As we watch political parties and candidates and pundits maneuver for power, we should be reminded that having or losing power is the fundamental paradigm under which most people operate. If this group has power, then that group does not have power. If that group has more power, then this group has less power. Power, it appears, is a zero-sum game. And those who feel powerless search for ways to assert some kind of power over their environment, circumstances or, at least, their own bodies.
That is the perspective of the film Swallow (2020; for purchase on Amazon Prime or free with a Showtime subscription). I liked a lot of things about it: the colors and the way the frames are divided, often with Hunter (Haley Bennett) at the center. I liked the growing dread and the uncomfortable way we are introduced to the psychological trauma that Hunter has experienced but never dealt with. The scenes where she indulges her compulsion to swallow items because of her pica will make you squirm. It’s essentially a horror movie, but not so far removed from life that one even has to suspend disbelief. (Most of the time. I found it highly unlikely that the psychiatrist would ever reveal to her husband what she had said about her past. Unless she wanted to lose her job, she would tell him nothing.)
As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Hunter is held captive in more than one cage. The house, as nice as it is, is more like a cell, because she has no job outside the house. She slowly slips into acedia as she no longer works on her art. She is caught in the web of expectations that her husband and his family have for her, both in appearance and action. She seems satisfied at first, but she builds up an obsession with cleaning and straightening that hint at the gnawing uncertainty about who she is and what she is doing. The way Richie, her husband, reacts when she irons a silk tie and the ways he tries to reassert control over her medical and psychological care start to increase the pressure in the film that has to be released in one way or another.
Swallow pairs well with another recent movie, The Invisible Man, both of which contain metaphors for the isolation and self-doubt of women in abusive relationships. In both films, the women end up essentially on their own, because people they love refuse either to believe them or to help them. The Invisible Man, however, holds together its central theme throughout better than Swallow, because Elizabeth Moss’s Cecilia fights back against the one who has harmed her, instead of against a proxy for her abuse.
There is a moment where Hunter is confiding to her psychiatrist that she is the child of a woman who was raped. Though we are brought into the story without knowledge of her growing up, we get the impression that Hunter hasn’t really thought deeply about the psychological toll that her origin has taken on her. She brushes it off with—to me—an inexplicable comment about her mother being sort of a right-wing, Christian nutjob who is, crazily, against abortion, and so, “here I am,” she says. Has her entire life been so difficult that she would regret the decision of her mother to give birth to her? Clearly, that is the root of her problems, but she seems almost to blame her mother for where she is: not just her existence, but her current situation.
The most powerful moment is when she confronts her biological father, ironically at a birthday party for Hunter’s half-sister. She asserts her control about what they will talk about and what answers she needs from him. We are caught between the monstrous act he committed and the fact that he seems to live a relatively happy life with a happy family. And it is a moment of pure moral clarity when Hunter asks him whether he is ashamed of her. He responds that what he did was shameful, but she is not shameful. The movie could have ended there, and that moment could have been the release Hunter needed to live her life unburdened and free of feelings of guilt which she had been carrying for so long.
But the movie doesn’t stop there. Hunter acts as a perfect emblem of the modern view of individual human beings, which is that we must free ourselves of all external ties in order to be truly free. Because she was essentially captive to her husband and his whims and wishes, her pregnancy is tied, for her, to that toxic relationship. This is illustrated early in the film when Richie is heard, in the background of the shot, telling his parents that “we” are pregnant, while Hunter sits quietly in the foreground. The swallowing of the abortion pills follows the same logic as the things she swallowed because of her pica: it is an act of control, of asserting her power, of being independent of others’ expectations and control.
But to anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the film’s assumptions of independence and autonomy, her assertion of power and control shows that she is still captive, and more insidiously. She is actually and simply doing precisely what everyone has done to her: exercising power over another body. Obviously, the rhetoric of those who fight for abortion in every circumstance and at every stage, with no limitations whatsoever, continues to be that what is inside a pregnant woman is simply part of her body.
But isn’t that what Richie and his parents do when they force her to sign her committal form to a psychiatric hospital? What Richie wants and the way that Richie wants their relationship to appear is the fundamental aspect of his control over her. She doesn’t free herself from that by taking back power over her own body; she perpetuates it by exercising power over that much smaller body inside her, cutting the ties that prove that she is not an independent, autonomous being.
Just as we have been pulled into her disorder (whatever her pica is, it isn’t healthy), the body horror of her swallowing and then having damaging objects surgically removed from her stomach actually works against the wider premise. The swallowing of objects earlier in the film is visually connected to the way she swallows the abortion pills. And the fact that we have become visually accustomed to associating her pica with harmful things may in fact be stronger than the film’s obvious message of independence and freedom. Flushing away the life-blood of her child is not the same as escaping from an abusive relationship.
Though her mother, over the phone, seems to be, at least subconsciously, distancing herself from Hunter, it seems strange to me that nothing about the fact that her mother carried her to term and gave birth, though she was the child of rape, had any effect on the way she thought about her own pregnancy. I am sure that the movie is attempting to follow closely the logic of escaping patriarchy and asserting feminine power, but the threads that are tied together visually and narratively actually seem to undermine that thesis. If the story really wanted to be transgressive and original and counter-cultural, it would have jumped from Hunter’s biological father’s house to her walking away smiling and free. Instead, her smile reminds me much more of Dani’s final smile in Midsommar. And that’s scarier than anything else in the film.