A Banquet is a horror film in the vein of mental illness or possession? Focusing on a family of a mother and her daughters, anorexia is transformed into preparation for sainthood or the affliction of the demon-possessed.
Dunno what it is but I feel like recently I’ve just seen a bunch of stuff that was like an eating disorder in a can. This has everything you’d expect, from the loud chewing and squelching, to the scrape of cutlery on plates, to the images of rotting food.
The family consists of the mother, Holly, the eldest daughter, Betsey, and her wee sister, Isabelle. The film starts with the dad at home in the livingroom in a hospital bed. He is gagging and wrenching, tortuously and terminally ill. The mum is bleaching down the chair next to the bed, presumably where he’s just puked. She goes to the kitchen to puree something she hopes he might keep down, and returns to find he’s swiped the bleach she left by his bed, drank it, and is now vomiting blood all over the floor. She screams for help, as upstairs Betsey looks on in horror.
Enough to give anyone a complex.
I have to say, I fucking hated the mother in this. She gets more sympathetic as the film goes on, but by god it’s a low bar to clear. Firstly, their house is like a sterile showroom. It’s like no one lives there. They have this wank design of a sunken livingroom with a glass wall, all painted black with white PVC flooring. There’s not a mark on the floor or white countertops, and it’s like, don’t you have two kids living here? Literally any sign of their presence in this pristine tableau of monied taste is met with immediate exclamation and haranguing. Even her husband, when he went as far as to sully the place with all-too-human infirmity, only became another thing she had to scrub all evidence of from the furnishings.
Secondly, it’s clear that she relates to her oldest as a co-parent. And not in a ‘thanks for helping out now your dad’s dead’ type way, but an entitlement of constant support for her ridiculous bullshit. In one of the first scenes, the mum and the wee sister arrive home, and Isabelle kicks off her shoes in the hall. Not willing to tolerate this for even a second, the mum starts barraging her to pick them up and set them neatly to the side, then throws a look to Betsey in her room as if to say, “See what I have to put up with?” It’s like Betsey’s a teenager, she’s got her friends in, she’s actually meant to be socialising with them and not having to monitor her little sister’s shoe placement, or your insane neat freak obsession. Like, it’s not Betsey’s job to be on your side on this, she’s not your co-parent, she’s a teenager with as much interest in casual shoe removal as you’d expect a teenager to have. I know that seems like a massive rant about a tiny interaction in an early scene, but it just set up the dynamic perfectly, and made me absolutely hate Holly throughout.
Betsey on the other hand seems to have no sense of herself. She is reactive to her mother’s needs but has no sense of her own. When the careers counsellor asks her what she wants to apply for at uni, she can’t pick a subject. When he tells her to make a list of things she’s interested in, it stays blank. She’s so out of touch with her own wants and needs, because she’s clearly never had them prioritised. Isabelle dances and ice skates, but Betsey has nothing. She struggles even to assert herself among her peers, so used as she is to being rolled over.
Into this dynamic comes a blood red moon. Betsey sees it while at a party, and entranced, follows it into the woods. When she comes back she no longer eats.
The mother distinguishes herself once more, by reacting to this with all the calm and tact you’d expect. She tries to force her to eat at the family dinner table, by turns patronisingly wheedling, then rageful. When Isabelle tries to stick up for her big sister, suggesting they respect her boundaries and not put pressure on her, the mother turns on her too. And I know you’re reading this, thinking, ‘That’s what any good mother would do, try to get their kid to eat’. But it doesn’t feel like this is out of any concern for Betsey’s wellbeing. It feels like this is irk at her defiance. That her refusal to eat is willful, rather than viewing it with any empathy.
That sense of her daughter’s abstinence as a personal insult to her dominance of the household becomes clear when the doctor refers Betsey for psychiatric help. “You’re not crazy!” she insists, more concerned with distancing herself from the label than dealing with her daughter’s mental health problem.
At the dinner table, she brings up the starving children in Africa to manipulate Betsey with guilt. On the one and only occasion Isabelle decides to leave the table without finishing off her plate, primarily so she doesn’t have to listen to her mum’s constant criticism, the mother tells Betsey, “I will not let you infect this family”. She says, “Anorexia. You know who gets it? Entitled middle-class white girls.” WRONG! Shaming her own daughter for having a mental illness, this, bear in mind, after she recently saw her father die. Holly then forcibly weighs her, all the while screaming at her, then makes her keep a diary of her weight, to be taken twice a day. I think that’s how you give someone an eating disorder. Also, weight changes naturally over the course of a week, just with fluid intake and things like that, literally nothing can be learned by weighing someone twice a day. Anyway, let’s all agree, what a cunt.
Betsey meanwhile goes from someone who could barely assert herself, to someone who is rigid in the face of any pressure. She slowly shifts the power balance between her and her mother. Her mum goes from screaming commands to eventually begging. Then Betsey announces that she’s had a religious awakening upon seeing that red moon, she is some kind of prophet who has seen the end times.
Now’s really the time for mental health intervention, but despite the physical trial being Betsey’s, it’s her mother who’s undergoing the real gauntlet. As things get worse and worse, further and further away from the perfect image she is trying to project, her mother finds a kind of liberation. When everything is such a disaster, she has to decide what really matters. And her initial selfishness gives way to real empathy and a genuine attempt to relate to what her daughter is going through.
The whole time the question is open to whether this is anorexia and psychosis, or if Betsey really has become the prophet of some god, foretelling end times. Whatever the answer, the horror is how it swallows this family.