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NIFFF 2019

Review: Swallow

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- Carlos Mirabella-Davis’ first fiction feature film is a diabolical thriller, both intelligently unsettling and unexpectedly entertaining

Review: Swallow
Haley Bennett in Swallow

As of the very title of the film, Swallow, which can refer to the act of ingesting or the small, long-winged songbird, duality winds its way right to the very heart of Carlos Mirabella-Davis’ magnetic thriller, which was presented in an international premiere within the International Competition section of the Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF). Having premiered nationally at the Tribeca Film Festival, where Swallow’s protagonist Haley Bennet was handed the award for best actress, the film plays with the notion of “gender norms” in a subtle and surgically precise fashion, handling them to such effect that their essence is distorted and their grotesque nature revealed.

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“Swallowing” is certainly something that Hunter (Haley Bennett) seems to do day after day, hour after hour, a housewife with the looks of a porcelain doll, delicately mannered and wielding a whisper of a voice. But who is Hunter really? What hides behind her porcelain face, seemingly operated by a wily ventriloquist? Swallow seats the viewer on a soft and comfy armchair which, little by little, slowly but surely, is revealed to be none other than an electric chair. With each and every bitter mouthful that Hunter is forced to swallow (her husband’s indifference, the ongoing lack of interest displayed towards her by her in-laws, the loneliness which weighs more heavily upon her with every passing day), the armchair in question seems to reveal yet another unbearable defect: a small but persistent stain, a tear in the fabric, a feather pointing through the upholstery which sticks remorselessly into the viewer’s back…

Until, that is, Hunter realises she can offset these repetitive, bitter mouthfuls by taking little pills of adrenaline, of sorts, which offer up an endless variety of sensations known only to her. In short, this perfect housewife starts to ingest an endless series of small and dangerous objects which come to inhabit her body alongside the foetus she’s carrying in her womb. This eating disorder known as Pica, much like other disorders on the same spectrum, is a way in which Hunter can take complete and sole control over her body.

Although Hunter never abandons her role of model wife and future mother, which she continues to act out in almost maniacal fashion in front of her husband (the costume design is splendid, with the outfits transforming into immaculate armoured suits which prevent the uninitiated from gaining access to the protagonist’s inner world), another woman slowly begins to grow inside of her: independent and knowingly out of the norm. If, in the first instance, we might wonder whether Hunter plans to punish the foetus she’s carrying inside her, given the borderline intolerability of her behaviour, another line of thought soon takes over: what if the foetus were in some way her alter ego, a life force which rouses her from her slumber? One thing is certain: with each and every forbidden mouthful ingested (a smooth stone, a pin, a handful of soil,…) the protagonist of Swallow reclaims her independence, as well as her right to be a wife, a daughter-in-law and an “imperfect” mum; a unique being who exists outside of any limitations imposed by gender.

Along the lines of Hitchcock’s Marnie, but also Cronenberg’s The Brood, Carlos Mirabella-Davis offers the audience a loose and elaborate, though highly lifelike reading of a psychological disturbance. He uses it as a fragile and multi-faceted platform from which to decry the absurdity of a standardised society, suffocated by grotesque and destructive gender-based rules. Ultimately, Swallow is a liberating and decidedly sophisticated film.

Swallow is produced by French firm Charades (who are also in charge of international sales), and Logical Pictures, alongside the American groups Stand Alone Productions and Syncopated Films.

(Translated from Italian)

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