I have a love/hate relationship with food. I love food, and it just hates me. My weight has see-sawed back and forth for most of my life, thin as a toddler, obese by twelve, thinned out in high school, rinse and repeat. Films where food is dead center always interest me. Though many often never have to do with the digestible plated portions, there is still an air of transgressive volatility toward what we consume. I felt that way watching Betsey’s (Jessica Alexander) journey in A Banquet.
We watch Holly (Resident Evil’s Sienna Guillory) blending a concoction that gives her a premonition. When she steps into her sick husband’s room, the unthinkable has happened. He’s ingested enough bleach to end his suffering. In the scenes that follow, we get to know the children he’s left behind, with the main focus on Betsey. Betsey becomes disgusted by her sister Isabelle’s (Bridgerton’s Ruby Stokes) eating habits, and at a party full of lip-locking teens, she’s further repulsed. When she snorts powdered alcohol at a party, she has a revelatory experience that brings her to a clearing in the forest before returning to the house and collapsing.
One of the first things audiences will notice is the sound design of cooking food and how people look when eating it. Isabelle’s introduction in the film is met with an unflattering camera angle as she scarfs down a couple of BBQ sauced chicken wings from the fridge. The smear of the sauce on an effective close-up. Later, after the party sequence. A meal prepared over the cackle of bacon simmering in a pan is so intense that it feels meant to cause sickness. Food begins triggering Betsey on every single level and sense. A fight or flight response has been engaged, and her natural instinct is to stop eating.
Described as a film that mashes up Hereditary, Take Shelter, and Rosemary’s Baby, A Banquet is a fascinatingly tense study into Cibophobia, the fear of food. Betsey’s food detestation goes so far beyond an aversion to appetite that, from a caring mother’s standpoint, it calls into question anorexia. Determined to help her daughter, Holly considers many possibilities, from medical and mental health, to spiritual and supernatural. However, no matter what Holly believes is situational and one theme in the film is held up better than all the others: the bond between mother and daughter.
Holly seems to be a parent that lives by routine, it’s never made known, but we also get the sense that cooking a perfect meal is an essential part of her familial duties. Maybe it’s just to feel closer to her children by having a conversation over dinner, or perhaps it’s another expression of love. If that’s the case, a sibling rivalry could be taken into account by Isabelle’s eating habits and the rejection of food by Betsey. The progression of events poses an indignance to Isabelle, while Betsey’s affliction grants her special attention to her mother. In this way, Betsey cannibalizes her family.
A generational connection also helps craft a deeper resonance and further intrigue when Holly’s mother, June (Doctor Jekyll’s Lindsay Duncan), comes to help Holly with her tribulations. June’s appearance presents its own mother-daughter dilemmas, with June breeding newfound fears about Betsey’s condition and giving Holly and the viewer much more to consider. We see how our parents affect our decisions and watch as June’s stories stick in Holly’s mind, no matter how wild.
Speaking to Horror Obsessive’s Alix Turner, director Ruth Paxton says,
“life’s messy, we don’t endure just one f**king thing at a time. This is a family that’s in a mother f**ker storm of, you know, grief, mental ill-health, what it is to be a teenager in this world, and also what it is to be a mother: these are huge things.”
There’s a lot to like about A Banquet, though there are aspects toward the end that peter out and require a leap between the natural and the unexplained. While the film focuses mainly between Betsey and Holly, I felt Isabelle deserved a more significant role in the film’s finale. Not everything ends tidily. At the beginning of the article, I mentioned that Betsey’s journey suggested volatility toward food. While that’s the case at the start, the end of the film shifts so drastically that even that becomes a well-crafted mislead. The conclusion chooses to unfold with multiple reveals, and it will definitely leave the viewer with something to ponder, though I felt it’s the weakest part of the film, especially where the film captivates at the start.
A Banquet begins with an air of mystery surrounding Betsey’s experience in the woods on the night of the party, as well as a slew of well-juggled character dynamics. The movie pushes multiple angles of what could be happening, the most considerable being implications of vampiric transformation, and the viewer will consider those clues throughout Betsey’s story. Jessica Alexander and Sienna Guillory’s characters are jarringly realistic, and to be fair, the whole cast is spectacular. Character focuses, attitudes, and processing mechanics adapt over the film, giving the appeal of authentic relationships and hardships. A Banquet evolves, and the actors are a large part of what makes the movie work, despite the final act feeling disconnected and uneven.
Technically speaking, the direction and camerawork are brilliant. Tight shots of food make it look alien and suspect, while the sounds of preparing it could also turn you off from food. Be that as it may, it’s probably not a great film to pop popcorn to. Paxton may not yet be a household name, but she’s worth noticing, and I hope that we see more horror stories from the budding director operating at this level of talent.
A Banquet arrives on Shudder on Thursday, May 26.