Venice 2022 review: Bones and All (Luca Guadagnino)

Bones and All is a peculiar delicacy that is not for the squeamish, but those willing to look past gore will find enough story and thematic content to chew on.”

A girl sneaks out of her home to join a slumber party. She is new in town and needs to make new friends. What she does next is not the way to go about it though: she tries to bite one of the girls’ fingers off. See, Maren Yearly (a breakout role for Taylor Russell) is a cannibal, and she has to satisfy her urge to eat human flesh from time to time. This necessitates that she and her dad (André Holland) move around from state to state. Her mother is no longer in the picture, and once they reach their next state, Dad, at wits’ end, also ditches her. He leaves behind a tape with her life’s story, which elicits memories that come to Maren in flashes, as well as her birth certificate. This has her mother’s name and her birthplace on it, so Maren sets out to find her past and figure out why she is different.

On her first night on this trip she is met by Sully (Mark Rylance), who literally sniffs her out as ‘one of us’. Maren learns that she is not the only one with man-eating tendencies. Sully takes her to a house, where they feast on the house’s owner, an elderly lady. Despite his friendly demeanour, Sully creeps Maren out, and she skips town the next morning. Not long after, she meets another ‘eater’, the young and slender Lee (Timothée Chalamet). After a little dancing around the issue romance ensues, and Lee decides to join Maren on her cross-country travels. Along the way they meet more people with their proclivity for human meat, and to Maren’s dismay they have to kill too. Can their relationship withstand the discovery of Maren’s history and the secret about his past that Lee harbours? “The world of love wants no monsters in it,” one of the characters muses, so the question is if the two lovers can overcome their affliction and build a ‘normal’ life together.

Based on a novel by Camille DeAngelis, Italian director Luca Guadagnino creates a surprisingly affecting cannibal movie with Bones and All, at its heart a coming-of-age film about figuring out your identity and learning to deal with being ‘different’. The queer undertones are highly apparent, but Guadagnino’s approach is far from heavy-handed; in fact, the tone of the film is tender and delicate, the scope of the film is much broader than its genre origins suggest, as wide as some of the landscapes Maren and Lee traverse. Likewise, Bones and All manages to capture the loneliness of an existence as an ‘eater’ beautifully through the character of Sully, an old man who lost out on the regular life with wife and kids he so much longed for; he may be creepy, but he is far from a one-dimensional antagonist, and his unspoken confession to Maren is shattering. After Suspiria it should be no surprise that Guadagnino doesn’t shy away from the gore element of the story though; this is one bloody affair, and probably better not seen on an empty stomach. The gorging on arms and legs and abdomens is not merely suggested.

At the heart of the film are two wonderful performances by (relative) newcomer Russell and Chalamet, who have great on-screen chemistry (to be fair, Chalamet’s charisma would probably allow him to have chemistry with a lamp post). Russell somewhat resembles a young Lisa Bonet in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, and beautifully balances her character between vulnerable and fierce, as Maren tries to come to terms with who or what she is. She manages to break through the wall that Chalamet’s Lee has built around himself, and you can leave it to the American actor to render his own character’s vulnerability underneath a tough exterior in subtle tones. That makes you root for this cannibal Bonnie and Clyde, which will make the film’s final scene all the more heartbreaking. Rounding off the cast are a number of memorable roles by Rylance, Holland, Chloë Sevigny, and an exceptionally creepy Michael Stuhlbarg, who invokes shades of Twin Peaks‘ Killer Bob in his short time in the film.

With Bones and All, Luca Guadagnino has added an oddball horror-slash-romance to his oeuvre, taking the ‘slash’ literally. He paints in the colour of love and blood, with broad strokes, managing to tiptoe around the pitfalls of the genre with a tenderness last dedicated to the wildly different (but equally romantic) Call Me By Your Name. A film with good commercial prospects that should have Guadagnino’s career on the upswing again after the misfire that was Suspiria, while also cementing Russell as a young actress to watch and confirming Chalamet as his generation’s heartthrob-that-can-act, Bones and All is a peculiar delicacy that is not for the squeamish, but those willing to look past gore will find enough story and thematic content to chew on.