**CONTENT WARNING: DISORDERED EATING, EATING DISORDERS**
Everything in Ruth Paxton’s debut feature, A Banquet, is designed to put you off. From the heightened sound design to the stark interiors and the body contortions, Paxton’s world is inhabitable, unmanageable. The first time we enter the home of mother Holly (Sienna Guillory) and her daughters Betsey (Jessica Alexander) and Isabelle (Ruby Stokes), it is immediately fraught with grief as Holly and Betsey witness the suicide of their father/husband.
The corridors of the ultra-modern home created by the architect father are stark by design but also serve as a reminder of the trauma this family are bound by; encroaching and increasingly dark they map an environment filled with grief. Holly’s maternal responsibilities to her daughters’ care are amplified to suffocating levels in the face of this tragedy, and even many years later, Betsey’s post-school options are up in the air. When life seems so futile and flimsy — with the future so uncertain, is there any point in continuing?
Betsey, the oldest daughter, might be going through these classic teenage ‘growing pains’: dissatisfaction with the hand dealt in life, the realisation of a woman’s place in society, pressure from her mother, an impending climate crisis and familial responsibilities. But this changes one night when she attends a regular teen party. Betsey experiences something off-screen, a religious, spiritual and life-affirming moment after which she believes her body is in service to a higher power. When she returns home she refuses food, eating anything — even a pea— now causes her to violently convulse and wretch, Jessica Alexander setting down a visceral performance filled with excruciating physicality. Betsey is having apocalyptic visions that the audience does not get to engage with, communicated purely through Betsey’s mouth agape heavenly servitude to her new faith.
Holly then doubles down on the parenting, checking Betsey’s weight twice daily — strangely finding that she doesn’t lose any— and neglecting Isabelle in the process, determined to swaddle her daughter away from medical professionals and out of the slippery slope of the UK’s mental health care. As Betsey’s condition worsens, the lines of nature and nurture become increasingly difficult to sustain as the cracks in the generational problems within this family begin to show once their grandmother, June (Lindsay Duncan) arrives to help.
The combination of Betsey’s mental delusions, the repulsive nature in which food is presented (possibly avoid watching entirely if you are suffering with disordered eating) and some Cronenbergian body horror later on give Paxton and screenwriter Justin Bull’s film multiple readings. There’s eating disorders, blind faith, climate change/end of days, over-consumption, internalised misogyny, mental health, femininity, inherited trauma — you name it, Bull’s screenplay has it.
Often it feels like the film can’t come to a single conclusion with so many threads, leading the payoff to be dissatisfying. But the horror fan and academic in me, who has been blown away by the topics tackled by women horror filmmakers recently (especially in the UK), can’t help but revel in the possibility of re-watching and re-writing with a different theme in mind each time.
As a debut, A Banquet swings for the fences, and its stylisation definitely lands. Every time Betsey tilts her head to the sky in revelation it is borderline sexual, it feels perverse to watch as she bends her bones in unnatural formations every time food hits her lips, we’re spectators marvelling at the oppression of this woman. But is it really oppression? Or is it freedom for Betsey? She seems to think so. The bottom line here is a story of control, of a mother’s love and the extremes it will go to; of a teenage girl just trying to find her place; a matriarch observing the natural order; and a capitalistic patriarchy designed to shackle women to archaic mentalities. While the intentions might not always be clear, Ruth Paxton’s debut film certainly has a lot to say.
A Banquet is out on VOD now
by Chloe Leeson
Chloë (she/her) is the founder of SQ. She works as a teacher in the GLAM sector and freelances as a costume designer and maker living in the North East of England. She thrives watching 90s Harmony Korine Letterman interviews and bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Green Room and Pan’s Labyrinth. Find her on Letterboxd here.