Producers: Mollye Asher, Mynette Louie, Carole Baraton and Frederic Fiore Director: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Screenplay: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Cast: Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche and Denis O’Hare Distributor: IFC Films
“Pica” is the name given to a rare eating disorder involving the compulsion to consume items that are not meant to be ingested. Some might feel that though incredibly stylish, this film about it might perhaps best be left on the plate as well. By the close, however, “Swallow” carries undeniable power, even if watching it will probably make you feel a bit queasy.
The protagonist is Hunter (Haley Bennett, giving an impressive but studied performance), the wife of handsome but demanding businessman Richie Conrad (Austin Stowell). She’s treated with barely disguised contempt by her snooty in-laws Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel) and Michael (David Rasche). Even though she’s extraordinarily docile, they obviously believe that their son has married beneath him.
In addition to being inordinately submissive, Hunter is terribly scrupulous about her appearance. Though the setting is contemporary, even at her ritzy home Hunter looks like a housewife from a fifties sitcom, usually wearing a perfectly-ironed dress and high heels. (Liene Dobraja’s costumes are certainly on target, as is the production design of Erin Magill, captured in the elegant cinematography of Katelin Arizmenedi. Visually the result rivals what Todd Haynes achieved in “Far From Heaven,” though the overall mood is chillier.)
The plot—and the pica—kick in when Hunter becomes pregnant. She swallows a marble and then promptly ingests a tack she’s come upon while vacuuming the living room rug. Those are just the start of her unusual diet, which comes to include a variety of other non-comestibles, most metal objects of surprisingly large size.
When a sonogram reveals the contents of her stomach, Richie and his parents go ballistic, eventually trying to commit her for treatment. Their plans go awry, however, and she takes herself to a suburban house and an encounter with a man named Erwin (Denis O’Hare), who turns out to be key to her unusual condition.
Ultimately “Swallow” is a parable about how women are systematically abused in a male-centered society and rebel against the control exercised over them in any way they can, even if the mechanisms are macabre, even repulsive. It’s presented in a mannered style that often comes across as artificial but also carries an undertone of dark humor. Mirabella-Davis’ script and direction, abetted by the visual design, Joe Murphy’s careful editing and Nathan Helpern’s subtly unsettling score, make for a package that some might find both hard to watch and difficult to ignore.
The entire cast contribute to fulfilling Mirabella-Davis’ vision, as strange as it will seem to many, but it’s Bennett on whose shoulders the weight really falls, and she carries it with a performance that is subtly nuanced to prevent Hunter from becoming a caricature. It’s a turn that grows as the tale progresses, ending in a statement of defiance and liberation that, however peculiar the means, carries considerable impact. “Swallow,” like Haynes’s “Safe,” might make you uneasy. But its very weirdness is compelling.