A Banquet, the debut feature from Scottish director Ruth Paxton, sees widowed mother Holly (Sienna Guillory) tested as she deals with her eldest daughter, Betsey’s (Jessica Alexander) purported possession by a higher power.
Opening on an effective and emotional scene, this sets itself up for a solid run, however, this is not to last. One of the opening shots of the film, a closeup of a blender liquidising food, should be a warning to the audience, as Paxton and writer Justin Bull have put together a mish-mash of tropes, genres, and story elements, all tossed haphazardly together with little cohesive smoothness. The film at once attempts to be a tale dealing with grief, peer-pressure, eating disorders (more on this later) and teen angst (and all of this is before the horror elements come into play) while balancing genres of psychodrama, psychological thriller, supernatural horror, and religious horror.
This opening also sees Betsey witness to a graphic tragedy, it should be a given that this, and the resulting trauma, would seemingly explain many of the issues and symptoms we come to see her experience later on. However, this is not the case in A Banquet; another early warning that the film’s individual elements do not gel together at all. Betsey’s troubles actually begin during a teen house party at which, after a drug related prank, she stumbles out to the edge of the woods and seemingly falls into a trance-like state underneath a blood moon. This is when the red flags signalling A Banquet’s biggest issues come into play: it’s treatment of mental illness and, particularly, eating disorders.
The film seems to demonise eating disorders, literally, as Betsey’s anorexia is a direct result of her alleged supernatural possession, and this demonisation only snowballs as the runtime creeps ever forward. At one point, Holly, who is the closest thing to an audience surrogate here, and where our sympathies should lie, snaps at her daughter that only “entitled, middle class white girls” face struggles with the disorder. The filmmakers also seem to think that they have something important, or at the very least interesting, to say on the topic, with the intermingling of themes of oral tradition and storytelling seeming to be an attempt at connecting to the oral nature of food consumption, or in this case, the lack thereof.
When we come to the final act, a revelation relating to the opening incident is revealed, but it falls flat, coming far too late into a paper-thin script which has seemingly forgotten about this event until now. Following on from that point, we are simply led towards an ending that feels tacked on from a different story with little surgical precision.
The failed dealings with illness in the writing seem to have translated to the technical side of the filmmaking too. Everything is shot so clinically, in the vein that has worked quite well for films of the A24 and IFC Midnight (who distributed A Banquet) ilk in recent years. But nothing here seems to justify the utilisation of this style, while the colour grading and editing are languid, altogether leaving the picture itself appearing jaundiced and unhealthy.
This is a sloppy work, which, at its worst points horrifically fails to address mental illness and eating disorders to a point that is quite uncomfortable and will leave a bad taste (no pun intended) in viewers’ mouths, and at its best will probably be easily forgotten by audiences as everything that’s been thrown at the wall here comes together to form a thin and broadly unsatisfying film.