Swallow Disturbance premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. Touted as a psychological thriller, not everyone in the audience knew what to expect. In the room was first-time director Carlo Mirabella-Davis, who was faced with an unusual scenario as he exited.
“I went out and found a person visibly shaken. He told me he just passed out,” Mirabella-Davis recalled to Indiewire. “He started to feel hot and wanted to throw up. It eventually collapsed and collapsed.”
The woman couldn’t resist one of the most shocking scenes in the film when the protagonist puts a thumbtack in her mouth and swallows it. “He said he couldn’t process the final digestion of the object in his head,” explained the director, aware of the power of some of the imagery used in the film he directed and wrote.
Although it premiered in 2019, Swallow – Distúrbio is only now finally hitting Portuguese cinemas, in an absolute premiere this Thursday, January 27th. The leading role is played by Haley Bennett, actress in films such as “Hillbilly Elegy”, “Cyrano”, “The Devil All the Time” or “The Magnificent Seven”.
The story of Mirabella-Davis takes us into a confusing reality in which the main character, Hunter, embodies a typical 1950’s housewife but is set in a modern world. The psychological thriller reveals itself in a devious way.
Hunter lives with her husband Richie (Austin Stowell), cooks, wears her best clothes and is always at home to please her. Happy on the surface, miserable on the inside, she finds herself caught between a rock and a hard place when she discovers she is pregnant.
Reclusive to an affluent but deeply sad life, she develops a rare and disturbing mental disorder. Hunter finds his way of rebelling in seemingly ordinary objects, injecting some excitement into his daily life and taking back control of his life. And what are you doing with them? Swallow her.
The actual disorder is called pica and is classified as an eating disorder, which causes individuals to develop an obsession with eating objects that, in extreme cases, can be fatal. Hunter starts by chewing chunks of ice and quickly moves on to more dangerous options. During the film, the character will swallow marbles, thimbles, paperclips, thumbtacks, batteries, and even a nail.
Conceived by Mirabella-Davis, the story is somewhat autobiographical. The screenplay was inspired by the director’s memories of his grandmother, a housewife caught in an unhappy marriage, who developed some “control rituals” precisely for this reason.
“I washed my hands like I was obsessed. I used to hand out four soaps a day and 12 bottles of alcohol a week,” reveals Mirabella-Davis. She was eventually admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where she underwent treatment including electric shocks and even a lobotomy, which was common practice at the time.
“I always thought there was something punishing about punishing yourself for not living up to society’s expectations of what it’s like to be a wife or mother,” she says. “But in the adaptation of the story, I didn’t find the washing of hands particularly cinematic.”
A picture he found on the internet helped him find the right path. “I saw a photo of the stomach contents of a pica patient and was drawn to the idea,” he recalls. “I also have my coercion and control rituals, so I also wanted to make a film about small private rebellions against the status quo and patriarchy.”
Bennett was also so fascinated by the mental disorder that he spent hours researching the topic. “Carlo and I shared videos we found of people with pica. There was a very interesting one about a woman who ate stones. “Yes, I go to the garden and pick up the stones and eat them. They call me, they talk to me and I love it,” he said. I was intrigued,” she told AVClub.
Transporting the disorder to the big screen was not easy. “Swallow – Disturbance” not only relies on the optics, but above all on the sound effects of the marbles rubbing against the protagonist’s teeth to convey the disturbing feeling more easily. “You can close your eyes and not see what’s happening, but all your other senses are working,” explains the actress, who pushed the experience to the limit.
Photography is one of the strengths of the film.
“Did I put the objects in my mouth? Yes, the marble, the thumbtack. Everyone asked me to avoid it, but I wanted to understand how it felt. Of course I didn’t swallow them, but I wanted to understand what it’s like to have those things in your mouth,” he explains. “Except for the battery, that might be too dangerous.”
To make the portrait more realistic, a psychologist specializing in the subject was hired to work as a consultant on the production. Currently, pica is considered a mental illness consisting of “prolonged use of non-food substances.”
It usually appears accompanied by another condition or disease. For example, as in the film, it can occur during pregnancy. Cravings for pregnancy are Pica’s most common partners and are explained by iron deficiency and/or anemia.
In addition to infection, intestinal obstruction, and possibly lead poisoning, debris and objects can accumulate in the stomach and form a mass that can only be removed surgically – and can lead to patient death.
The photograph that inspired Mirabella-Davis, which is on display at the Psychiatric Museum in Glore, USA, is some of the oldest evidence of the disorder’s existence. It shows the 1,446 small metallic objects removed from the stomach of a patient who died during surgery in 1929. Among them were nails, screws, spoons and much more.
Given this scenario, Bennett has a piece of advice: “The best thing to do is watch the movie after dinner.”