A white picket fence, money and a life filled with glitter; Swallow is a tale that could have easily been found on Desperate Housewives‘ Wisteria Lane. Blonde and seemingly angelic Hunter (Haley Bennett) could have joined the notorious weekly poker club. But behind the classic trope of an unhappy life whilst bathing in privileges, director Carlo Mirabella-Davis portrays true despair in the most unconventional way.
Hunter is a desperate housewife unaware that she’s stuck in an unhealthy relationship. Her husband and in-laws (played by Elizabeth Marvel and David Rasche) have only one goal: controlling her, entirely. This is only exacerbated after she finds out she’s pregnant. She evolves in a golden cage, pressured daily to be as convenient as possible in an unwelcoming environment. That’s when she feels it, an unavoidable urge to consume random but dangerously sharp objects from the household, just to feel in control of something. Slowly, she builds her very own collection, exhibiting them on a bedroom shelf like trophies.
Positioning itself as an advocate, Swallow is much more than its title. It sure is physiological, taking the viewer into a metaphorical trip that takes them into the process of digesting an insufferable existence. But it mainly depicts the invisible stranglehold of a patriarchal society crushing down women, all in the despicable character of Hunter’s husband Richie (Austin Stowell). Uneasiness is palpable and the film quickly feels like an intrusive and increasingly violent hand on the mouth when unable to scream for help.
If there is one thing about Swallow that’s striking, it is the pink-shaded and gorgeous atmosphere from the ’50s that ties Hunter up to a outdated, ‘vintage’ stereotype. And contrary to expectations, the colour is nothing but intoxicating to the point of becoming gloomy, leading to indigestion. It roams in every shot and rapidly unsettles. Swallow clearly wants to shove this bubblegum ambience down the viewer’s throat, and it ends up lying heavy on the mind. It all works well.
Swallow’s relationship to food, although potentially triggering, is tackled without ceremony. After all, it is about power and a hypothetical dimension of self-control. Sat at a table having a home cooked meal (but with her husband) making vegetable smoothies (but with her mother-in-law), enduring a family dinner in a fancy restaurant where she struggles to feel comfortable, Hunter’s unhappiness always relies in situations when she’s forced to eat in front of her relatives. Swallow intends to show how she tries to regain some sort of healthiness whilst being unhealthy.
Hayley Bennett is wonderful. She is candid, lovely, as white as the fur of a newly born dove, and yet, the shy smile on Hunter’s face and glassy eyes make her look terrifying. Hunter’s excessive nonchalance and ‘hold-it-together’ state of mind soon transforms her into an emotionless android, with depth. Everything about her looks less and less human but mainly technical as she surrenders her freedom to become even more robotically autonomous.
With Swallow, director Carlo Mirabella-Davis tries to take one tiny step towards the portrayal of female rebellion, in all forms, making an honest attempt at toning down the ‘male gaze’. Swallow’s concept isn’t that hard to stomach.
Swallow is out on Digital on 3rd March
by Marie-Célia Cannenpasse
Marie-Célia (she/her) is from a French Caribbean island, and currently studies applied foreign languages at Sorbonne University in Paris, whilst taking filmmaking courses online. Her favourite films include Gone with the Wind, Super 8, Call Me By Your Name and The Prestige. You can find her on Twitter and Letterboxd @MCeliaCR