Under Quarantine, She Began Swallowing Household Items
In “Swallow,” a stunning new film starring Haley Bennett, a young, infantilized housewife takes back control by ingesting dangerous goods, from batteries to…bigger stuff.
Those of us following the novel coronavirus guidelines, from self-quarantining to “social distancing,” will surely empathize with the plight of Hunter, the protagonist of Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s striking satire Swallow. A young, pregnant, bored housewife, she spends her days trapped inside, tidying the couple’s home; at night, when not spoken over by cocksure men every time she tries to express her thoughts, she’s forced to service her checked-out husband. It’s a torturous, infantilized existence—think Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper—and one that results in drastic measures being taken.
Hunter begins swallowing things around the house. It starts with a marble, then a thumbtack, then a battery. She suffers from pica, a psychological disorder wherein people crave and consume non-nutritious substances. After ingesting the item, she coughs it back up, scrubs away the blood and saliva, and treats it like a trophy. This is how she wins.
“It makes her feel powerful; it makes her feel in control. And also, it’s a secret that she has this own little world, and it’s hers, and it’s on a tray. It’s sad,” says the actress Haley Bennett, who plays Hunter. “It’s something that was a catalyst to snapping her out of her apathy, and is a bridge to her healing, and realizing that she has some real issues with intimacy.”
The film was inspired by writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s grandmother, who was institutionalized for her various control issues, including obsessive hand-washing, and ultimately subjected to electro-shock therapy and lobotomized. Like Hunter, she was a woman unraveling as she struggles to reclaim her independence in the face of a suffocating patriarchy. “She’s being commoditized and infantilized, and it’s in part due to the unexplored trauma she’s’ experienced,” Bennett explains.
Bennett’s take on Hunter was inspired by Mia Farrow’s in Rosemary’s Baby and Catherine Deneuve’s in Repulsion, though those actresses weren’t exactly shouldering the same load.
“I produced, starred in, and carried a baby—all at the same time,” says Bennett. “I felt so empowered. It was pure adrenaline, and we shot the film in 18 days for less than a million dollars. And you know, it was kind of a nice relief from what was actually happening to me.”
Swallow is told entirely from Hunter’s perspective, vividly rendering her intense feelings of isolation and alienation via a pastel fever dream of a palette channeling the repressive 1950s. And this vision couldn’t have been realized without the many talented women behind the camera.
“We had all female producers, we had a female cinematographer, we had a female set designer, and the fact that we were going to be framing Hunter’s world from a distinctly feminine perspective was of the utmost importance,” says Bennett. “In anyone else’s hands, I don’t think the film would have been as enchanting or delicate.”
There’s also the subject of class. Hunter is a shopgirl from small-town America who’s married into an incredibly affluent family. She’s dying to fit in with the blue bloods by projecting the image of the “perfect wife,” and when she doesn’t, her shame becomes crippling.
“Hunter puts on these different personas and masks, and all people do, and there’s this idea of ‘perfection’ and trying to satisfy the expectations of others—what it means to be a wife, what it means to be a mother—which is a slippery slope,” says Bennett. “This film turns that on its head. There’s no such thing as the ‘perfect marriage,’ there’s no such thing as being the ‘perfect mother,’ and that’s liberating in and of itself.”
While Bennett has shown promise in thrillers like The Equalizer and The Girl on the Train, she’s never had a showcase quite like this, and delivers a powerfully-restrained turn.
“What was challenging wasn’t the swallowing of the objects but the repression, and what was boiling beneath the surface, and those feelings of humiliation and shame,” she says. “Keeping up that veneer of perfection.”