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Swallow (Carlo Mirabella-Davis, 2020)

“Swallow”

There’s been a recent trend in movies as of late to diagnose and analyze certain trauma and then coat it gently in the costuming of horror without much interest in actually being a horror film. In order for these to be successful they must prioritize genre above theme like the recent The Invisible Man (2019), but one like director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s Swallow, has little interest in the play or expressiveness of horror. Mirabella-Davis takes the central conceit of their plotting which follows Hunter (Haley Bennett), a newly pregnant housewife, who begins consuming dangerous objects after she learns the big news, and renders it in stark realism, which robs the film of potential abstraction or experimentation. The gimmick of her consumption is a catch-all for any metaphor that the director can think up, and runs the gamut from claustrophobic gender roles, emotional spousal abuse and trauma from sexual assault. Poor Hunter has to go through so many horrible things you’d think she was cursed with the totem of all the potential dangers of femininity. This wouldn’t be a problem if the director knew how to wield these various themes with an urgency of form,  but there’s a cleanliness to these images that is all too simplistic. Mirabella-Davis has obviously seen Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, and wants to impose a message onto their images, but the type of gendered expectations in these perfect, clinical compositions, allows for little in the way of disruption or dissolution, because the title itself wants you to look for that rupture. In Jeanne Dielman, the unsettling of Delphine Seyrig’s expected routine is a shock, and is achieved by a rigorousness of shot-length and discipline to believe in ones own images. With the intended effect out there in the open (it’s the title of the movie), they begin with the subversive act, but go about telling this story without the need for transgression or complications, which turns Swallow into a carnival sideshow. “Come see the girl who swallows safety-pins and thumb-tacks. You’ll never guess why!” These compositions and what they suggest are far too tidy, and the expectation is that by asserting an agreeable political stance on the liberation and need for better treatment of women that this will render the film as a moral good, but in the process any sense of complication or difficulty or nastiness is lost in the characterization that is presented.  

There’s an unconscious feeling that cinema has come to a day of reckoning in the past two years or so that seems full to bursting with the potential anger of women, but these films rarely ever get to a place where that anger can be unleashed. Instead, they are presented with “accuracy”, which internalizes these frustrations, budding micro-aggressions and outright abuse into something that needs to be hidden with stillness, and I think this is cowardice. Since when have movies ever needed to be realistic? The realism thus becomes another silencing tool for women who want and need to scream, but can’t, because of the conservativity of this quiet anger. I don’t know what sort of outlet a film like Swallow can hope to be for women who need a release from the day to day bullshit that we have to put up with, and while I’m more than capable of recognizing that some other woman may find a movie like this cathartic, I do question the need for all of these films that operate on a level of #metoo awareness to function at the same volume and intention of form. Are audiences actually afraid or uninterested in spilling the necessary blood that is sometimes warranted in stories of this type?. This is especially prudent for something like Swallow, which wants to be a realistic tale of body horror, trauma and closure, and even contains a scene where Hunter has a conversation with the man who raped her mother and spawned her existence. In the 1970s his head would have been on a spike, and trickling that deep red blood that would have been justified by the laws of genre cinema.  

In the past, genre cinema functioned as a smuggler’s weapon, and through stories about blood and guts they opened up the seven seals of man’s worst sins, and commented upon them, but the metaphor was never made more important than the horror and the filmmaking itself. Today, the metaphor has to be loud and blunt and prioritized above these other tools of filmmaking. Even in recent horror films that I enjoy like Black Christmas (2019), the metaphor and the intentions are made abundantly clear and the lesson overpowers the actual justification of violence that is suggested by the genre. Swallow addresses its horror and its psychology like a medical textbook, complete with surgeries and psychiatric evaluations that lay bare everything that is ailing Hunter in a simplistic connect the dots sort of manner. Formally the cinematography mirrors Hunter’s own psychology, but almost to a point of too much precision that it becomes muted and dull to really put us in her shoes, as if women don’t already know what’s it like to be a woman. As if feeling seen is more important than being heard.  

In the past few years I’ve seen a lot of films that want so desperately to tell the real stories of women. These stories are political by nature, but I wonder who the intended audience actually is, because women know what’s up, and bad men aren’t going to watch a film like this in the first place. There’s a liberal back-patting to much of modern horror adjacent filmmaking that I find almost entirely useless, because filmmakers seem to be afraid to claw beneath the surface and discover something rabid and feral about womanhood. I think there are real limitations in the idea of cinema as an actual tool for change and those movies that actually do have a significant, beneficial impact to the culture at large are usually formally daring and go about telling their stories in a completely new way. There’s little reason to give Swallow your time when you can read The Edible Woman or watch Jeanne Dielman instead. There is an open anger buried in films made about women these days waiting to be let out and douse cinema with a rage untold. The old saying is “hell hath no fury, like a woman scorned”, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at these recent films. There’s no one way to be a woman or navigate your own trauma so why do so many of these movies have a singular aesthetic and storytelling interest? The woman who makes herself small is a woman I know, but the woman who screams and careens herself into madness is familiar too. Why then is cinema in this moment predisposed to rendering women as a shrinking whisper when we are more than capable of being a reaper of not only our enemies, but ourselves. Swallow is quiet, because Hunter is quiet, because it’s the way a movie like this is supposed to be, but I long for the day of rule-breakers, of artists who look outside of the box to tell the stories of women.  

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