haley bennett and austin stowell choke on gender norms in ‘swallow’
The feminist thriller explores a universal story through an unusual psychological disorder.
Photo Katelin Arizmendi.
Throughout the course of the movie Swallow, Haley Bennett’s character Hunter swallows a marble, a thumb tack, a battery, and numerous other small objects not intended for human consumption. After they’ve passed through her body she displays them on a tray by her bed; little trophies from her digestive tract.
Swallow, which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in New York last month, is a provocative account of a woman who develops pica, a disorder that causes sufferers to consume things they shouldn’t. Hunter starts swallowing things shortly after she discovers she’s pregnant with her first child by her uptight husband Richie, played by Austin Stowell. Frustrated with her lonely life in upstate New York and tired of trying to meet Richie’s parents’ impossibly high standards, she starts sabotaging her body and her pregnancy.
“It’s almost like pica is secondary to what she’s trying to figure out and work through,” Bennett says, sitting in a small room at The Roxy Hotel next to Stowell the day after the film’s premiere in New York. Hunter’s long-suppressed trauma slowly bubbles to the surface through her compulsion. It’s a quiet act of rebellion, until the foreign objects in her stomach show up in a routine ultrasound.
Writer and director Carlo Mirabella-Davis was inspired to write the psychological thriller – his first feature – after learning about his grandmother’s debilitating OCD. She was institutionalized by her husband in the 1940s and given a partial bilateral lobotomy and electroshock therapy in a deeply misguided attempt to curb her habits.
Mirabella-Davis acquired his grandmother’s case file, and wrote in a director’s statement that he “was immediately struck by how she used OCD rituals as a way to create order in a life she felt increasingly powerless in. She went through four cakes of soap a day and 12 bottles of rubbing alcohol a week, desperate to control the only thing she could: her body. I believe my grandmother was punished for her sensitivity, her mental illness, and not fulfilling society’s definitions of what a woman and wife should be,” he wrote.
Despite suffering from different disorders, both Hunter and Mirabella-Davis’ grandmother battled the same underlying problem: the patriarchy, and the ways it exerts control over women’s bodies. This deeper message is what drew Bennett to the film. Having previously starred in big-budget movies like The Girl on the Train and Music and Lyrics, she became so enamored with Swallow that she signed on as executive producer (as well as lead actress) – her first time doing so. “I felt that it was a love letter to feminism, and I think it’s really timely,” she says. “It exposes some of the dangers of patriarchy in a really clever way, contained within this fascinating compulsion.”
Bennett says she “knew nothing” about pica prior to reading Swallow’s script, but dove into the psychological aspects of her character with the help of a consulting expert, to ensure her portrayal was accurate. It worked: she ended up winning Best Actress in a US Narrative Feature at Tribeca for her alternately haunting and hilarious performance.
An extra layer of eeriness is added when you learn that Bennett’s baby bump in the film was real. “I was pregnant with her when we did the film, so it adds a really special element,” she says, referring to her baby, Virginia, who was born at the end of last year. “It was really fun, in an exhausting way!” she laughs. Pretending to swallow thumbtacks might be too unnerving a task for many pregnant actors, but Bennett says she was able to ignore any emotional affect and focus on approaching filming those scenes “purely from a technical point of view. I’ve never swallowed a tack before, so I tried Googling ‘how to swallow a tack!’” she laughs. “It felt very technical, rather than emotional.”
The film skillfully explores gender norms, and this is in part due to the director’s unique perspective. Mirabella-Davis has had a fluid gender expression throughout his life, and wrote, “Even though I currently present as a cisgender man, I identified as a woman for much of my twenties, wearing women’s clothing and using the name Emma Mirabella-Davis. Because I’ve been perceived by the world as both a woman and a man, I was able to bring a unique perspective to writing the role of Hunter while also understanding the mindset of her husband, Richie.”
This ability to empathize so strongly with both characters gives them greater depth. Richie and his parents are part of the one percent – “they throw money at the situation, because that’s how they solve problems,” Stowell says. So when Hunter’s compulsion is discovered by Richie and his parents, they employ an ex-military guard from Syria to watch over her.
There’s a lot of cruelty in the film – at one point Richie’s mom asks her: “So what did you do for money before you met my son?” But this callousness is offset by dry comedy. One memorable scene shows Hunter sitting in bed reading a self-help book, and as she turns the page she rips it out, shoves it in her mouth and eats it. “There’s a lot of levity to it, which I really was interested in finding,” Bennett says of the film. “I really like that it’s this quasi-satirical critique on the one-percent. It really comes across how grotesque it actually is,” she says of the privileged lifestyle the family leads. “Even though this is a really disturbing compulsion, you could understand why she would want to regain control of her body and escape from this life that she’d chosen.”
Richie is equally adrift, though he’s more distracted than straight-up abusive. Like Mirabella-Davis, Stowell brought depth to the role by tapping into his own life experiences. During the Q&A after the film’s premiere he explained how he grew up around the one percent. “I’m from Connecticut, and I used to spend my summers on Martha’s Vineyard. I know these people very well,” he smiled wryly. “But I was on the outside looking in. I resented people like Richie because they had money. They had all the things that I didn’t.”
This experience stuck with him, he says the next day at The Roxy. “I always worked in the service industry, so I was serving those of privilege, and was able to see how they treated people who were working for them. The assumed caste system, even within a restaurant or at school, I very much felt it there. Richie’s expectations of himself and what he should be are eating him alive”, he says. “I felt it was important to show that even those who seemingly have it all together are coming apart at the seams as well. Everybody is dealing with mental health.”
Swallow illustrates that social expectations can affect anyone. For Bennett there’s a simple answer: “Be kind always.”
Swallow is currently seeking distribution – follow @SwallowMovie for updates on screenings.