A BANQUET is a Feast of Symbols in an Agonising Allegory

A Banquet (2021)
Directed by Ruth Paxton
Screenplay by Justin Bull
Starring Sienna Guillory & Jessica Alexander

Drama / Horror

★ (out of )

Ruth Paxton’s A Banquet works on a couple different levels because of the way Justin Bull’s screenplay depicts a teenager’s apocalyptic visions as either terrifyingly real or potentially the product of a mentally ill mind made all the worse by grief. The film follows Holly (Sienna Guillory), whose terminally-ill husband commits suicide—the tail end of which their oldest daughter Betsey (Jessica Alexander) witnesses. As the family grieves and attempts to move on following the tragedy, Betsey has a strange experience in the woods after attending a party, believing she’s seen a blood red moon in the sky that signals apocalypse. Then Betsey stops eating for days, then weeks, yet doesn’t appear to lose weight. Holly tries to help Betsey, but her daughter’s behaviour gets scarier. It all reaches a horrific climax that will test the bonds of mother and daughter, as well as the limits of reality.

Betsey’s struggle is twofold and allegorical: she worries about the future and what she’ll become as she moves on into adulthood; simultaneously, she’s dealing with hereditary psychological issues while also grieving over her father’s suicide. Her concerns about growing up result in prophetic hallucinations about the coming end of the world. Her increasingly unsettling refusal to eat takes on qualities of the futakuchi-onna, a monstrous figure from Japanese folklore that symbolises the memory of Betsey’s dead father becoming attached to her like a restless spirit. In the end, the apocalypse Betsey imagines does come, just not in the form she expected. The apocalypse in A Banquet is a deeply personal one: not the end of the world, rather the destruction of Holly’s family, as she’s already lost her husband, now one of her daughters is slipping away, and she’s, to some degree, estranged her own mother and her youngest daughter, effectively shattering the family into dust.
Father Son Holy Gore - A Banquet - Blood MoonSymbols are of great importance in A Banquet because they unlock the story’s allegorical ideas. The first symbol noticeable is the blood moon Betsey witnesses while she flees into the woods from the party. The blood moon is significant because Betsey believes it’s apocalyptic, and this connects to the Book of Revelations (Chapter 6, verses 11-13): “… and the moon became as blood.” Other cultures, existing prior to the advent of Christianity, likewise saw a blood red moon as a bad omen of various sorts. For Betsey, the blood moon takes on an apocalyptic tone because she’s struggling with grief over the death of her father and it feels like the collapse of the world for someone at her age, on the cusp of adulthood yet still a teen. She recounts that she was thinking about “the future and how I fit into it” when she saw the bloody moon. A parent dying before a child makes it into adulthood doesn’t feel like the natural progression of life, thus it takes on the weight of the end of Betsey’s world.
The next symbol in the film, again connected to Betsey’s father, is the pomegranate. In one scene, Betsey’s helping bring groceries inside, and she’s suddenly compelled to stare at the spot where her father’s deathbed once sat, holding bags of groceries at arm’s length like a form of torture until she can’t hold them up any longer. This is immediately followed by a lingering shot on a bowl of pomegranates. Poemegranates were a symbol of death in Greek mythology, specifically Ovid’s Metamorphoses. As A.R. Ruis writes: “The pomegranate symbolized cyclical, dualistic relationships between life and death, fertility and barrenness, childhood and motherhood.” Though neither the blood moon nor the pomegranates are the most significant symbol connected to Betsey’s father and death.

When Betsey’s grandmother turns up she tells Holly of a tale from Japanese folklore about the futakuchi-onna, a horrific figure, a woman who has a monstrous mouth hidden at the back of her head. She says she was reminded of the tale because of Betsey’s new eating disorder. The grief from the death of Betsey’s father takes on the form of the futakuchi-onna, his spirit lingering tragically with her as she loses the will to eat and his memory sucks the life out of her. It’s as if Betsey’s father remains attached to her soul; not a literal monster, some ugly mouth at the back of Betsey’s head, as Holly hallucinates in a nightmare one evening, but a figurative monster that haunts Betsey. In a way, the futakuchi-onna in A Banquet is the depression Betsey’s father’s death brings on, particularly considering the way she loses her appetite and becomes obsessed with “the end,” like a suicidal promise disguised as apocalyptic thinking. Either way, Betsey’s gripped by anxiety and death to the point it threatens to obliterate the rest of the life remaining after her father killed himself.
Father Son Holy Gore - A Banquet - Mother & Daughter One Last Time TogetherHolly’s clear inability to deal with her own mental health struggles lead to a dangerous combination of her illness and that of her daughter’s, their shared grip on reality slipping. On top of that, she’s already watched her husband waste away and turn to suicide because no medicine or treatments were able to fix him. Her distrust in modern medicine/psychiatry feeds into Betsey’s delusions. Plus, she’s desperate to validate her own experiences as a young mentally ill person who was put through the mental healthcare system and chewed up like meat, so it makes her more willing to believe in Betsey, and also makes her more susceptible to being manipulated (such as when we discover Betsey’s been messing with the scales, suggesting she’s been losing weight the whole time in reality). All of these things lead to the death of Betsey. Holly’s mother was almost right when she told Holly: “I believe Betseys possessed this family.” The family’s figurative possession is partly grief in the wake of death, partly Betsey’s delusions, and partly Holly’s past experiences with healthcare, both mental and physical.

Although A Banquet leans hard into ambiguity and challenges the viewer to decide whether Betsey’s visions were actually real, its focus on Greek mythology connected to pomegranates, Christian scripture related to the blood moon, and Japanese folklore about the futakuchi-onna make clear that the film’s apocalypse is meant as an allegory. At the end, Holly sees the approach of apocalypse, but it’s her own mental collapse. Just as the blood moon was Betsey’s personal end of the world, so is the finale of the film the end of Holly’s world after her husband’s suicide, and now the death of her daughter which she inadvertently facilitated. A Banquet is a feast of allegorical agony about the dark corners of our psyche, how the worst parts of life—depression, grief, death—can feel like the approach of an apocalyptic event that will end our world as we know it; but only if we let it.

One thought on “A BANQUET is a Feast of Symbols in an Agonising Allegory

  1. Pingback: This Week at the Movies (Apr. 21, 2023) – Online Film Critics Society

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