To discuss Swallow is to begin with Safe. Todd Haynes‘s 80s-set melodrama is perhaps the foremost depiction of suburban trauma, the idea that the mundanity of housewivery is a sickness. Julianne Moore plays a woman who goes to her jazzercise classes, dinner parties, and cookie cutter home, but does not connect. She grows unhappy with the smallest of things; a couch in the wrong color nearly sends her into a fit. She grows sick, an allergy develops to the suburban monotony. We don’t know the specifics of this illness, nor do we know the precise metaphor, this is for us to draw our own meaning. The sickness could be AIDS, it could be a statement on environmentalism, or it could be anxiety and mental illness manifesting physically. The point is, we only know it came from the boredom of suburban life, and that it ends up being what gives her the agency she was missing. Swallow is much the same, except here that illness is a form of self-harm.
Carlo Mirabella-Davis shows the heavy weight of domesticity. It’s a confrontation on the well known heterosexual unhappiness, a forced conformist relationship that’s rushed into to the point of misery. We see a woman trapped in the mundanity of the life her husband wishes upon her, and she has no agency of her own. Subconsciously, she knows something’s wrong, but doesn’t quite know where to go with it. Just like the ritualistic lifestyle she leads, she takes on a new protest. This behavior falls into the sinister: she is swallowing the small objects she finds around the house.
Even without the body horror of the titular act of swallowing, it’s a deeply unsettling horror film. Hunter (Haley Bennett) has just gotten pregnant when she feels herself under a dangerous amount of control. The baby owns her body, and by extension, so does her husband Richie (Austin Stowell). Life is a constant cycle: get up, play a mindless phone game, pace the house, make dinner, go to sleep. It is as regular as the second heartbeat inside her, and equally as imposing. She is locked in place, but doesn’t fully understand how she’s feeling, so she begins to consume the world around her.
As a depiction of self-harm, Swallow is commendable for showing the ritualistic, obsessive nature without becoming triggering. By using an uncommon behavior instead of an eating disorder or cutting, it is far less likely to recall specific experiences and sensory triggers for viewers. This care is important, it allows for relatability without becoming overwhelming. Just as with any self destructive behavior, Hunter starts small. The first few are simple—a marble, a thumbtack. These are pinpricks, she moves on to bigger, with a battery. Eventually, it is clinical, and people are worried. She does it to claim herself. It is all a means to an end of taking back control and being the one to make the voices inside her, not her unborn baby nor her husband.
This pastel horror comes with aesthetics of traditional femininity. We see the softer reds like lipstick painting the walls, soft pink haze out the windows, and the baby blues and yellows of a nursery start to seep in. Haley Bennett has a gentle softness that makes her protest all the more surprising, her docile manner in character leads to her blending in almost to the point of assimilation. By having her swallow odds and ends, we are subjected to the often eroticized image of female lips with bright red lipstick parted. These lips are awaiting something sinister, and these images repeat until we associate them with this ritual. It’s a reclamation of sexualized imagery into horror, an idea that the feminine is biting back, and will swallow down what attacks it.
Swallow is so effective as a horror film because you may not realize it’s one. Aesthetically it appears as an indie dramedy for the A24 crowd, and it has the story of a daytime medical soap, at least on the surface. There is no supernatural monster, there is no chainsaw killer, and there is no natural disaster. This is just a woman trying to regain control of her own body. And that is what resonates, in a world where women’s bodies come after what they can grow, and where standards dictate nearly everything else, the idea of taking it all back one step at a time. It may be obsessive extremes here, but the horror comes from how everything we see could really happen. That horror in the mundanity is the scariest part, because anyone could fall apart into obsession the same way. Now, we look at our own lives as horror.