Carlo Mirabella-Davis's Swallow is showing exclusively on MUBI in many countries starting October 31, 2020.
Two thrillers that dealt with abusive partners, pregnancy, and by extension, bodily autonomy, debuted in the early months of 2020. Were it not for COVID-19, more ado might have been made of the thematic similarities between Leigh Whannel’s reimagining of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man and Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ indie debut Swallow. The week–apart timing of their respective releases suggests a percolating, post-Weinstein reckoning and if they’re any indication, films created in this wake will take a corrective approach with women-driven narratives that make explicit reference to lessons (ostensibly) learned from #MeToo.
In the hands of two male directors, reproductive rights might seem a pandering subject meant to assuage a demographic eager to see Hollywood change its ways, but pregnancy in particular has a rich precedent in horror films. The pinnacle of the micro-genre is inarguably Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. The 1968 film was a lightning rod in its own time, stirring controversy for its grisly depiction of the rape and subjugation of Kewpie-eyed Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) by a congregation of Satan worshippers that includes her husband, Guy (John Cassavetes). In a 50-year-anniversary piece for Vanity Fair, author Laura Jacobs alluded to its prescient power: “Today it isn’t devil worship or the invocation of Satan that troubles the viewer, it’s that a man barters his wife’s body, and that her destiny has been ruthlessly appropriated and perverted.”
Comparing the three films as representative of two kindred eras offers insight into how Hollywood, reflective of society at-large, viewed female agency relative to motherhood in the years directly preceding Roe V. Wade, as well as in the time immediately following #MeToo’s revelations. The chief departure between the older film and its 2020 analogues is illuminating. While Rosemary’s Baby is a supernatural tale (indebted to gothic yarns of monsters, to boot), Swallow and Invisible Man are firmly tethered to contemporal reality. In the 1968 film, fantasy served as a necessary vehicle to transport audiences to a state of mind that allowed them to trust the word of a woman over that of her exploiters: her husband, her doctor, and a slew of rich and powerful, shadowy figures. The villains of 2020’s films are, by contrast, distressingly ordinary young men who terrorize their partners with banal tactics that are nonetheless even more likely to send a shiver down the spine of the average woman.
In Swallow, Hunter (Haley Bennet) is a listless housewife married to the type of short-fused yuppie (Richie, played by Austin Stowell) who can barely contain his rage when she incorrectly presses his tie. When she becomes pregnant, she develops a dangerous appetite for ingesting foreign objects. Discovering her secret during an ultrasound, Richie tightens his grip over Hunter’s life into a chokehold. In Invisible Man, Cecilia (Elizabeth Moss) escapes an abusive relationship with Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a hot-shot tech pioneer, only to soon find out that she hasn’t eluded him at all. Instead, she’s provoked him to take his gaslighting tactics to preternatural heights with the help of a mysterious suit that grants him invisibility. Learning that she’s pregnant, Adrian takes aim at Cecilia’s mind rather than her body, framing her for crimes that land her in a psychiatric ward. Like Hunter in Swallow, Cecilia is treated as a carrier of precious cargo. Both could empathize with embattled Rosemary, though Guy’s motivations, in their lack of concern for her or the child she’s carrying, are indicative of an even more profound degree of selfishness. “You know how actors are, they're all a bit self-centered,” Rosemary remarks ominously of her thespian husband, shortly before she becomes pregnant.
As wouldn’t have been uncommon for a newly wed young woman in the 1960s, Rosemary wants a baby desperately. This maternal instinct, paired with her trusting nature and Catholic upbringing, ironically make her a prime candidate for the coven’s aims. She states her steadfast aversion to the idea of ending her pregnancy, no matter how much it compromises her health, during an argument with Guy. At her wit’s end after enduring several months of abdominal pain, she unprovokedly screams at him: “I won’t have an abortion!” unaware that the proclamation is likely music to his ears, and that she’s perfectly playing into an evil plan.
Swallow’s Hunter and Invisible Man’s Cecilia, on the other hand, are ambivalent about raising a family—especially if it involves their current or former partner. This apathy proves to be a strength in dealing with antagonistic partners, who view their unborn children as valuable property held hostage. Hunter’s preoccupation with swallowing inanimate objects (a real condition called pica) is a way for her to exert authority over the only domain her husband has left for her. When he interferes, threatening to take away what remains of her agency with constant supervision and, eventually, forced hospitalization, she doubles down by ingesting increasingly intractable objects. Subconsciously, she’s chiseling her way to freedom. Invisible Man’s Cecilia makes similar use of her body as collateral, putting herself in active danger in when she steals a pen to stage a suicide and thus summon her stalker. When she attacks him and causes his suit to malfunction, she ignites a bloody firefight with police.
Adrian and Richie also attempt to manipulate their partners with money, preying on the very real-world threat of financial insecurity. Talking to Hunter on the phone after she leaves him, Richie demands of his wife: “You gonna live on the street?” His voice drips with contempt. “You’re not good at anything. You can’t do anything.” Cecilia’s career prospects are comparatively bright: she’s an architect with an impressive portfolio. But still, Adrian is able to easily thwart her ambitions by sabotaging her first job interview. Later, seeking to ingratiate himself after he’s shed the suit, he orders a meal of delicacies and invites her back into his home: a palatial, modern masterwork; a gilded cage. But Cecilia doesn’t doesn’t take the money-bait, and neither does Hunter. The stakes are higher for Swallow’s heroine, and the film doesn’t sugarcoat the experience of undergoing an abortion sans the amenities that a comfortable existence provides. Worlds away from her own lux marriage abode, Hunter ends her pregnancy after swallowing two non-descript pills in a women’s public restroom.
In grim acknowledgement of the realities faced by women unable to terminate unwanted pregnancies in the 1960s, Rosemary’s fate is darker still. In a last-ditch attempt to save her baby (whom she believes is destined to be used in a blood sacrifice), Rosemary seeks out Dr. Hill, an obstetrician that she initially consulted before being steered toward Dr. Sapirstein, a coven member. Dr. Hill listens patiently to her recollection of events before leaving the room and returning with Guy and Dr. Sapirstein. Unaffiliated with the coven and unmotivated by mystical spoils, his is the unkindest cut of all. He has nothing to gain from turning her over, save for a modicum of gratitude from a colleague and a patient’s husband. His behavior reflects an implicit code among men that a pregnant woman’s body does not belong to her; his unwitting collusion with the devil is unironic.
At the time, Dr. Hill’s actions likely wouldn’t have been quite so shocking as they are now. In her paper, “‘Rosemary's Baby,’ Gothic Pregnancy, and Fetal Subjects,” author Karyn Valerius cites a compendium of critics in the 1960s who held the belief that the entirety of Rosemary’s Baby was a delusion dreamt up by its hysterical protagonist. While validating the idea of “feminist paranoia” as an often justified and necessary survival tactic, Valerius condemns this interpretation, writing: “To attribute Rosemary’s fears and suspicions to psychosis is to refuse a political interpretation of the narrative by failing to recognize the sexist social relations that conspire against her and, indeed, by failing to recognize any meaningful relation between the narrative and historical reality.”
Taking her words a step further, this dismissal is tantamount to a rejection of the broader raison d’etre of horror films, if one believes (as most do) that they function to simultaneously hyperbolize and trivialize the fears that bedevil waking life. But was this the critics’ intention, or were they simply unwilling to submit to the logic of a film that asked them to believe a woman unconditionally? Did they balk in the infamous rape scene, when Rosemary broke the fourth wall to cry: “This is no dream, this is really happening!”?
In the same, previously mentioned Vanity Fair article, Jacobs quotes critic Molly Haskell, who says of revisiting Rosemary’s Baby: “What’s so interesting about looking at movies again, you’re different and they’re different.” In a consideration of films as living works of art whose meanings shift over time, there’s scarcely a more poignant—or macabre—example than Rosemary’s Baby. Months after its release, Polanski’s eight-months-pregnant wife would be murdered by followers of a bonafide cult. Several years later, Polanski would drug and rape a 13-year-old girl, leading to a criminal conviction and permanent exile from the United States. Alongside Mia Farrow’s long-term, former partner Woody Allen, Polanski would be one of several old-guard legends whose status crumbled, at the onset of the #MeToo movement in 2018.
Polanski’s film may have obscured its horrors in allegory, but the offscreen atrocities that have closely orbited it since its debut prove the veracity of the forces that trigger “feminist paranoia.” 2020’s Swallow and The Invisible Man’s frank, well-received approaches to female fear bode well for a future in which women’s apprehensions are believed to have substance, and “paranoia” won’t need to be qualified by gender.