A Banquet (2021)
Dir. Ruth Paxton
by Ria Woodburn
Picture a story about a girl who claims she is the next messiah, and instead of trying to cure her, her mother starts to partake in her delusion.
Enter Ruth Paxton’s A Banquet (2021), a fresh take on the possession theme, where anxiety is the name of the game. After a family tragedy, suburban mother Holly (Sienna Guillory) scrambles to hold it together for her two teenage daughters. Under the watchful eye of her own mother June (Lindsay Duncan) and the trepidation of her youngest Isabelle, the household sinks under her eldest’s delusions.
A Banquet begins by shining a light on the graciously unassertive Betsey (Jessica Alexander), a relatable young adult who is figuring out her place in the world. So, when she suddenly stops eating after an event at a party, she seems the least likely to want to bring attention to herself. Citing a spiritual intervention and rejecting any help, Betsey harnesses her zeal in her newly found belief. This spurs on her exasperated mother, whose remedy is to hone her culinary prowess with lavish preparations of food – which serves to hinder rather than to heal her daughter. However, although we start with the focus on Betsey, once her mystery illness has taken hold, she becomes menacingly stoic. It is then that her mother Holly comes to the fore.
Holly is a parent walking on a crumbling ledge, a now single mother to two very different daughters who strives for normality. This instinctively comes out through her food, with her ritualistic preparations of exuberant meals. Exquisitely shot throughout the film, this would be either soothing or anxiety-inducing to watch – depending on your relationship with food. For Betsey, Holly’s instinct to feed and nurture is antagonistic, and she fights to keep her mother and food away. However, their dynamic takes a turn when Holly’s battle to force-feed Betsey reaches an impasse. Instead, she attempts to look after her daughter in another way, by surrendering to her afflictions and believing in Betsey. This misplaced admiration alarms those around them and inevitably raises questions about Holly’s own sanity.
As Betsey’s celestial visions are given credence, this in turn gives the audience validation to believe her too. If she is the next Messiah, then this also gives her mother star-like status. Holly perfectly embodies the parental expectation that a child is gifted above everyone else’s and destined to be great. This notion of pushing our offspring to be unique is not a new one, but what is new is how the development of social media intensifies this. Not just reserved for the young, social media exploits this phenomenon that we are all talented and one of a kind – we are all here for a reason, and if we aren’t given a reason, we will just create one. Of course, for the majority, we are simply leading ordinary lives, but this constant observation, through our own personal news reel, makes us feel special. A Banquet inadvertently takes advantage of this modern-day human desire, both through the narrative and the voyeuristic view it gives into a family in need.
Just when you think the film is entering surreal fantasy territory, Grandma pays a visit, looking straight out of a stylish witches’ coven. Lindsay Duncan’s June catapults us back to the world with her dry vocabulary and stature, bringing some unexpected guilty humour and relief from all the combusting tensions. She is not at all enamoured with her granddaughter, rejecting it as a cry for attention with her hard-line approach. Grandma’s character provides us with the questions that we want to stop and ask the film, injecting a sense of reasoning into a household whose life has become muddy and skewed. But this is a family in crisis, and we all know that, even in times of peace, families can function in their own worlds outside of social norms.
Shot in only twenty-eight days during the pandemic, Paxton has created a moving Caravaggio with A Banquet. The family home, where the majority of the film is staged, is a Grand Designs dream – a slick interior that flaunts itself against endless dark indigo-painted walls. The production design is no accident, with the constant dance of stark light and dark tones reflecting the spirit of the occupants. Whereas the house is spacious and amphitheatre-like, the family is closed and claustrophobic. A combination of angst-ridden thriller The Invitation (USA, Kusama, 2015) and the impending doom of She Dies Tomorrow (USA, Seimetz, 2020), A Banquet is well versed in its approach to a very domestic style of horror. Intertwining a surfeit of themes from motherhood, social paranoia and body image, alongside an unsettling bird’s eye view of a family dealing with the everyday trappings of an eating disorder.
Written with a predominately female cast, from a female director, this is part of a wave of films that are signalling what is to come from the horror genre: the unveiling of the rites of passage of women, which, when magnified and taken to extremes, can create an angst all of their own.