MFF 2019: Swallow – movie review

Swallow. Image credit: Courtesy of IMDb

For the first time, I’ve been granted press accreditation to the Milano Film Festival – which is becoming one of the most prestigious European film festival. With a selection of 27 feature-length films and over 41 short movies, the main theme of this year’s MFF is “coming-of-age” stories, told in every kind of genre you can think of: on this website, you’ll find reviews of every horror-related film at the festival, plus a few articles on other movies that you’ll find in the Beyond Horror section of the website. This is my review of Swallow (Carlo Mirabella-Davis, USA/France, horror).

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Swallow is truly a genre-bending picture that centres around Hunter, a pregnant woman with an apparently perfect life. When she gets pregnant, though, Hunter starts eating bigger and bigger objects, putting her and her baby’s life to risk.

This is a very surprising film, as the media previews made it out to be a sort of metaphor for American consumerism and the invisible struggles of well-being. While such elements can certainly be found in Swallow, first-time director Carlo Mirabella-Davis aims much higher: this is a movie that tackles – with commendable bravery – taboo subjects such as abuse and abortion, and it does that in a confronting but simultaneously tasteful way.

Continue reading and check my final grade below… 

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My review is also available on IMDb – Swallow (2019)

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Swallow can be defined as the psychological horror/drama of Hunter (perfectly portrayed by Haley Bennet, awarded Best Actress at Tribecca), as she’s the character whose point of view we follow throughout this picture. Her struggle is perfectly transmitted to the audience, which experiences a constant sense of dread and powerlessness for the main character. However, quirky and uncomfortably hilarious moments (clearly inspired by the cinema of Yorgos Lanthimos) alleviate the tone, which would otherwise be pretty dour and depressing. Breath-taking and spotless cinematography, a la Ari Aster, enhance the sense of golden prison Hunter is living in, with the Richard Bates-esque shot composition being a perfect addiction in providing a sense of fake order and perfection in Hunter’s life.

In the same vein, the acting in Swallow is fully committed to the story and the atmosphere Carlo Mirabella-Davis was going for. Aside from Haley Bennet as the lead, whose emotions and fears feel terrifyingly real and genuine, everyone else’s acting in the movie is stilted to the point of feeling staged: this would be a negative in any other film, but Swallow clearly aims at showing an environment where every person is putting on a mask and, in fact, acting the way society expects them to. Although a couple of moments feel too forced in that sense, watching Swallow makes the audience feel, just like Hunter, part of an environment riddled with lies, fake demeanour and forced interactions.

This is, indeed, the most horror-esque and unsettling element of the picture. Through a fantastic and crisp pace – Hunter’s discomfort and obsession with eating big and sharp objects appear in one of the earliest scenes – Swallow keeps the audience on the edge from beginning to end, as you fully empathise with a character that constantly feels at the mercy of a corrupted environment. The subtle and cleverly presented abuse she’s subjected to by her husband and parents-in-low is truly infuriating to witness and the fact that Hunter’s naïve and victim of the circumstances makes you feel powerless.

At times, the effort put into narrative, visuals and character development leads Swallow to a few logical inconsistencies, though. For instance, at one point the husband leaves the house early in the morning to head to the gym, but he seemingly doesn’t come back until dusk, as though the filmmakers forgot about him for a second. Despite the very purposeful sound-design, with the use of appropriate crunchy effects, there are moments in Swallow that rely on horror tropes (children creepily laughing and whispering) added in post-production for no apparent reason. Lastly, the final song of the movie feels rather manipulative: the last sequence is truly powerful and poignant, but the music overdramatises it to get a more gut reaction from the audience. I teared up a bit at that moment, but I think I wouldn’t have if the music wasn’t there.

Swallow is an ambitious and successful first feature that aims at doing a lot within the 94-minute-long runtime achieving its goals completely. Tone, pacing and emotional impact are perfect; the performances are fitting according to the filmmakers’ intent; the visuals are spotless and purposeful. It’s a film I would highly recommend to anyone interested in horror movies with subtext, and I can wait to watch it again to see where it would fit in my “best horror movies of the year” list. I sincerely hope Carlo Mirabella-Davis will get a chance to work with a company like A24 for his next project, so that we would be certain to have another great film to watch.

Swallow                                              8/10

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