Navigating weighty themes with a real aesthetic clout, Scottish filmmaker Ruth Paxton’s debut feature A Banquet is an ambiguous psychological horror treat. Penned by Justin Bull, the feature navigates themes of grief, religious divinity and trauma through fractured family dynamics and sharp horror symbolism.
Recently widowed Holly (Sienna Guillory) navigates her grief with her eldest daughter Betsey (Jessica Alexander) and younger daughter Isabelle (Ruby Stokes). After going through an apparent supernatural experience in the woods Betsey refuses to eat. Claiming that it is not an eating disorder, but a calling from a divine higher power, Holly becomes increasingly disturbed by her daughter’s behaviour.
Paxton’s opening gives a sense of the bold aesthetics that will be on display throughout A Banquet. Dark lighting hits us in the depiction of the death of Holly’s husband. Bold red colours represent blood, hitting against the grey interior scenes in David Liddell’s asserting cinematography. We are grabbed by the crushing sound design, the crunching of food being liquified in a blender as we hear Holly’s husband’s guttural coughing. This sharp introduction gives a sense of Paxton’s awareness of horror aesthetics – with this a perfect fit for the further horrors that soon populate the narrative of A Banquet.
The narrative begins to centre on Betsey – who struggles to fit in with her peers and lacks a sense of control and direction regarding her future. Awkward encounters with career advisors followed by the isolation from schoolmates at a local party give a sense of Betsey’s failure to fit in – whilst her interactions with her mother and sister do not exactly scream of those from a warm, nurturing family environment. After a prank from her schoolmates, Betsey runs to nearby woodland where an ominous blood moon shines (a symbol of the end of times in the Book of Joel) before she collapses.
In this moment of supernatural horror, Betsey is forever changed. Refusing to eat food – even an encounter with a single pea providing a surprisingly tough to watch moment, A Banquet finds further horror in the visuals of food. The bright lurid colours of fruit and vegetables appear like alien artefacts to Betsey, as she spirals further and internalises her behaviour, becoming unpredictable and speaking of her newfound divine calling. Paxton gradually heightens the family in distress dynamic with Holly citing that Betsey’s eating disorder is a plea for attention from a privileged young girl.
As Paxton explores the arrival of Holly’s mother, June (a scene stealing Lindsay Duncan), A Banquet allows deeper understanding of the history of Betsey’s complex psychiatric condition. Anecdotes about Betsey’s childhood – talking to voices and apparent interactions with supernatural presences add further ambiguity to Betsey’s claims of a higher purpose. The plethora of questions continually raised by A Banquet as our protagonists are clouded by family tensions, grief, and their own respective struggles, providing complex food for thought as we ponder whether the horrors here are supernatural or psychological. Traditional horror elements are furthered by nightmare-fuelled sequences filled with imagery of food which squirms and squelches, with Betsey transforming into a sub-human creature. It’s an asserting scene that showcases the originality and lingering dread conjured in Bull’s narrative and Paxton’s vivid direction.
A Banquet thematically feels like a distant cousin to the likes of Saint Maud as it blends themes of psychiatric trauma and religious divinity, yet by utilising the added dynamics of the grotesque imagery of food and the true horror of eating disorders, this is an incredibly original feature. Paxton has crafted a disturbing, yet hugely enticing and provocative horror treat.