Megan Borns says A Banquet is a beautifully shot thriller with powerful messages about familial ties that juggles too many themes.
Ruth Paxton’s feature-length directorial debut, A Banquet, follows widower Holly (Sienna Guillory) and her struggle to raise her teenage daughters, Betsey (Jessica Alexander) and Isabelle (Ruby Stokes). While tackling life as a single parent, she’s also attempting to reconcile with her mother, June (Lindsay Duncan). After a party and an apparent supernatural interference, Betsey begins having fits, and her mental health rapidly declines, throwing the whole family into turmoil.
A Banquet is a fascinating amalgamation of horror themes and settings, girded with complex yet stark lighting and beautiful editing. Intergenerational matriarchal trauma, mild body horror, allusions to demons and possession, prophetic fits, and teenage girls unite to create a stunning commentary. The overarching themes of family trauma, abuse, and love are established relatively early in the film and together make an overall throughline of female-centric family dynamics that inform every action and reaction of the characters.
Betsey, the eldest, is the favorite but not respected and is caught up in divine purpose—trying to make her family understand and accept her prophecies before it’s too late. As the youngest daughter overshadowed by Betsey, Isabelle strives to push past her mother’s neglect and favoritism to elevate her status within the family. As a parent and grandparent, June relives her flaws as a parent through her grandchildren, offering thinly-veiled criticism as helpful advice and admonishment about how her child is raising her own family. Perhaps most important to the audience and film is Holly. As both parent and child, Holly struggles with the grief and trials of raising her family alone when her husband commits suicide. Her relationship with both daughters is strained by Betsey’s unknowable affliction and her complicated relationship with her mother, June—a relationship that has plagued her since young adulthood.
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Fantastic scenes delve deep into exploring the relationships between each generation of women and depict many wonderful and terrible ways mothers and daughters love and hate each other. Food plays a prominent role and comes into play heavily within the conflict. Decadent food spreads are lovingly made for the family and then hatefully forced upon Betsey and Isabelle when they declare they’re not hungry.
Observation and antagonism advance the plot and stilt each relationship in jarring ways. The vigilant watch both June, Holly, and even Isabelle keep on each other is depicted in many scenes: Betsey’s weight is religiously monitored by Holly, concerned about eating disorders and perhaps supernatural intervention. At one point, Holly accuses June of “pumping her full of lithium” in the past, adding to her feelings of distrust and the tumultuous relationship with her mother. While in other formative interactions with Betsey, June confesses to watching a young Betsey master manipulation for attention, which hastens the breakdown of their bond. Isabelle also becomes part of the cycle, becoming ever watchful of her mother breaking down and her sister becoming an empty shell of the girl she knew.
Backing the themes of a female-centric family is the startling lack of a male-coded lead or presence in the film, which drives the idea that this is about female-coded relationships and struggles therein. Surprisingly, though the story begins with the family patriarch dying, it is not the focus for very long. Betsey’s boyfriend Dominic (Kaine Zajaz) is quickly dismissed after being introduced—the couple breaks up in light of Betsey’s illness. Men play several of the film’s superficial roles: a clueless doctor who chalks Betsey’s problems up to being female, a potential love interest for Isabelle that quickly is dashed, and even a dentist whose interactions show vague concern for the family, but he is easily brushed off. The feminist storytelling is refreshing. The film seeks to tell a story about the problematic dynamics of female relationships that have little to do with romance or men.
Despite having an excellent grasp on the story’s themes and subtle messages, A Banquet surprisingly flops when attempting to converge its themes into a coherent and meaningful end. Perhaps the intention was to elevate a mother's love as an all-powerful, desperately necessary element in life, but that seems to put too fine a point on the vast ambiguity of the film. It is rather unfortunate that this film, with all its potential, seemed to fumble at the close. The film is lovely to engage with, if only to suss out recurring themes and marvel at the Michelin star-worthy food scenes.