Piercing drama about womens’ rights over their own bodies marks an impressive debut from Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Dir: Carlo Mirabella-Davis. US. 2019. 94 mins.
The first few minutes of Swallow intercut shots of a blankly pretty Haley Bennett preparing for her suburban morning with scenes of an innocent lamb being led to slaughter. Don’t worry. The film gets a lot more subtle after that (it would almost have to). But its rage is real, and its true focus – women’s bodies, and the fight over who controls them – gets only sharper.
An extreme story, told by Carlo Mirabella-Davis with classic restraint
Premiering at Tribeca, the sometimes satirical, sometimes deeply disturbing work feels like an homage to Todd Haynes’ 1995 film Safe – a rich woman’s neurosis as cultural metaphor. Carefully made and perfectly acted, it’s a real accomplishment for director Carlo Mirabella-Davis, although likely to find its most appreciative audiences in arthouses. While the film’s message is ultimately progressive, its troubled heroine is both unhappy and hugely overprivileged, rarely a large draw for mainstream fans.
Hunter’s (Bennett) life definitely seems more than comfortable. Married to Richie, a fabulously wealthy young executive with rock-hard abs, she lives in the brutally beautiful modern home his parents gave them, spending her days looking lovely and basically doing nothing. Even the bits of housework she occasionally takes on feel like photoshoots for a lifestyle site. When she vacuums, it’s in heels. When any meal is made, it’s all plated perfectly.
Hunter has a secret, though. She likes to swallow things, bad things like marbles or rocks. And, once she finds out she’s pregnant – news she greets with far less exuberance than her husband does – she starts ingesting even more dangerous objects. Thumb tacks. Batteries. Needles. Like Safe, though, this isn’t about one person’s obsession, but a lurking widespread fear. Haynes’ earlier movie plugged into AIDS-era paranoia about cleanliness and contagion; Swallow asks, in our age of toxic masculinity and rolled-back reproductive rights, just how much real power even rich women wield over their own lives.
And, as it turns out, Hunter isn’t really as privileged as she seems. She grew up unwanted and unremarkable; as her mother-in-law is fond of reminding her, she’s lucky to have landed someone like Richie. Only Hunter’s pregnancy – and not just with any baby, but the next heir to the family fortune – gives her status. Yet, maddeningly, it also makes her common property, with everyone telling her what to eat or how to wear her hair. Whose body is it, anyway? Hunter decides to show them. Except the more she tries to break free, the tighter they fasten the bonds.
It’s an extreme story, and Mirabella-Davis thankfully tells it with classic restraint, in carefully composed shots and mostly long takes underscored by Nathan Halpern’s slow, foreboding music. The actors are reserved, too, with Austin Stowell dialing down Richie’s inherent rich-kid arrogance, and Elizabeth Marvel keeping the mother-in-law just the right side of brittle. (Also quiet, but even better, is the marvellous Denis O’Hare, who shows up late in the film as a nasty bit of business from Hunter’s past.)
And as Hunter, Bennett – who also served as an executive producer – holds it all together, creating a character out of a syndrome, and refusing to ask for sympathy or pity or, really, anything but our understanding. Yes, she’s deliberately hurting herself, mostly just as a way to remind herself she’s still alive. But also to remind herself that this is her body, something – maybe the only thing – over which she still, ultimately has control.That may feel like a simple message, but it can have complications – ones which Swallow is bravely willing to follow to their logical, if undoubtedly controversial, conclusions.
Production companies: Charades, Logical Pictures, Stand Alone Productions, Syncopated Films
US sales: CAA / International sales: Charades
Producers: Mollye Asher, Mynette Louie, Carole Baraton, Frederic Fiore
Screenplay: Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Production design: Erin Magill
Editing: Joe Murphy
Cinematography: Katelin Arizmendi
Music: Nathan Halpern
Main cast: Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Elizabeth Marvel, Denis O’Hare