Luca Guadagnino’s tender cannibal romance
IF ’80S CINEMA experienced a “cannibal boom” by way of Italian exploitation flicks, the ’00s/’10s zeitgeist’s deviant gourmand was the libidinous vampire. At a time when many complained sex was disappearing from film, a glut of horny American mainstream cultural phenomena (most notably True Blood, Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, and The Originals) took cues from Anne Rice and transferred desire onto the undead. The vile parasites, once mythical scapegoats for pestilence in pockets of Eastern Europe, were rebranded as soulful fuck machines and brooding suburban classmates, dousing normie sexuality with a soupçon of transgression—ultimately to such a culturally redundant extent that they became vanilla (the coup de grâce being their full transformation back into flavorless humans in Twilight fanfic 50 Shades). It’s hard to imagine vampires, post-Pattinsonization, as a vehicle for true horror, the kind that might incite visceral, existential, or moral panic. On a primal level, vampirism’s earthy, inelegant cousin—cannibalism—does the trick. Harder to romanticize and defang, cannibalism can’t hide behind the conceit of the supernatural to sanitize the act of consuming humans: It carries the full taboo of gastronomic incest. And it’s not just drinking—it’s eating, bones and all.
Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All, adapted by David Kajganich from Camille DeAngelis’s YA novel of the same name, grafts cannibalism (and its cinematic boom years) onto the tropes of recent vampire romances, dices them together with the road movie, the fugitive-on-the-run story, the bildungsroman, and the Lana Del Rey video, and serves up a surprisingly fresh tartare from the viscera. Lovely, aching, terrifying, putrid, silly, charmingly self-serious, its depth of flavor is undeniable.
The film’s title delivers its core provocation to audiences: to get swept up in a romance that disarms their empathy and makes revulsion a medium for sensuality and sweetness. “Bones and all” could connote loving a person in their totality; it is also how “eaters,” as they call themselves, refer to the sublime if laborious nose-to-tail approach to ingesting a person. No Hannibal Lecter–ish cookery frills here: These cannibals want raw flesh straight from the (still mooing) body.
Bones and All opens with credits set against crude renderings of middle-American roadside landscapes; the shot widens, and we see that they’re paintings in an art class display. Situated within the mythic space of the Anywhere, America, high school, we meet Maren (Taylor Russell), a senior who’s recently relocated with her father to small-town Virginia, living in a ramshackle home whose decaying wallpaper and young-Giuliani-displaying TV establish the film’s setting within the forsaken crevices of Reagan’s America.
Immediately, Maren’s apparent softness and sensitivity clash with the visual of her having to unscrew her window to sneak out to a friend’s sleepover: Her father (André Holland) is keeping her caged, and for good reason. At the slumber party, she does the worst thing a new kid in town can possibly do to make a good first impression: She eats the flesh off her acquaintance’s finger and runs, leaving a skinless phalange and a gaggle of girls traumatized in their PJs and drying manicures in her wake. Having soiled the hallowed American sleepover, the movie and Maren ditch the high school setting.
Maren’s father duly sends her off on her own—she’s eighteen now, and beyond help. He leaves her birth certificate, the name and location of her mysteriously MIA mother, and a tape recording detailing his recollections of her previous human feasts (her first: eating the babysitter’s face off as a toddler, after which her father found her asleep, an ear nestled in her cheek). With nothing to do but search for answers about her compulsive condition, she sets out to find her mother, commencing her quest for self-knowledge, as so many cinematic protagonists have, on the open road.
Out here, Maren discovers the existence of a fragmentary community of eaters dotting the American abyss. She repeats a variation of “I thought I was the only one” more than once as she comes into fuller view of herself in the presence of others—cuing one of the film’s many vexed parallels to queer fugitivity and marginality. (The political regime under which this all takes place certainly helps tease the metaphor.) Eaters have their ways of covertly finding one another, foremostly scent. As she reads Tolkein at a bus stop, an unsavory hobbit approaches—a man in a feathered hat who refers to himself in the third person with a quaint singsong voice that cracks like chewed bones. She has been smelled by Sully (a disquietingly childlike Mark Rylance), who seems all too eager to mentor her in eater ways—and, perhaps, to take possession of her as a companion after an eternally isolated life.
Sully shares his most intimate secrets, and a fresh dying body he’s scavenged, which he gnaws while clad in a blood-soaked undershirt, neatly tucked into threadbare, butt-crack-revealing tighty-whities—a nauseating picture of animal chaos and the (very) delicate veil human order lays atop it. Sully also shares his knack for crafting: He’s made a Rapunzel-like braid of human hair that he adds to every time he eats someone. Maren understandably senses something vaguely off about the loner with the death-braid, doubting he keeps his ethical code—only eating people once they’ve perished—as tight as he claims he does.
Maren doesn’t have a code so much as an inner battle to be good. Eater culture neophyte, she may have consumed people to death as a child (the aforementioned babysitter; a boy who went missing at camp), but these events transpired in an instinctual fugue, and her rational self scarcely recalls them. She is only beginning to understand the weight of her identity, and the accumulation of bodies it will carry. “I don’t want to hurt anybody,” she says earnestly, later in the film; Russell plays Maren, and her doomed struggle with her predatory id, with devastating directness and sincerity rather than the naiveté often lent to portrayals of the uninitiated. Figuring out that there are some eaters she might not want to associate with, shared tastes aside, she leaves early in a bus, spotting a neglected Sully staring her down from the side of the road—his disconsolate look portending: There will be more Sully.
Soon, she’s encountering another eater, Timothée Chalamet’s vagabond Lee, whose eye she catches in a grocery store. Lee quickly demonstrates his cannibal ethics: The first person he eats is a man harassing a woman in a grocery store. Brought together by their shared anti-harassment stance, and by being cannibals, Maren and Lee take to the road in Lee’s blue Chevy pickup, as Maren grapples with the outlaw lifestyle and moral gymnastics that are coming into focus as her future. (At least she now feels seen; Lee, too, ate his babysitter.) At a diner, both Maren and Lee are superpolite to servers; Lee, who still barely knows her, tells Maren she seems nice. “I am nice,” replies Maren—again, arrestingly matter-of-fact. Their chemistry works: Both actors, though sometimes tasked with delivering clunkers about the hardship of their condition, shade their characters with pastel gentleness that makes the film’s YA lit foundations feel unique. Maren and Lee fall in love against the stretching backdrop of flat, forever America, and the simultaneity of anonymity and vulnerability its openness creates.
Enraptured by place, Luca Guadagnino’s oeuvre has, to date, been a sensualist Eurotrip, his characters’ desires bouncing off the poetics of timeworn grandeur. Prior to Bones, his three most recent large-scale projects followed young, out-of-place Americans, floating somewhere in “the Continent,” its scenic and architectural charms catalyzing assorted awakenings. In 2017’s Call Me By Your Name, an American twink (also Chalamet) lounges in verdant Northern Italy, fapping into a local peach as he lusts after a statuesque graduate student in his family’s villa/shrine to Hellenistic hunks. In 2018’s Suspiria, an Ohioan Mennonite finds her place within an expressionist dance-centric coven whose building’s “Bauhaus claw motifs” inspire murderously sharp choreography. 2020’s HBO miniseries We Are Who We Are more drastically collided Guadagnino’s transatlantic interests, following American army brat teens coming of age, gender, and sexuality on a military base in the wetlands of Venice’s less flashy neighbor, Chioggia.
With Bones and All, Guadagnino’s first film shot in the US (in Ohio, Kentucky, Nebraska, and Indiana), he makes his first full contribution to the pantheon of imagined Americas—again attaching themes of self-discovery to the cues of new physical surroundings. Cinematographer Arseni Khatchaturan’s shots of the heartland’s veining roads often focus on power lines and power plants, as though trying to trace—as his characters plunge deeper into the country—the very bones of the North American grid, the “world’s largest machine.”
Bones and All likewise uses cannibalism to heighten the American road movie and vampire romance’s shared themes of fugitivity, itinerancy, and finding home in another person in an otherwise alien world. Whereas True Blood’s “vampire rights” plotline attempted a strained metaphor of queer visibility in the era of DOMA, in Bones and All the eaters’ awakening to identity and otherness teases a similarly allegorical reading, only to fascinatingly cannibalize it.
In the film’s one indelible scene with Michael Stuhlbarg—in a performance suffused with bestial menace—his character and his partner (Pineapple Express director David Gordon Green) initiate a tense fireside heart-to-heart with the younger cannibal couple, exchanging stories of their socially unacceptable meet-cutes. When Green’s character reveals that he doesn’t eat people out of frenzied necessity, but rather a “groupie” fetish—Maren’s expression uncomfortably shifts. A “Born This Way” authenticity claim underscores the eaters’ senses and justifications of self, and the presence of this interloper challenges the framework around which they understand their needs. The more Bones and All flirts with (particularly queer) identity discourse—here with this introduction of a tension between biological essentialism versus social constructionism—the more the analogy fractures. For anyone holding onto this parallel, the film deals a wonderfully nauseating blow: At a carnival, Maren and Lee’s lives intersect with a concrete example of ’80s middle-American marginality—a closeted man whose perceived social invisibility makes this person their target. Lee cruises the cute carnival worker, lures him into a field, jerks him off, and slits his throat as he’s climaxing, inviting Maren to collaboratively eat away his existence.
Bones and All consistently troubles the audience’s relationship to its characters, its sweetness always bound to carnage. If the vampire narrative found a palatable formula for sanguinary love, Bones and All dares you to see, and stomach, romance filtered through—and enhanced by—a revolting, homicidal taboo. Though its relationship to allegory thankfully falters, it depicts, within the poverty, neglect, and vast stretches of American emptiness, a hunger for ever-renewing explanatory myths. We see it all the time, in the growing thrall of zealotry and cults, and in the movie theater: Today’s Marvel-subsumed cinematic monoculture satisfies this mythological insatiability, and only this. Chalamet’s Lee, describing how he, too, ate his babysitter as a child, recalls it as “a rush; you could feel blood, every blood vessel spidering through me, like some new superhero.”
Bones and All opened in select US theaters on November 18 and will see a wide release on November 23.