Bones and All is a gentle cannibal romance

Cannibals are the ultimate drama queens. Forget vegans, the lactose intolerant, those who remain vigilant against gluten: no one should worry more than cannibals about where their next meal is coming from. Also, cannibal love creates additional problems. How do you discuss this dietary propensity with someone you’re attracted to? Or is it better to socialize only with your own kind, break bread—or whatever—only with those who are completely in tune with your needs and impulses?

By Luca Guadagnino Bones and all, playing at the 79th Venice Film Festival, expresses sympathy for those who crave human flesh: in the universe of the film, they are tragic figures, a bit like vampires, but not as sexy, people who did not ask to be born with one wickedness desired, but which must nevertheless learn to live with it. (The film is adapted from Camille DeAngelis’ 2016 novel of the same name.) Guadagnino’s film is sly and tender, if at times too tense and brutal to bear. Watching it—waiting to see where it would end and finding myself captivated by one particular performance—I wondered if this movie might haunt me forever. But once it was over, I found I could easily shake off its spell. Bones and all is fastidiously romantic. It’s so carefully crafted and so beautiful to watch, even at its most sinister, that it ends up feeling a bit distant instead of a film that draws you in. However, its actors give you something to watch every minute. And Guadagnino – whose last film was the bleak 2018 Suspiria remake – at least retains this extended metaphor for loneliness and alienation. Whatever you say about it, Bones and all it’s never boring.

And the first third of the film is really haunting: we meet lonely teenager Maren Yearley (Taylor Russell, the sensational young actor who Trey Edward Shults‘ underrated family drama of 2019 Waves), who lives somewhere in Virginia in the 1980s with her father (played, with deep sorrow, by Andre Holland). She is lonely, but not by choice. A kind classmate invites her to a sleepover, and although her father, for reasons that become clear later, locks her in her room at night, she escapes and makes her way to the girl’s house. As she and her new boyfriend lie huddled side by side on the floor, Maren takes the girl’s finger in her mouth up to the knuckle in what at first seems like tentative sexual exploration. She then takes a big bite, swallowing it almost before she realizes what she’s done.

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Russell and Chalamet take refuge in each other

Yannis Drakoulidis—Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures—© 2022 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All rights reserved.

It’s a terrifying moment and makes the film buzz like a restless insect. When Maren’s father realizes what has happened, he shoves his daughter into the family car and whisks her off to another state. It’s the rhythm they’ve settled into over the years, whenever Maren’s uncontrollable urges get the better of her. But one day Maren wakes up to find her father gone. He has left her a note outlining important events in her life—describing those moments when he was forced to come to terms with her true nature—and explains that he can no longer protect her, that she will have to find her own way. To hear Holland’s voice on this tape, resigned to abandoning the man he loves more than anyone else, is to enter directly into the melancholy heart of this part of the film.

Maren’s father also left behind a wad of money and her birth certificate, the latter of which gives her clues to the whereabouts of the mother she never knew. Was her mother like her? She must know. And so she embarks on an odyssey to Middle America, during which she learns that there are others like her. The first companion he meets is Sully, played by the almost-too-creepy Mark Rylance, a rickety man who refers to himself in the third person and speaks in Jimmy Stewart’s eerily-soothing drawl. Sully teaches Maren a thing or two, like how to find food without actually killing people—or at least not directly. The two share a sloshing, bloody raw dinner – for easier cleanup, Sully strips down to her underwear. (Bones and all is an almost 100 percent humorless movie, and I believe I was the only person who laughed when Sully wiped his bloodied hands, senile-style, on his sagging white underpants.) But most importantly, Sully teaches Maren how to recognizes others as them. And so she meets the scrawny loner who will become her soulmate, the reckless, dreamy-eyed Lee (Timothy Chalamet), another man-eating lone wolf who has been torn from his family and is making his way in the world as best he can by feeding on the worst people he can find as a way to assuage his own guilt and self-loathing.

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Chalamet is pretty much everyone’s favorite these days, and in Bones and all, he did not disappoint. His unpleasantness is elven, and he surveys the world with heavy-lidded, appreciative eyes. His clothes, often stolen from his victims, include saggy cool PJ shirts and jeans ripped practically from the thigh to the ankle – they’re almost like invisible pants, revealing his malnourished bones underneath.

Lee and Maren are a perfect match. They learn from each other and share their gory secrets with one another, often accompanied by austere, carefully chosen guitar notes that dot the film’s soundscape like an invisible dandelion seed. (The music, delicious to a fault, is by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.) But even though this romance should be the heart of the film, something goes out of the picture when Chalamet shows up, as languidly charming as he is. Because even though he’s the bigger star, Russell is the one who owns the film. Maren wears her hair in baby bangs, a reminder of the childhood innocence she never had the luxury of enjoying. Her face is completely open to the world that wants nothing to do with her. When I said I found Bones and all surprisingly easy to shake off, I wasn’t entirely honest with myself: the devastation on Maren’s face in the film’s early scenes – an expression of loneliness and self-loathing overshadowed by an even stronger will to live – is what I’ll remember when I look back Bones and all. Doomed romance is one thing – we see them all the time. But doomed self-love is the greater tragedy, and in this film, that’s the music and language on Russell’s face.

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