[TIFF 2021 Review] A BANQUET
Courtesy of IFC Midnight
In A BANQUET, widowed mother Holly (Sienna Guillory) becomes concerned when her eldest daughter Betsey (Jessica Alexander) refuses to eat. Anxieties over a potential eating disorder become all the more disturbing when Betsey reveals that her body has become a vessel for a higher power and that she no longer will accept food into her body. As Holly desperately tried to understand and help her daughter, Betsey becomes more consumed by her this new sense of purpose and Holly must come to a critical crossroads. Will her own beliefs be challenged? Can she get through to her daughter? What lengths will she go to, to regain control as a mother?

A BANQUET is the debut feature of writer and director Ruth Paxton. The film stars Sienna Guillory, Jessica Alexander, Ruby Stokes, Kaine Zajaz, and Lindsay Duncan.

Within the film, we find the bizarre cinematic marriage of body horror, maternal horror, and psychological horror – three flavors of the horror genre that have deep roots in the monstrous feminine. It is difficult to pinpoint an overarching conflict in the film. Instead, the film carries on multiple flirtations with women-adjacent horrors like the generational tensions between daughters and mothers, eating disorders and bodily autonomy, and the loss of agency over one’s body. A BANQUET, in the tradition of so many horror greats (Hereditary, Rosemary’s Baby, and Swallow to name a few), uses womanhood and by further extension motherhood to illustrate the horror of the body as a vessel. What terrors await when a woman’s body is seized by a transformative experience, like pregnancy, or becomes an object upon which the will of someone (or something) else is carried out?

These concepts of horrific womanhood orbit around A BANQUET, with very little substance to tether them to the film. The narrative does not have a neat arc and resolution, choosing instead to wander through these strange happenings. It’s an incredibly attractive film, boasting a potent blend of surreal, dreamlike cinematography with disgusting, gag-inducing images of food and nightmarish imagery. For some viewers, the high concept may be a turn-off as there is no satisfying explanation or resolution. It’s unsettling. Unapologetically so.

The most interesting moments are found in the narrative on control and how control has been a constant battle for each of these characters. In A BANQUET, we see a mother desperately trying to keep a handle on an increasingly disturbing situation with her daughter. As her eldest slips away, her youngest is in jeopardy, and Holly must call upon her own mother for help. This multi-generational family drama challenges Holly’s good intentions, as she is reminded of her own tense upbringing. In its own funny kind of way, A BANQUET is a story about growing up. How young women grow into their independence – by way of their developing bodies, in the most basic definition of growing – and will eventually pry loose the restraints their parents may have on them. This is the meat of A BANQUET and the film does quite well guiding the viewer back and forth on this delicate balance between characters.

There’s so much in A BANQUET that’s conceptually and aesthetically strong. It’s a film that hits the viewer in the chest and settles with its full weight. Paxton’s use of the grotesque and the dreamy makes for a gorgeous film, with a sophisticated script to back it up. What the film lacks is a firm structure, which gives all of these strong points precious little to cling to. The result is a series of powerful moments that dissolve into a cinematic soup, once the credits roll.

Ruth Paxton’s A BANQUET had its World Premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

Caitlin Kennedy
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