Content warning: This article contains discussions on eating disorders.
Body of Water, the first time feature and directorial debut of Lucy Brydon, is a quiet, sombre gem in this year’s Glasgow Film Festival lineup. The film focuses around Stephanie (Sian Brooke), her struggles with anorexia after leaving an inpatient eating disorder clinic, and how she attempts to balance her relationships with her mother Susan (Amanda Burton) and teen daughter Pearl (Fabienne Piolini-Castle). A tough watch at times, Body of Water is a frank and unflinching depiction of what it is to struggle with an eating disorder, and how it impacts the lives of those closest to you as well as your own.
Director Brydon hails from Edinburgh, and so premiering the film in Scotland was an extra special experience for her. “It was really lovely, I mean it’s such a welcoming festival”, she says, speaking to Flip Screen via phone just a few days after the screenings. “It feels like a nice start for the film, so I can’t really ask for more.”
Body of Water’s path from inception to completion has been a long one. It started out as a short film, and was titled Sick(er) until very late on in the process. “All along, the advice was that we should ditch the name Sick(er) because it was a harsh kind of sound, and it sounds like a horror film and this sort of thing, and I always stuck to my guns about it.
“But, increasingly as we were going through the edit, the delicacy of Sian’s performance and the elements of water came in.
“The film turned out to be softer and more poetic than I’d originally planned. I read this poem and there was this phrase, ‘body of water’, and it got me thinking, there’s so many meanings to that. It stuck in my head; it’s the one that always came back to me.”
As Brydon mentions, Sian Brooke’s lead performance as Stephanie is a powerful one; subtle and complex, with bursts of emotion in all the right places. Working carefully with a nutritionist and trainer to embody the look of someone in the midst of severe anorexia, her body appears extremely slight and fragile. Whilst eating disorders are not defined by size and can manifest at any weight, the way Stephanie’s clothes hang from her wiry frame, and how her pixie-cut hair reveals the bones of her neck and shoulders makes for a strong visual signal as to the havoc that the illness has wreaked on her body.
This physicality is particularly potent in a scene where Stephanie undresses in front of her mother in order to try on a bridesmaid gown for her upcoming wedding. The interaction descends into a challenging confrontation that perfectly epitomises the wedge that eating disorders can drive between sufferers and their family. Though they were nervous before filming it, the scene is Brydon’s favourite: “We were all really on tenterhooks when we went in to shoot this scene because we knew how much power it could have. The bottom line is, Stephanie is just saying ‘I can’t do this anymore’, and her mum’s saying she can’t really do this anymore either. It’s them sort of facing up to that and, I guess, [Stephanie] just finally being honest.”
“The two of them together, it’s like a reversal of what it should be. The mother is more healthy than the child. She’s just looking at her daughter’s body, and it’s like there’s nothing she can do or say that’s going to make her do anything differently.
“The layers of how the scene escalates, I just consistently find really moving. I remember when I was directing it, Sian’s instincts were to be more emotional – but I was always telling her, at this point, she’s just kind of signed off, that I really like when you’re flat, and had enough, and there’s no crying. When you’re truly in the depths of something like that, I think you’re kind of past crying.”
At the wedding itself, tensions rise. Perhaps the most shocking moment of an already dark and troubling film, Susan drunkenly stumbles over to Stephanie and forcibly pushes a slice of wedding cake into her mouth. For those not troubled by their relationship with food, this may seem fairly harmless; for Stephanie, it’s akin to an act of violence.
“In the edit, there were some executives that were like, maybe we should lose that scene altogether”, recounts Brydon. “There’s a lot of undercurrents of nastiness sometimes that are underneath…she thinks she’s doing a good thing, she’s feeding her daughter, but ultimately it’s the most cruel thing for this woman. I find that quite fascinating.”
Maternal dynamics are at the heart of Body of Water. Stephanie is not only trying to reconnect with her own mother, but with her teen daughter Pearl. Played beautifully by Fabienne Piolini-Castle, Pearl is in a phase of rebellion, of pushing boundaries. She sneaks out of the house, flirts with older men – and most troublingly, has started hiding some food from her dinner plate.
With her previous career as a war photographer and her multiple stints in clinics, we quickly get the sense that Stephanie generally hasn’t been very present in Pearl’s life. Anorexia as severe as Stephanie’s can make you selfish, and the way that impacts her relationship with her daughter in the film meant that Brydon experienced some pushback with the character: “I think what people were worried about, and the thing that kept coming up…it’s complicated to unpack, but it was the motherhood element. I think there’s still quite an embedded sense that above all else, a mother shouldn’t put her own needs or issues before her child, and she doesn’t really [adhere to] that.
“The really great thing about the film and Sian’s performance is that she is a different kind of female protagonist. It’s very complicated; she’s trying to be a good mother, but she’s in the grip of this thing that can’t let go of her, and she can’t let go of it either.”
That food can have such a damaging effect on a person’s entire life may seem strange for some, but for fellow disordered eaters, Body of Water feels at times like excerpts of your lived experience being ripped from your memories and re-enacted on screen. Stephanie wanders slowly through a supermarket, becoming overwhelmed at the volume and range of food in front of her and the diet advert on the store television. She looks slightly repulsed when tidying up buffet leftovers from a party, compulsively wrapping the bowl in clingfilm as if to stop the very essence of what’s in it from seeping out towards her.
Brydon repeatedly uses long, drawn out takes of Stephanie at her dining table, attempting to force down even the smallest of meals, to show the isolation that comes with having to feed yourself every day when it’s the hardest thing to do. “When I had issues with food…I think it’s such a lonely thing”, she explains, when asked about her intentions with the eating scenes in the film. “The way we frame her and sit with her emphasises how lonely this battle is. There’s three scenes where we’re with her when she’s eating on her own, and they progressively spiral downwards.”
“I’ve seen it a hundred million times, but the scene with the apple was one where I was like, ‘Oh god’. It really got to me, because this is a very strong person who’s outwardly very successful and all this stuff, and there’s this fucking apple there and it’s defeating her.
“That’s what it’s like. And people don’t really get that.”
Extra care also went into the production design of these moments, with a food stylist brought in to help create the kind of meals Stephanie would be eating. The sound design is impeccable in these scenes, the chewing sounds of the crunchy textures heightened so as to emphasise just how much effort it takes her to digest one bite.
“It does get your teeth on edge a little bit”, Brydon says, referring to the enhanced sounds of jaws grinding and stomachs rumbling. “But it’s this sort of Safe [the film by Todd Haynes] idea of these very small things that are, in their own way, horrific for this person and her world, her body, her denial of her femininity and a lot of her natural instincts.
“The body noises are there to undercut that. You can’t really escape being an animal.”
Body of Water is unique in that, unlike other depictions of eating disorders, it doesn’t show what triggers Stephanie’s illness, how it develops, or even how it’s treated in the clinic. Instead, we see what it’s like to be signed off by a doctor and pushed out into the wild to put yourself back together again. It’s an area Brydon focused on in her extensive research of eating disorder treatment in preparation for making the film: “I went to some [clinics] and they were exceptionally amazing facilities, but they were very exclusive and expensive.
“My overriding impression is that the bit that defeats Stephanie is when she’s released back into the world, and she doesn’t have much support. I think that’s the reality for a lot of people.”
Complex and dangerous as they are, eating disorders are even more complex to treat. Anorexia nervosa has the highest fatality rate of all mental illnesses, and there remains significant levels of misunderstanding in how they’re tackled by the medical community – whether a patient is ‘recovered’ and well enough to be released from care is largely based on weight and BMI, with underlying issues and behaviours often not being tackled.
Brydon articulates this problem when speaking about one particular woman she met during her research.“She did that thing which is kind of what Stephanie does, which is she would get really sick, go into hospital, put on enough weight so that they’d be like ‘you can go now’, and then she’d just do the same thing again. She was so institutionalised that she’d never imagined doing anything else, and it’s so sad. There’s something not right about that to me. I just think, with eating disorders, we’re not quite there yet.”
Bodies, and how bodies change – intentionally or not – are extremely prevalent in Brydon’s work. Her harrowing short film Babe follows a thirteen year old girl who takes up boxing in an effort to strengthen and protect herself, and is later a victim of sexual assault; a short documentary she directed called The Space In Between is a character study of Morgan, a transgender man discussing how their body allows them to ‘pass’ as masculine, and their experience relearning how to dress themselves in a way that aligns with their gender identity.
“Absolutely, it’s a really strong theme that I’m sort of fascinated by, probably because of my own body issues” says Brydon, when asked about the way bodies feature in her previous work. “I definitely draw a lot on my own experiences. I guess it’s also about being a woman and having a woman’s body, and how that is in the world. It’s a complex thing.
“Women in space, and the things we should be changing and looking at, how it all comes together…I guess that’s what I come back to with what I make.”
Next on Brydon’s agenda? Something more ‘genre’ – a thriller, perhaps. For the last three years, she has been documenting the process of making her first feature film through a diary series for Little White Lies, offering invaluable insight into elements of filmmaking including development, casting, shooting and post-production. When asked what her advice would be for aspiring filmmakers, she believes that hard work is what counts: “I probably underestimated how much of an endurance test it is. It is tough, it’s a grind, it’s hard on your mental health and it’s hard on your relationships, and you just have to create stability in your life so that you can do something that’s ultimately very precarious and unstable. It took me quite a long time to get that.
“Just always be kind to yourself, even if you feel like you’ve failed. Things have to die in order for other things to flourish, and so try to see it like that.
“Talent is important, but without graft, and the ability to sit down for nine hours of the day and actually write stuff…It’s okay to sit and write, but it’s knowing that there is a lot of graft, and the success of people who go and do what they do is that they just put in the hours. Do you know what I mean?”
We certainly do, Lucy. And the hard work paid off – Body of Water is slow and simmering, punctuated with scenes that will stick in your mind long after the films ends, and Stephanie finally finds freedom.
(Interview sections edited and condensed for clarity.)