Signal Horizon

See Beyond

Director Ruth Paxton Talks Grief, Faith, And The Ambiguous Ending Of A Banquet

A Banquet is an exacting film. A price must be paid to watch it. It is visceral, unrelenting, and intense. It is the kind of film with sharp, gnarly teeth that isn’t afraid to use them. Provocative and hellish, Ruth Paxton’s film is a unique nightmarish take on womanhood. Uncomfortably intimate and deeply disturbing, it makes you question your sanity and faith.

A Banquet
Courtesy of IFC Midnight

I hate the term elevated horror. It’s so pretentious. As if slashers aren’t their own form of art. Rarely have I seen a film that the term elevated was appropriate. Almost everything by auteurs Robert Eggers, Darren Aronofsky, or Alex Garland comes to mind. Their films are the kind of thoughtful horror that invades a soul with oppressive dread and often weirdness. A Banquet has both qualities pickled with singularly female fears.

A Banquet begins with the tragic suicide of Holly’s terminally ill husband. Both Holly and her older daughter Betsey witness his death, and the trauma of his illness and his tragic end have left a debilitating mark on the family. When Betsey has a spiritual experience at a party, she believes she alone can prepare the world for the end. What happens next is a horrific generational power struggle to have faith in what Holly can’t possibly understand or trust medicine and get Betsey medical attention before it is too late.

There are always several sides to each story. There is the story we believe, the story we tell others, and the truth. The same is true for Paxton’s A Banquet which delivers a stunningly focused spin on womanhood. The societal pressures placed on women, the pressures we put on ourselves, and the often complicated relationship between mothers and daughters are all explored. It takes big swings, and almost all of them connect. I got a chance to sit down with director Ruth Paxton and ask her what the film meant to her, what she hopes her audience got out of the experience, and all the essential takeaways from A Banquet.

The film was very personal for Paxton

This was Paxton’s first feature film, but she is no novice to the kinds of emotional horror A Banquet delivers. She typically writes her own scripts and her earlier work She Wanted To Be Burnt is indicative of the shadowy themes she excels at. She was drawn to this story because of “Betsey’s experience of disordered eating.” Paxton “acutely understood Betsey’s attraction to being good at this thing” because of her own experiences with anxiety and food disorders.

Betsey’s compulsion to avoid food in A Banquet was never about possession or aversion to food itself. Paxton said, “It’s not about not eating; it’s about the bad thing that will happen if she does eat.” Betsey was either convinced she did have an important role to play or was convinced this was her only way out of looming adulthood. In either case, her conviction was so strong that she could last months without eating normally. A Banquet is not about what was happening to Betsey, though. It was ultimately about what happened to Holly.

The ending of A Banquet explained

When I asked Paxton how the powerful end of A Banquet should be read, she said, “It was about Holly’s journey being worth it.” Betsey’s last line to her mother is both an indictment and a thank you, Her love made “this” possible whatever “this is”. For Paxton, “At the end, it doesn’t really matter, just that it’s over.” She further explained that the original script written by Justin Bull was more concretely apocalyptic. Still, she chose to be murkier in her ending to allow the story to resonate inward with the viewer.

She said it was vital for her to have the audience view the story with three lenses. Betsey could be mentally ill, she could be lying and very manipulative, or she could be divine. Whether Holly’s final moments on screen were the sad remnants of her sanity or the end of the world as we know it is less important than the truths laid bare by June, Betsey, Holly, and Isabelle.

What we do with grief

Although the death of Holly’s husband is the jumping-off point, Paxton said, “This is a film about what people do with their grief.” Babadook is about what grief can become; A Banquet is about processing that pain and the “ripples through the family unit.” There is a throughline of past mental illness in Holly that could have been passed to Betsey. Additionally, Holly’s mother, June, remembers Betsey lying about being possessed when she was younger. She was adept and committed to the lie. The broken weight scale could signify something supernatural or a deeply troubled girl.

Paxton explained that for Betsey, she was in a uniquely vulnerable place in life. She was on the cusp of adulthood, being pressured to grow up and make decisions that she wasn’t ready or able to make yet, all while under the specter of an ecological disaster. Additionally, add in the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Covid, and our children have had to deal with unprecedented troubles. So Betsey’s descent into madness could be simply a desire to gain control over her world again.

A Banquet
Courtesy of IFC Midnight

Mothers and daughters

The mother-daughter relationship was really at the heart of A Banquet. “The meat of the horror” is the microaggressions and sniping mothers and daughters engage in. The more Betsey refuses to eat; the harder Holly tries to feed her. Each night, her elaborate meals are meant to entice her to eat through effort and love, but the family dinner is also about nourishment and ritual. It is one of the only spaces Holly can still control until she can’t. Although simple and in no way gory, the scene with the peas early in the film is one of the most affecting scenes.

That strange house

Holly, Isabelle, and Betsey’s home almost becomes another character. The look and feel of the space were critical to Paxton as so much of the film takes place there. We needed to never get bored in the space, and the unusual layout with unexpected entry points into the rooms was a bonus. Production Designer Sophia Stocco created a very specific ascetic. She gave Paxton several options but strongly favored what Paxton refers to as “really fucking minimalist.” It needed to feel as odd and controlling as the family who lived there.

The vagina mouth prosthetic

The Japanese folktale told in A Banquet that is the basest for the one graphic sequence in the film may have been the inspiration for the segment, but Paxton and Creature Designer Dan Martin chose to go a more feminine angle. The depictions of the mouth in the back of the head of the original story are horizontal and almost comical. Paxton wanted Betsey’s extra mouth to be “of Betsey,” not stuck on her. It was jokingly referred to as the “vagina mouth,” and the noises it makes and the noises made during the final act were meant to be vaguely laborious.

Ruth Paxton is a rare director that can make you feel bone-weary, terrified, and emotionally wrought all at once. It’s a perverse sort of genius that revels when “she can make people cry.” A Banquet is a journey to a rewarding and sad place that will mean something different to everyone who watches it. Although I loved the film, it took a toll on me, and likely my reading of the film is based on the very personal lens I applied to the viewing.

Was Betsey possessed by a higher power, and Holly had the faith to fulfill her mission, or did these two women get destroyed by the grief of losing a loved one and a powerful mental illness? The ending doesn’t matter as much as the journey, and it is a ride worth going on. A Banquet is currently available VOD everywhere you watch movies, and you can listen to the full interview here.