A Banquet

A Banquet (2021)

A Banquet first published by Sight and Sound, April 2022

Review: A Banquet may begin with a scene of frenzied food preparation, and its very title may point to a formalised, indulgent meal, but in fact director Ruth Paxton’s film will concern itself with abstinence in extremis. Right from the opening scene, consumption is pathologised: as her dying husband Jason (Richard Keep) coughs and splutters in his sickbed, Holly (Sienna Guillory) retreats to her comfort zone in the kitchen to liquidise some food for him. So when Jason takes a fatal gulp of bleach, Holly is not there to stop him – but their eldest daughter, the teenaged Betsey (Jessica Alexander), witnesses the horrific suicide. Trauma is clearly on the menu. 

With university and adulthood just ahead of her, Betsey is hesitant about her future – until, that is, she returns from a strange incident at a party convinced that she is a visionary prophet for the coming end times. She also refuses to eat anymore – something which particularly stings the gastronomically inclined Holly, who expresses herself through food. Betsey’s younger sister Isabelle (Runy Stokes) feels marginalised by this psychodrama, while Holly’s own no-nonsense mother June (Lindsay Duncan) is convinced that Betsey’s conduct is an attention-seeking ruse, or perhaps a psychiatric breakdown – like the one Holly suffered at a similar age to Betsey. Yet it is Holly who will stick by Betsey – and as the adolescent drifts over the months into a state of lethargic distraction bordering on hibernation, Holly will undergo an extreme ordeal.

A Banquet is a story of mothers and daughters – going back to the Greek myth of Demeter’s desperate search for her missing daughter Persephone who, tricked by Hades into tasting pomegranate seeds, must spend every winter in the Underworld (pomegranates recur in the film). It also expressly takes in the Japanese myth of the futakuchi-onna, a woman with a second, hungry mouth hidden on the back of her head (by a curious coincidence, James Wan‘s Malignant, made in the same year as Paxton’s film, also draws on this myth).

Betsey’s eating disorder and messianic posturing place her midway between the heroines of Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ pica-inflected Swallow and Rose Glass’ psychospiritual Saint Maud (both 2019). Like those heroines, Betsey – and with her, Holly – seek both purpose and empowerment while feeling that they have little of either. Here hereditary madness and manipulative fraudulence, unconditional love and blind faith, anorexia and asceticism, are all served together in a buffet that is intense, unhinged and apocalyptic. In her feature debut, Paxton cooks up a storm, with ambiguity on the side.

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Synopsis: After the suicide of her ailing father, teenaged Betsey stops eating, and claims to have been ‘chosen’ as harbinger of the apocalypse. Unsure whether her daughter is mentally ill, attention seeking or genuinely messianic, keen cook Holly commits to sticking by Betsey, seeing this dark episode through to the end. 

Strap: Fast(ing) and furious mothers and daughters: Ruth Paxton’s feature debut cooks up a storm, with ambiguity on the side

Anton Bitel