There is something deeply unsettling about the idea of cannibalism, of a human being willing to devour another human being. It isn't just the act itself, but its emotional meaning. Maybe it's connected to the notion of a soul, something that makes us distinctly human, and that devouring the body of another person is, in some ways, a blasphemous consuming of their soul. There's something almost too powerful about such an idea, that it might connect us too directly with our primal past where survival overcame any moral or ethical judgement. Even when it is a last resort in a survival situation, we look on such an act with a mixture of disgust and morbid fascination. Cannibalism sits at the centre of 'Bones and All', the latest film from acclaimed Italian director Luca Guadagnino, but not in the way you would expect. Rather than a work of horror, this beguiling film, based on the novel by Camille DeAngelis and written for the screen by David Kajganich, uses this taboo as the basis of a love story, a potent coming-of-age drama on what it is to allow yourself to devour and to be devoured.
Maren (Taylor Russell, 'Waves') is in her final years of high school, living quietly with her father (André Holland, 'Moonlight'). Together, they share a secret - that Maren has a hunger and desire to eat human flesh - and when this becomes too much for her father to handle, he leaves her, recording his reasons on a cassette tape. Forced to survive on her own, Maren begins a cross-country trip to find her mother, who may hold the key to why she is the way she is. Along the way, she begins to encounter other Eaters, firstly Sully (Mark Rylance, 'Bridge of Spies'), a mysterious loner with an almost ritualistic approach to his feeding, and finally Lee (Timothée Chalamet, 'Call Me By Your Name'), an isolated young man trying to find a way to live with his hunger. A connection forms between Maren and Lee, and as he helps her on her journey, these two lost souls fall for one another, their only unencumbered human connections in a world that has no space for them.
Guadagnino's work often concerns itself with the link between desire and destruction, allowing one's self to submit to an emotional or sexual encounter of such extreme that it brings you to the brink of physical or emotional annihilation. This is what makes his films so visceral, so beguiling and so affecting. Even the beautiful blunt force of 'Suspiria' (2018) brings with it a tantalising attraction. Characters in his films prepare the ground to lay themselves bare and open, their hearts just as susceptible to danger as to love. 'Bones and All' takes this conceit a step further, the literal splitting apart and devouring of bodies, but where 'Suspiria' and even 'A Bigger Splash' (2016) play violence as an operatic rupture, here it is the foundation of relationships and notions of being. The link of desire and destruction is so close as to be inseparable, where the most basic desire is an act of destruction, of human bodies and of human ethics.
As violent and confronting as 'Bones and All' can be, at its heart is a deeply emotional story of a young person searching for a place in the world when there doesn't seem to be one for them. It has the air of a Grimms fairytale, a simple story punctuated by violence and danger, structured through a series of trials and moving towards redemption. This simplicity runs through every aspect of the film, with Guadagnino pulling back on his idiosyncratic and instinctual visual style in order to support the heightened story with a more grounded footing. It recalls Terrence Malick's 'Badlands' (1973) or Ang Lee's 'Brokeback Mountain' (2005) in how beautifully unadorned it is with its focus on character and its relationship with landscape. Comparisons with the latter are particularly strong, with the blossoming love story between Maren and Lee anchored in something forbidden and taboo. This isn't to equate cannibalism with same-sex attraction, but one could certainly read 'Bones and All' as a metaphor for any person who falls outside of the white heteronormative standard. Like any good fairytale or even horror film (and 'Bones and All' could certainly qualify as such), this film uses extremes as a way of highlighting something lacking or concerning in our own lives. It would have been easy to make the film about cannibalism and get caught up in its violence or theatricality, but the film is determined to exert itself as a love story between two lost young people, and is all the better for it.
Driving Maren's journey is the need to find where she fits in the world and to find her people within it. She is not only coming to terms with her hunger for human flesh, but understanding the meaning behind it. This is another thread that runs through Guadagnino's work, that sense of displacement in the environment the protagonist has found themselves in, but the level of threat here is all the greater. As dangerous as Maren is to others, at least she has a moral compass to guide her. The world around her is even more dangerous, especially as she is a young woman of colour.
This external threat also manifests in a wider political sense - another motif of Guadagnino's films is the presence of wider political turmoil through radio and news reports in the background. What plays as a backdrop to 'Bones and All' is the election of Ronald Reagan, a president who forces conservative political ideals onto the United States, fostered in the same mid-western environment that Maren and Lee traverse. What amplifies Maren's journey and her relationship with Lee is this sense that something is around the corner to fear, like wandering through the woods in a fairytale. Even though they are hunters by nature, they can also be potential prey, and in the most chilling scene of the film, they encounter another Eater named Jake (Michael Stuhlbarg, 'Call Me By Your Name') and his partner Brad (the 'Halloween' reboot director David Gordon Green). They appear as friends, but it soon becomes clear that, even though they share a common bond, this doesn't protect them from even their own kind.
This makes the relationship between Maren and Lee all the more vital. To others, Maren is an object to be possessed, either as food for Jake and Brad or as an escape for Sully from his crippling loneliness. These characters, and in particular Sully, feel torn straight from the most gothic of fairytales, strange and unnerving and theatrical. You feel the effects of extreme isolation in Sully, who accounts for his hunger through a series of self-styled rules and rituals, but his need for companionship is even more intense. By comparison, Lee is at war with his hunger and rejects the notion of companionship. When he reveals his need for Maren, it is for her as herself, not as a means to satisfy an end. Their hunger for one another is that of the heart, to find someone to hold their hand through the chaos ahead rather than someone to be shackled or indebted to.
It would have been easy to make the film about cannibalism and get caught up in its violence or theatricality, but the film is determined to exert itself as a love story between two lost young people, and is all the better for it.
Running through the spine of 'Bones and All' is Maren's journey to understand herself, that transition from childhood to adulthood made all the more complicated by her circumstances. Guadagnino has an astute understanding of the inner lives of young people, especially those in crisis, and 'Bones and All' is a perfect companion piece to his extraordinary limited series 'We Are Who We Are', another story of teenagers who fall outside of societal norms searching for an ultimately carving out their own little corner of the world. For Maren, her journey is comprehending the enormity of what she desires and how that fits with her sense of moral judgement. It's not an easy line for the film to walk, asking your audience to embrace characters who murder and eat people, but this is the exact moral conundrum Maren faces and as such, it is vital for the film to look it in the eye. How do you live with yourself when you need to take life in order to live? Whether or not the film lands on an answer is irrelevant; the fact that it doesn't run away from it is what is important.
The risk with a film that combines extreme gore and violence with a sweeping teenage romance is that the two elements grate against one another, and 'Bones and All' certainly isn't for everyone. What makes it work is the compassion with which it combines them and its refusal to dull anything down for its audience. As graphic as it is, it is also just as romantic. Attention should be given to another tremendous score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross ('The Social Network'), who, like Guadagnino and cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan, approach their work with a gentle simplicity that is able to balance horror and heart. This film wants you to care about its leads, even with their faces caked in blood, and for myself at least, it achieves this so beautifully that my heart ached in all the right ways.
Another advantage of Guadagnino stripping back his directorial style is that the film highlights just what a terrific actor's director he is. There's a great openness and generosity to his direction, and this results in some very special performances. It's great to have him reunited with Timothée Chalamet after his jaw-dropping performance in 'Call Me By Your Name', and he once again delivers a stirring, affecting performance as Lee. In lesser hands, he would have been all torture and no soul, but Chalamet finds the moments of play and gentleness with him, undercut by a deep sadness. It's also yet another stirring example of the actor as a team player, understanding that this is Maren's story, not Lee's, and all of his choices are there to support Taylor Russell at every turn. Her performance is incandescent, so determined and careful and powerful. Again, it would have been easy to play her as pure innocence, a damsel in distress looking for a prince to save her, but there's a hardness to Maren, an indestructibility and an astute awareness. Russell takes full command of this film with the most demanding of roles. Guadagnino really knows how to work with young actors, but I don't think that's about controlling or shaping them. It's about giving them the freedom to explore and make the character their own, and you feel that in every second of Russell's extraordinary performance.
The supporting cast is a strong contrast to Russell and Chalamet, and it comes down to personal taste whether this works or not. Mark Rylance is making real choices in his performance as Sully, many of which are highly off-putting and deeply uncomfortable, but I found this worked really well against the naturalism of the rest of the film. His presence in the film is abrasive, but Rylance embraces his monstrosity, and in a way this makes Sully a surprisingly devastating character. His rituals demonstrate an understanding of the effect his violence has, and the leaps he is willing to take to preserve his humanity have ultimately robbed him of it. There's also an extreme lack of humanity in Jake (easily the most unsettling performance Michael Stuhlbarg has ever given), but that comes from his commitment to his life as an Eater. They have both arrived at the same conclusion, but they show different paths that Maren could take to get there, neither one of which she wants to take.
By rights, a sincere love story between two young cannibals like this shouldn't work, but somehow 'Bones and All' manages to preserve that sincerity without resorting to self-awareness. This is a beguiling, breathtaking film, made with great care and generosity by one of the great filmmakers working today. For all the moments I recoiled in horror, there were many more where I felt my heart swoon, felt my pulse quicken at the memory of young love, felt the sadness that comes when you don't feel you fit anywhere and the intense joy when you find out you do. There is so much beauty in its unadorned simplicity and its emotional honesty.