Swallow: An unsettling film with a poignant message

The Boston Women’s screened the movie "Swallow" where actress Haley Bennett stars as Hunter. Boston, Mass., Sept. 29, 2019. Photo by Anoushka Dalmia/ BU News Service

By Anoushka Dalmia
BU News Service

One doesn’t expect the title of the movie, “Swallow,” to be a literal synopsis of the plot, but that’s precisely what it is.

Hunter (Haley Bennett) is the perfect young wife to Richie (Austin Stowell), a budding executive at his father’s company. She cooks for him dedicatedly, and takes excellent care of the house his parents gifted them. Her husband describes her as “giving, selfless, the light of my life.” And this was before they find out she’s pregnant.

The appearance of domestic bliss is a mirage, and the cracks are evident right from the start. The husband smiles and says all the right things, but he’s busy on his phone when Hunter tells him about her day. Her in-laws adore her but they never fail to remind her how lucky she was to have met their son and more importantly, their wealth.

Hunter is the “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” brand of housewife. She vacuums the carpet vigorously in her perfect dress and heels; she adjusts her hair and makeup before she lets her husband see her. But unlike Mrs. Maisel, she doesn’t have a secret career as a comic to fall back on. So what does Hunter do? She gleefully swallows a marble, defecates, cleans it up and places it on her dresser as a trophy. 

The discovery of this new thrill leaves her ecstatic. Soon, she is swallowing myriad household items, from a thumbtack to a safety pin to even a battery. This is a secret only she knows, and it keeps her going as she decorates the nursery for the baby. But a routine ultrasound reveals her precious secret to her husband and in-laws, who hire a war refugee to watch her and a therapist to “fix” the pica. The life of Richie’s heir, their “future CEO” is at stake; what right does the pregnant woman have over her own body?

From then on, Hunter’s life and her sanity start to crumble. She has another secret, and just as she begins to confront it, it is revealed to her husband without her consent. The pain of betrayal sets her adrift.

Haley Bennett as Hunter is marvelous to watch. She conveys Hunter’s turmoil without words, in actions both silent and loud. The music in the film, composed by Nathan Halpern, is haunting, and shadows Bennett as she flees further down her rabbit hole. 

The film dares to make its viewer uncomfortable, and not just through Hunter’s slow descent into her eating disorder. Films that address issues of unwanted pregnancies, abuse, mental instability and other such issues can often rely on the likability of its protagonist to elicit empathy from the audience. “Swallow” doesn’t do that; there’s no pause in the story to make Hunter relatable or likable. This sets it apart from other films and adds realism to the story. Anybody can be a victim, and a person’s personality, their disorders or even actions do not justify abuse or manipulation.

“Swallow,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year, was included in the Boston Women’s Film Festival for its cinematographer, Katelin Arizmendi. Documentarian Carlo Mirabella-Davis writes and directs, making the film his directorial debut in fiction.

After the screening, Katherine Irving, the Museum of Fine Arts programming lead, hosted a Q&A session with Arizmendi. The illuminating discussion focused on being a woman in an industry largely dominated by men, and Irving’s experience as a cinematographer. She talked about working with the costume and set designers to create a subtext through color, which is a dominant theme in the film. 

An audience member, Alejandro Jiminez, complimented her, “You did a great job because you made me want to eat a marble. That’s how beautiful you made it look.” 

IFC Films acquired the rights to “Swallow” earlier this year. It is set for a theatrical release in 2020. 

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