Scottish director Ruth Paxton’s new film, A BANQUET, is a stylish women-led horror film tackling fears around disordered eating. With a strong atmosphere and some great performances, the weirdness and difficult themes mean this isn’t a film for everyone but there’s more than enough here for some to sink their teeth into.
Holly (Sienna Guillory) is the widowed mother of two teenage daughters after the slow and painful death in the first scene of her husband. Betsey (Jennifer Alexander) is trying to decide where to go to university and, by extension, the path that she wants her life to take. One night Betsey is led to the woods on the path of a blood-red moon and comes back changed. She no longer eats—she can’t even face the prospect of a single pea—but despite this she neither gains nor loses weight. Is this a teenage eating disorder or the start of something more cosmically horrifying?
“A BANQUET fits into an emerging category of contemporary horror films about disordered eating alongside Pablo Larraín’s recent SPENCER.”
Appropriately given the title, A BANQUET revels in visceral shots of food and drink. Extreme close-ups of smoothies being blended, chicken wings being torn into, bacon loudly frying in a pan. There are slow pans over tables of fish, bread, and vegetables. There’s a particularly striking image of a single pea sitting alone on a wide dinner plate. This is all shot with rich vivid colours and evocative lighting by Paxton and cinematographer David Liddell drawing on the strong tradition of food in horror stories such as the meticulously designed food in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal TV series or in Julia Ducournau’s RAW (GRAVE).
Like Natalie Erika James’ RELIC, A BANQUET is a women-led horror film focused on different generations of women living together and is similarly driven by strong performances from its cast. Alexander gives a great performance as Betsey, in turns petulant as a teenager and stoic as a prophet. Lindsay Duncan appears halfway through as Granny June and immediately delivers a terrifically sinister performance that redefines how we think about what’s happening to Betsey and the family. These performances come together in a late-emerging theme about generational trauma passing down between the women in the family.
A BANQUET fits into an emerging category of contemporary horror films about disordered eating alongside Pablo Larraín’s recent SPENCER. Where SPENCER saw Diana Spencer eating her own pearls as a representation of her discomfort around eating in front of her family, A BANQUET depicts a creeping horror at the prospect of having to eat anything. The existential horror of consumption is teased from the very start with the sick husband consuming bleach to end his suffering. It’s a powerful theme drawn out by the cast of talented women and speaks to the intense anxiety that can surround discussions of food, eating, and weight particularly for women.
A BANQUET keeps you guessing for its entire length and leaves its horror to linger in the background and in the disordered eating of the characters rather than setting out its plot too clearly. There’s allusions to witchcraft and ouija as well as to Japanese folklore specifically legends of the futakuchi-onna (二口女), the perfect woman who never eats. This diffuseness of the film’s horror may be too vague for some viewers but for those willing to embrace the weirdness it makes for a sumptuous feast of a horror film.