Fantasia 2019 Review: SWALLOW Will Chew You Up And Spit You Out

Pica, pica.

Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ Swallow absolutely ruined me in the best possible way. Coming out of nowhere at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival, it instantly shot to the top of the field. Compared to the rest of the programme, it doesn’t have as much blood, or action, or wild fantastic material, but what it lacks in those elements, it makes up for with a strange and painful story about a rarely-discussed psychological phenomenon - and an all-too-common sociological one.

Swallow’s plot is extremely slight, angling for depth rather than breadth. It centres on shy, submissive Hunter, whose former position in retail has given way to a life of housewifery under her wealthy new husband/douchebag Richie. When she discovers she’s pregnant, she suddenly realises just how trapped into that life she is, and - desperate to regain some sense of control - begins swallowing household objects. First, a marble. Then a thumbtack. And the story goes from there.

Swallow doesn’t shy away from the outward absurdity of this issue - the film is shot through with a devastatingly bleak sense of humour - but it also treats the subject seriously. Far from a Fear Factor-esque tour through escalatingly dangerous object-swallowing, the film leans into the psychology of the pica condition - quite real, and often associated with pregnancy - with remarkable success. Hunter talks to a psychologist about the subject briefly, but the bulk of the film's investigation is achieved wordlessly, with Mirabella-Davis’ camera observing the fine details of Hunter’s every action and expression.

More interesting than Hunter’s compulsions are the reasons why they develop, and they largely stem from the sense of captivity she faces at the hands of her new family. Austin Stowell, David Rasche, and Elizabeth Marvel form a perfectly passive-aggressive wealthy family unit, with Stowell oozing obnoxious business-bro privilege in every scene. Their control over Hunter - through marriage, through finances, and through her pregnancy - is the catalyst for the story, and her need to reclaim her identity and agency is the motivating factor behind her swallowing behaviours. Indeed, Hunter's status as an incubator for a wealthy man’s baby becomes a principal driver of the story in the latter half.

Key to the success of this story is the lead performance by Haley Bennett. Present in nearly every scene, Bennett embodies, alternately, Hunter’s timidity, her risk-taking, and eventually her will to break free. Given material that in a lesser actor’s hands could easily be shrugged off as a basic submissive-housewife role, Bennett offers the audience a complex and assured performance, communicating immense heartache with the tiniest of tics. The only actor matching her deep well of empathy is Laith Nakli, as a war-refugee nurse hired to “keep an eye” on Hunter. Cast for his severe, quietly intimidating physical characteristics, Nakli still imbues his character with a disarming sense of understanding, scoring the second-best character arc in the movie.

As with many mental health issues, Hunter’s problem stems at least in part from a traumatic past, and in part, that’s where Swallow goes to find its resolution. Mirabella-Davis takes the story to a pretty dark place in this stretch of the film - a place rarely explored in cinema with the degree of nuance displayed here. What could easily have been a harshly black-and-white situation is instead presented as difficult and complex, allowing its characters to, as people do, contain multitudes. 

That awareness of the depth of human behaviour and experience goes further to inform the film’s final scenes, and it’s here that Swallow makes its most powerful statements. Mirabella-Davis’ writing and directing is so unsensationalised, so subtly in-tune with Hunter’s specifically female-centric story, that I was amazed when the credits revealed the film wasn’t directed by anyone who could have been through the same experience. The final shot - one that continues playing out underneath the end credits - left me quietly sobbing in my seat until the final copyright notices scrolled offscreen. 

Swallow tells a highly specific story, but the characterisation underneath it should be relatable to anyone whose life experience even grazes the edge of it. It’s a film about a woman with an unusual eating disorder, but it’s also a film about someone in a negative relationship. It’s also about a person with mental illness, and about an inner life more tumultuous than the outside world would ever know. If you can’t relate to any of that, you either haven’t lived, or live a far simpler life than the rest of us.

Swallow is one of the best films I’ve seen this year, and one of the most insightful and empathetic depictions of mental illness I’ve ever seen. Sparsely written, beautifully shot, and expertly performed, it’s a moving exploration of a condition most would simply laugh or scoff at. More than that, it pumps from society’s stomach uncomfortable realities about bodily agency, class privilege, guilt, and remorse. If cinema is an empathy machine, Swallow is the latest and greatest make and model of that machine. I hope everyone gets to see it soon.