Updated: Oct 30, 2019
Entering the theater, I was worried about how Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s Swallow would handle its representation of Pica, an eating disorder characterized by the consumption of inedible objects. The Philadelphia Film Festival website describes the film as a comedy, and before seeing the film I read multiple descriptions describing the protagonist’s eating disorder as feminist. I feared that Pica would be romanticized in a similar manner to films like Starving in Suburbia, which make eating disorders seem rebellious and beautiful. I was pleasantly surprised, however, because the film perfectly captures the factors that contribute to the development and perpetuation of an eating disorder.
Swallow stars Haley Bennett as Hunter, who has gotten married, moved into a new house, and became pregnant in a very short amount of time. Her own family and friends are strangely absent; her in-laws and husband’s friends are the only people she interacts with throughout most of the film. In a large house with glass walls at the side of a river, Hunter constantly looks out into the nature outside the confines of her new home with a sense of longing. Despite her clear loneliness and unhappiness at her sudden pregnancy, she is a people pleaser, and acts happy about her situation instead of expressing how she truly feels. Her reluctance to show her feelings, lack of control over her life, and isolation all culminate in her decision to swallow a marble.
Mirabella-Davis perfectly captures the manner in which a person with an eating disorder uses disordered behaviors to temporarily feel better without actually confronting the root of their unhappiness, and Bennett perfectly conveys the strange satisfaction Hunter feels when she swallows a metal object through her facial expressions and body language. Her face shows the pride those with eating disorders often feel at being able to do something that a regular person can’t, whether it be someone with anorexia fasting for several days or a person with Pica consuming a marble. When she first swallows a marble, she feels spontaneous and powerful; she has finally found something that she alone has control over.
As Hunter’s illness develops, Swallow becomes a power struggle between Hunter and her husband. He increasingly exerts control over her life and strips her of her privacy and agency, completely disregarding her feelings and disrespecting her individuality. For example, he shares her private information with his friends without her consent. Their relationship is clearly toxic, but because of her low self-worth and desire to make her husband happy, Hunter does not express her needs clearly nor takes action to regain true control over her life, causing her eating disorder to escalate further.
Swallow not only creates understanding and empathy for those with Pica, but also connects that representation to feminism. Hunter’s husband embodies toxic masculinity, viewing Hunter more as his ward than his wife. He and his family clearly see her as an incubator for his child rather than as a human being. Pica becomes a physical manifestation of the mental and emotional harm their sexism inflicts on Hunter as she tries to wrestle back her individuality while being pushed into the roles of housewifery and motherhood.
The classism of Hunter’s new family is also apparent, and reminiscent of Luzhin from Crime and Punishment, who fantasizes about marrying a destitute woman so that she will be forever grateful and indebted towards him. Throughout the film, the class difference between Hunter and her husband becomes more and more apparent, and further contributes to the loss of control she feels over her life. She clearly feels indebted to him, and the fear of being seen as ungrateful keeps her from demanding agency. The film also subverts common ideas about wealth as creating opportunity and giving a person freedom. For Hunter, wealth represents the loss of freedom and meaning from her life.
Stunning shots and meaningful imagery abound in this film. The forest and river outside the glass walls of Hunter’s home seem to call to her, and represent the freedom she yearns for, away from the shiny and technologically modern home she’s inhabiting. Red, white, and blue, colors commonly associated with the idea of freedom and revolution, are also common in the color scheme of the film. While decorating the nursery, Hunter places colored films over the windows to create the French flag. The color scheme and French flag represent the class conflict between Hunter and her husband and her desire for freedom. Additionally, shots of the collection of objects that have passed through Hunter’s digestive system evoke several emotions in viewers. There is a mystical quality to the assortment of shiny metal objects, but also repulsion as one imagines these objects passing through their own digestive system.
One issue I had with the film was its tone in some places. There were scenes with a lighthearted tone that I do not believe is appropriate for the content of those scenes. For example, there is a scene in which Hunter is lying in bed downing metal objects, then the shot pans and then zooms in on her growing collection of objects she’s swallowed. While I was absolutely horrified and concerned during this scene, other members of the audience were laughing, and the scene was clearly meant to evoke laughter through its bright lighting and light music. Overall, the film provides an accurate and empathy-provoking representation of Pica, but some scenes have an inappropriately light-hearted or humorous tone that does not create a full understanding of the gravity of Hunter’s actions. This is made up for by darker scenes in the film where the consequences of Hunter’s actions become clear, but I do not think that swallowing sharp metal objects should be portrayed in a light manner in the first place.
Swallow is a beautiful film in many respects. It not only provides a much-needed accurate and empathetic representation of Pica, but also explores the effects of social issues on individual mental health and the intersection between feminism and classism. While the tone was off in some places, the film makes up for it through its grave tone in other places, ensuring that the overall representation of Pica is not lighthearted. I commend Carlo Mirabella-Davis and Haley Bennett for creating a film that is not only beautifully shot and acted, but also rich with social commentary and providing crucial representation for a disorder that most are unaware of.