Carlo Mirabella-Davis's Swallow is showing exclusively on MUBI in many countries starting October 31, 2020.
I am profoundly honored to be introducing my film, Swallow, to the viewers of MUBI’s iconic programming. Swallow follows a woman in a controlling marriage who has pica, the urge to eat dangerous objects. I think of the movie as a tiramisu of genres: body horror, dark comedy, and a domestic drama all rolled into one. Swallow is a film that will frighten you, make you laugh, and make you cry, hopefully fostering a psychologically cathartic experience.
The film was inspired by my grandmother, a 1950s homemaker who, as a response to a difficult marriage, developed various rituals of control. She was an obsessive hand washer who would go through four bars of soap a day and 12 bottles of sanitizing alcohol a week. I think she was looking for order in a life she felt increasingly powerless in. My grandfather, at the behest of the doctors, put my grandmother in a mental institution where she was given electroshock therapy, insulin shock therapy, and a non-consensual lobotomy which they botched resulting in the loss of her sense of taste and smell. I always felt that there was something punitive about how my grandmother was treated, that she was being punished for not living up to society’s expectations of what they felt a wife and a mother should be, and for being different.
As I began writing, I realized hand-washing is not particularly cinematic. Or perhaps it is becoming more cinematic now that we are all ritualistically doing it. I discovered a photograph of the contents of a patient with pica’s stomach which had been surgically removed and fanned out on a table like an archaeological dig. I wanted to know what drew the patient to those artifacts. It almost felt like something spiritual, like a holy communion, and I wanted to know more.
I am deeply grateful that so many accomplished artists chose to make my grandmother’s story their own. We were incredibly fortunate that the brilliant Haley Bennett, who was also an executive producer, decided to bring Hunter to life with such power, heart, and intricacy. Haley is highly skilled at conveying layers of emotion which allowed her to artfully conjure the various masks Hunter wears. The first mask is Hunter’s placid smile reflecting normalcy, mirroring what her husband wants her to be. The second mask is her doubt, her clandestine pain. The third mask is her true self, her primordial self, threatening to emerge. Haley can convey all those layers simultaneously with just the twitch of her eye or the adjustment of her hair. Because there are key sequences without dialogue between Hunter and the objects in question, I knew I needed an actor who could empathically connect the audience to the psychological waltz happening behind Hunter’s eyes. Haley Bennett accomplished that task with surgical precision.
I was extremely lucky to work with a true visionary of the silver screen, cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi. Kate suggested we bring every object to life by filming them with Master Prime lenses which capture the world in meticulous textural detail. We wanted to imbue a consciousness to the objects Hunter consumes, a palpable life force. Kate and I worked out a rigid vernacular of camera direction, a strict set of rules that we would break at key emotional junctures. Initially, Kate uses formal, locked-down compositions where Hunter is imprisoned by the frame. Then, Kate will suddenly employ a shallow depth of field close-up or a flutter of handheld movement to illustrate Hunter’s growing psychological rebellion.
Our miraculous production designer, Erin Magill, and our amazing costume designer, Liene Dobraja, constructed a stylized, Sirkian aesthetic in the beginning of the film which becomes more realistic as the narrative progresses. Our intention was to subtly imply that the patriarchal ideology from the 1950s is unfortunately still percolating under the surface of our society. You can see this shift from formalism to realism also reflected in the editing sculpted by the remarkable Joe Murphy and our score conjured by the astonishing Nathan Halpern.
Our incredible producers—Mollye Asher, Mynette Louie, and I—were resolutely committed to Swallow being a feminist film. I was raised in a feminist family, and my grandmother’s story informed my beliefs from an early age. My gender expression has always been rather fluid. For a number of years in my 20s, I identified as a woman, wore women’s clothing, and had a different name, Emma. It was a wondrous time in my life of internal prosperity. It was also an eye-opener. When you are raised as a man, you do not always see how baked into the cake of society sexism is. Just walking down the street, I experienced how society constantly tries to control and marginalize female identified people. Despite all of that, it was a period of great self-actualization for me where I realized that the ability to control one’s own body is a fundamental human right.
I sit here writing this on the very day that Justice Amy Coney Barrett was appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States, securing a conservative majority that will very likely erode or eliminate Roe v. Wade and dismantle reproductive rights in my country for generations. At its core, Swallow is a film about body autonomy, about a woman reclaiming ownership of her personhood from an oppressive, patriarchal family who views her as a possession and vessel. With the loss of a woman’s right to choose in my country, which now seems inevitable, we lose an essential commitment to the right of all people to determine what happens to their bodies. My grandmother never had the choice about what happened to her body, to her brain. That choice was made for her by her husband and doctors. I saw what that loss of choice did to her, the effect it had on her both physically, with the destruction of her sense of taste and smell, and mentally, with the agoraphobia she subsequently developed.
It is a dismal day here in the United States, a time when systemic racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, and conspiracy theories continue to virulently infect my country. President Trump has stoked those fires of hate and division with every breath, but, thankfully, the majority of us are moving towards a progressive future. I believe a restorative future is on the horizon. I truly believe cinematic storytelling can fight prejudice, increase empathy, and make people feel seen. I hope Swallow is considered part of that movement.