleagues and friends about her illness. She’s embarrassing him, derailing his life.

With its formally precise, and clinical, period-piece patina, and unhelpful, oppressive treatments, we’re transported back to the 1950s of Mirabella-Davis’s grandmother. Of course, there is the immediate shock factor of the unflinching body horror that has earned Swallow’s placement within that niche genre, but when you peel back the layers of this film you are left with an incredibly empathetic and personal piece of work from the first-time director. Mirabella-Davis, who identified as a woman called Emma for a large period of his life, brings the female experience of the ’50s into the present day, with its retrograde beliefs bubbling beneath the glossy, vintage veneer, echoing the early psychological horrors of one Roman Polanski: Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion. Like Polanski’s iconic collaborations with Mia Farrow and Catherine Deneuve, Bennett pours every ounce of her soul into this performance — as does Mirabella-Davis in his filmmaking.

Without wading into full-blown spoiler territory, Swallow’s delicate plotting culminates in an ending that is one of the more unexpected, subversive, and uplifting climaxes in recent cinema. Its powerful final image is an ode to female body autonomy, the right to medical privacy and anonymity, and the power that comes with that. Echoing its own protagonist, the film’s complex identity is hidden beneath a carefully cultivated and maintained surface layer. Many viewers will go in expecting to see another director playing provocateur, but Carlo Mirabella-Davis is smart enough to know that the real body horror doesn’t lie in fleshy depictions of mangled bodies, but in the sacrifices that are expected by those women who simply occupy one.

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