swallow Carlo Mirabella-Davis MK2 Mile-End

Haunted house madness and body horror combine in Swallow

An interview with Carlo Mirabella-Davis about his new film, which is now available on VOD.

In Swallow by Carlo Mirabella-Davis, ordinary household objects have souls. Hunter, a pregnant housewife, feels compelled to swallow a marble. As she holds it up, barely perceptible, the sounds of beaches and gulls appear on the soundtrack. It beckons to her. The marble becomes the first in a series of objects that will call out to Hunter. The film crafts a universe around Hunter’s fragile subjectivity and her quest for control in a patriarchal and repressive environment. Her search for power manifests itself through swallowing household objects.

Carlo Mirabella-Davis credits the film’s atmosphere to a series of collaborators. The textured soundscapes are the work of Michael Kurihara; the reflective images are the work of cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi; the expressive costume work, Liene Dobraja. Actress Haley Bennett, who stars as Hunter, brought to the table an incredible performance but also worked in collaboration with the cast and crew to build the film’s haunting insular world. 

Preparing the script, Mirabella-Davis researched the compulsions of people who have pica. They “often talk about the texture of things being a part of the compulsion,” he explains. Hunter, sequestered in a modernist house in Upstate New York, becomes isolated from the world beyond the immediacy of her domestic environment. The surrounding woods whisper and lurk. Night-time exists beyond the edges of light that spill out from the home’s all-glass walls. “We added a lot of animal sounds to the woods at night,” he says. “You can hear owls and coyotes. (There’s) the idea that something was lurking in the woods, but the woods itself is also the unconscious mind.”

Swallow feels part-haunted house and part-body horror. Hunter’s delicate mental state and her past connect with a history of characters driven mad by big lonely houses, from Eleanor in The Haunting to Jack Torrence in The Shining. But this film’s sleek, smooth home doesn’t harken to a gothic or rococo past but a more recent present. Her environment feels more deeply connected to the now famed Parasite house than your traditional haunted house. 

Cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi uses the smooth glassy house to a symbolic advantage, in particular with the use of reflections. “There’s a kind of double imposition that can happen which Kate used to elevate the subtext of self-reflection and duality,” says Mirabella-Davis. Arizmendi, who also shot the contemporary fun-park world of reflections and images in 2019’s Cam, captures the fractured identity of an unravelling woman. Both films deal with a woman facing off against social pressures in a search for the “true self.” Rather than fetishizing their unravelling, though, these films craft the horror as an invisible force, living just beyond the material world. The nightmare lives in double-images, mirrors and screens; they are untrustworthy and illusionary. Look too hard and they fall apart. 

Both Cam and Swallow are a new kind of feminist horror that doesn’t merely engage with role-reversals or revenge fantasies but delves into the psyche of women and their environments. Casting aside the more conservative elements of horror that stigmatize and exploit women’s bodies for horror, these films shift perspectives in a way that captures new points of view without sacrificing unease or dread. 

The expressiveness of the house is also reflected in the costuming. Hunter “starts out wearing more vibrant colours, and then as she decorates, the house becomes more colourful and her costumes become more drab,” says the director. “It reflects that the house is draining her essence.” 

As we move from the haunting qualities of the house to Hunter’s body, we enter the realm of filmmakers like David Cronenberg. While Carlo Mirabella-Davis keeps some of the most graphic incidents off-screen, all elements of symbology, image and sound work together to capture the raw sensual world that Hunter finds herself in. Pica allows her to explore the limits of her body and test boundaries previously unavailable to her. Her ecstatic as well as self-destructive impulses will enable her to find power over her bodily choices. 

Swallow works within a broader history of feminist stories about emancipation; Hunter’s journey examines the repressive binds of patriarchal society. The film’s horror emerges less from the bodily inflictions of swallowing dangerous household objects than the overwhelming and toxic influences that keep her meek and passive. 

Among the horror influences, Mirabella-Davis drew on the work of Chantal Akerman. In particular, he was referencing her films La Captive and Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

“In Jeanne Dielman, for example, Chantal Akerman will sometimes lock the camera down so exclusively that characters will wander in and out of frame, sometimes leaving an empty room. And to me, that was fascinating because it was a way to evoke so much power in the human imagination.” For Mirabella-Davis, “the idea of just absolute control and formality in the space she had created also created an intense tension and anticipation in the audience.”

Swallow draws on these formal influences heavily. The horror and anticipation emerge from the strict limits imposed on Hunter. She might not be tied down or held behind bars, but the powerful social pressures that keep her locked up in her gilded cage are no less imposing than steel bars and leather restraints. To be freed, Hunter first has to come to terms with the fact that she is imprisoned and controlled by systems and people that disregard her humanity and autonomy. 

Richly textured and haunting, Swallow draws the audience deep into a subjective world of mirrors and reflections and brings us in with the siren call of forbidden pleasures. It’s a film that disregards the apparent roots of drawing horror from the female body, instead of reaching outward to the external nightmares lurking in faux-concern and social pressures.  ■

Swallow, by Carlo Mirabella-Davis, is available on VOD from MK2 Mile-End now.

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