Just going to stick a trigger warning for discussions of eating disorder behaviour right here at the top before we jump on in.
I think one of the hardest things about making a movie about eating disorders is that you have to actually show eating disordered behaviour to make your point. And yes, that’s true for so many depictions of mental illnesses – but eating disorders are of a uniquely competitive breed, and films about them tend to focus on those things which encourage the most competition. The close-ups of protruding collarbones, the scale dropping down, the calorie tracking, the purging. Ask anyone who has one – every time a new movie about eating disorders is released, it’s almost invariably met with hand-wringing and congratulation in the popular media, and added to another list of triggers by people who actually deal with eating disorders.
Which is why I found myself so intrigued with Swallow, a little indie thriller-ish drama directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis and starring Haley Bennet (who looks so distractingly like Jennifer Lawrence that I feel like I have to warn you about it before you sit down to watch it, just so you can get that out of the way), following the story of an upper-class housewife who, upon getting pregnant by her WASP-y husband, begins to indulge in her insatiable desire to swallow inedible objects. In fact, this is a disorder of its own – Pica, the psychological compulsion to consume non-nutritious or outright dangerous objects.
Now, right upfront, I want to tell you that the reason this film pulled me in is because I have an eating disorder – I’ve written about it a few times, and you’re more than welcome to check out my writing on my experiences with an ED and recovery (and back again). Despite the fact that I usually seek out (or, you know, write) any media that I can that reflects my experiences, I tend to avoid eating disorder movies, just because they’re so often the equivalent of slamming the giant “Be an Idiot with Food!” button in my brain.
But Swallow finds a different approach that allows it to explore the compulsive, destructive nature of eating disorders without depicting any of that triggering behaviour that normally infests films of that nature. Haley Bennett’s Hunter is one of the most painfully accurate and subtely realized depictions of disordered eating ever committed to film; the way that the compulsions to consume, even when it’s destroying her body and her life, demand her attention, the impossibility of life without it, the slippery slope of recovery-relapse when triggered by insurmountable stress. Driven by a need for control as her pregnancy and familial intervention begins to strip that from her, it’s a familiar story to so many people who’ve dealt with eating disorders – food and the things we consume begin to look nothing like fuel, but an enemy, something to be contended with.
But, with the unconventional approach to the disorder, it allows for an avoidance of the usual tropes that fill these movies. No caved-in collarbones, no bony teenagers, no calorie counts, but all the painful, destructive distress that comes with these illnesses. Mirabella-Davis, who writes and directs, finds that compression, the sense of the walls closing in around Hunter as her compulsions begin to take control of her – suburban bliss has never felt so claustrophobic. Bennett puts in one hell of a performance in a screen-dominating turn that is listless and electric all at once, totally lost and totally focused at the same time. Her husband (played by Austin Stoker of Fantasy Island non-fame) is a deeply unsettling screen presence, a looming dread wrapped up in the promise of undying love.
But for all I could talk about this film as a beautiful piece of cinema, and it is by all technical measures of the same, Swallow is a movie that, first and foremost, finds a way to talk about eating disorders that actually works. Without going into needlessly triggering material, it instead focuses on the very non-sensational psychology that drives such behaviour – unflinching, unsettling, and often upsetting, it’s an intense ride into the mind of a woman consumed by consumption.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via Singapore International Film Festival)