As part of our coverage of the 79th Venice International Film Festival, Lex Briscuso reviews Luca Guadagnino’s new film, Bones & All, starring Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet. Follow along with more coverage in our Venice Film Festival archives.
We all have something inside us we can’t explain. We can’t make excuses for it because there are none, and we can only live in chaotic harmony with it, trying our best. What that thing is will vary for every living person on this earth, but for Maren and Lee, the lead characters of Bones & All, that thing is one of the most sinister yet primal impulses you could ever experience. The vast array of cannibalism movies attack the taboo from all different angles, but there are few that tackle the concept with more tenderness and affection than Luca Guadagnino’s tenth feature. The film, which deeply reckons with the concepts of morality and ephemerality, is a vast love story that challenges its audience to fall for its flawed leads in the same way they can’t help but fall for each other: not in spite of their ills but because of them. In that way, the movie is both so easy and so complicated to enjoy all at once — but either way, it’s hard not to be completely engrossed by what it has to offer and how it goes about devouring everything in its path, from love to loss to the bonds we make and break.
Bones & All follows a young woman named Maren (Taylor Russell), who lives a poor yet quiet suburban life with her father (Andre Holland). When she unexpectedly returns to the suppressed cannibalistic urges of her past, they are forced to uproot their lives entirely, which forces Maren to learn how to survive on the fringes of society with the help of a young man named Lee (Timothée Chalamet).
The film introduces Russell as Maren with an incredibly compelling and utterly shocking cold open, almost the visual equivalent of an earworm in the way that it gets you fixated on this character and follows her undoubtedly messy journey for the next two hours. While attending a sleepover with new friends at a new school, Maren attempts to eat one of her peers’ fingers. The scene is almost sensual in its lead-up to the big moment, but it has nothing on the passion Russell displays while trying to completely detach the digit from its rightful place with her teeth. It’s nearly impossible not to at least have your curiosity piqued with this introduction, partially because of the implications of the scene but also because of its attention to the details of cannibalistic desire — so much so that they nearly mimic the classic yearning of some of our best queer romances throughout film history.
This also comes up later in the film, when Lee seduces a carnival worker in a small town he and Maren have traveled to in order to kill and devour him. The tension between Lee and the carnival worker is just as ripe as the tension between Maren and her new friend in the opening scene; The film makes it a point to connect these two sources of desire to one another, and the fact that it is set in the Regan era proves that it is by absolutely no coincidence. At that time, queer people were living on the fringes of society, too, and David Kajganich’s script (adapted from the YA novel of the same name by Camille DeAngelis) makes it clear that the connection between these two worlds calls into question how we view queerness and how it has historically been demonized and had its morality discussed at length.
That said, the film is ultimately rooted in heterosexuality, and Russell’s chemistry with Chalamet completely drives the story. They fall in love just like that one YA quote — “slowly, then all at once” — and you, as an audience member, can feel it every step of the way. How their view of each other changes as they share more and more of this horrible yet beautiful existence together. How they realize that they too can be bound by love to another person, even when all they’ve ever known about others is a complicated, gut-wrenching desire to consume their bodies, minds, and souls. It’s overwhelming to watch and absolutely positions you to recall the times you were young and thought you had found love. Maybe it was strong like theirs did, maybe it wasn’t, but you remember it because their utter devotion to one another is practically dripping from the screen, and either way, the feelings that bubble up from what the characters give us with their fervor are unmistakable.
Russell’s performance is particularly captivating as Maren, with a childlike insistence on discovering the trajectory of her life as a cannibal that her father previously hid from her as much as he could. Because of this, her performance has a balanced maturity that only a person who, despite being so young, has seen and done terrible things could muster. Watching her become a person Chalamet’s character needs is a very special journey, and you almost forget you’re watching two cannibals fall for one another; They both have a fierce independence that melts away once they meet, and it feels serendipitous and nearly cosmic to have their paths cross — like it tends to feel when a great love makes its way into one’s life. Seeing Russell get some really meaty (no pun intended) material to take her performances to the next level is exciting, and it seems like we will see a lot more of her following this performance. I hope the world is ready for what she can bring to more nuanced material than the Escape Room series.
I’ll admit it: Russell outperforms Chalamet in this film, no question, but the Call Me By Your Name star is still entirely electric as Lee. He has a fierce and firm presence from his first scene, cementing himself as a person who takes no shit, yet he radiates a subtle and secret softness. It’s not his best performance — CMBYN and Beautiful Boy are still duking it out for that title — but it surely strikes an emotional chord with the audience, especially because of his deep bond with Russell. He’s always been good at getting to the emotional core of his characters, and Lee is no exception. The third important character of this film is a strange one, one you might not expect. Mark Rylance’s weird, eccentric character named Sully approaches Maren at a bus stop early in the film, remarking that he could smell her half a mile away because she’s an “eater” like he is. He’s so good in this role, but from then on, you are on edge with him, and that palpable feeling of being unsure of a person’s motives bleeds (again, no pun intended) from the screen to the seats, forcing you on a journey with a person you don’t want to spend much time with. Maren feels similarly, and her attempts to put him down gently throughout the film are deeply authentic and troubling — which makes for a tense and climactic ending to an already absorbing journey.
When you watch Bones & All, it’s hard not to come to terms with something quite sobering about these characters, which is also true about every living being on this planet: the fact that nothing is forever. We as people, the power and effect of love, the physical and emotional connections to family, pain, hurt, none of it is everlasting. All of that unravels in the film’s final ten minutes, and it comes about in such a shocking and devastating way that you feel every ounce of the pain and suffering Maren and Lee experience, and, against your better judgment, you ache for what is happening to them. By that point in the film, the catharsis has set in, and their cannibalistic urges can’t stop you from connecting with the passion they feel for one another — and the terror they feel at the prospect of it being ripped away from them. But when you live an outcast life that is as high stakes as any movie, every second is going to be brimming with dire desperation, and as the film shows us, those stakes, however gruesome, just might be worth everything, bones and all.
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