Directed by Luca Guadagnino — Screenplay by David Kajganich.
Call Me By Your Name was my introduction to the work of Italian auteur Luca Guadagnino. In my review of Call Ne By Your Name, I went to great lengths in emphasizing the power of cinema, the universality and transformative nature of Guadagnino’s film, and a couple of the incredibly well-realized performances in said film. Since then, I’ve seen a few additional films of his, but none of them have reached the heights of his 2017 coming-of-age masterpiece. When I first heard about the fact that Guadagnino had made a new coming-of-age film also starring Timothée Chalamet, I became very curious. When I found out that it was supposed to be a cannibal romance film, my eyes widened in surprise. Bones and All, his cannibal romance, is probably my second favorite film of his. That said, it definitely isn’t as easy of a film to, ahem, ‘eat up’ as his 2017 film was.
Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All is based on Camille DeAngelis’ novel of the same name, and it follows Maren (played by Taylor Russell), a young woman, who is abandoned by her father (played by André Holland) in the 1980s. He leaves her with some money, her birth certificate, and a tape recording detailing his reasons for leaving her behind. You see, ever since she was a child, Maren has had these cannibalistic impulses that she can only keep down for a limited amount of time before her urges overwhelm her. Alone in the world, she decides to cross state lines to find her long-lost mother in Minnesota. On the road, she encounters other people like her, including Sully (played by Mark Rylance), an old man desperate to show her the ropes, and Lee (played by Timothée Chalamet) who she becomes somewhat smitten with.
Recently, I found myself watching an interview with Luca Guadagnino, which was released around the time when his Suspiria remake (or reimagining) was released. In said interview, Guadagnino insisted that he had always wanted to make horror films due to them being inextricably connected to “a cinema of the senses.” I thought about those sentiments quite a bit when I saw Guadagnino’s Bones and All in an empty theater in Denmark. I’m not quite sure if I’d classify his latest film as horror, but it absolutely is what I’d imagine the filmmaker would do if he were asked to add a couple of pinches of gore and the macabre to a coming-of-age road movie romance (And it is gory. Even though it sometimes shies away from the unbearably stomach-churning, the film does show characters feasting on bodies and ripping skin to pieces. This will be reason enough to cover your eyes for some and reason enough to walk out of the movie for others).
What is so great about this film is how seamless an act of genre-blending this is. Within a single scene, or even shot, the film can nimbly shift from longing and romance to the more startling and disturbing traits that one might describe a regular old cannibal movie with. Guadagnino’s film achieves this through sharp editing (on more than one occasion the fast cutting made me sit up in my seat, as the film will cut to and from important shots quickly), detailed locations that feel tangible and dirty, rich cinematography, and great acting, but one of the main ways this shift is communicated is through the outrageously good score composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. By plucking away on a guitar and combining such sounds with synths and an overwhelming, eerie, and disturbing humming, Reznor and Ross have created an evocative soundscape that not only complements and enriches the film but also unlocks the film’s fluid relationship with genre. It really is so much more than just a score, it’s the breath of a film that has a hearty romance at the center of it.
I’ve already seen some people compare this film to Twilight, which, as a coming-of-age romance film about its characters being hungry for blood, is a somewhat apt comparison, but this film is wilder and much better on every level. Characters appear visibly feral, and there are sparks between its main characters. Where Twilight looks and feels cold, there is a warmth (sometimes even sickly so) to the visuals that feels real and raw. I think of this as a film that says a lot about rejection, being left behind, and not feeling seen. There are developments in the film that suggest cannibalism is partly an allegory for possible drug use and generational trauma (and how parents can inflict trauma on their kids by having them develop abandonment issues). I think what Russell and Chalamet partly tap into with regard to their characters’ connection is that wonderful feeling of being seen by someone and also being accepted for who you are. For these characters, there is a comfort in shared experiences that have previously led to them being rejected, and thus the feeling of longing for someone pervades the film.
The film is led by Taylor Russell, who has previously been seen in the critical favorite drama Waves but also the horror franchise Escape Room, and she delivers a performance that is defined by her character’s guilt, innocence, and struggle to resign herself with her morally deplorable urges. She is excellent, and she does a lot of excellent nuanced acting. Timothée Chalamet is no stranger to Guadagnino’s brand of cinema. His performance as ‘Lee’ is perfectly tuned to support Russell, but he is still undeniably transfixing in this film. I wrote in my notes that the camera really loves him, and it is a joy to watch him in a genre-bender that asks him to give himself over to Guadagnino’s vision no matter how macabre it may be. Chalamet gives a great dedicated performance here that isn’t miles away from what he has done before, but which adds new layers to what we have seen from him before. There is a vulnerability to his stringy but tough exterior that really works here. He’s often compared to DiCaprio (and rightly so), but there were moments here where he reminded me of a young Brad Pitt.
I also want to highlight two performers who are more seasoned veterans in Michael Stuhlbarg and Mark Rylance. As a dirty vagrant cannibal (or ‘eater’), Stuhlbarg couldn’t be farther from his character in Call Me By Your Name, but his short appearance leaves a strong impression. You get the feeling that you can almost smell him, and the feral, dark, and crazed look in his eyes sits with you throughout the film. Mark Rylance also takes a bite out of the film with his fully formed performance as the lonely cannibal named ‘Sully.’ He, like most of the characters, feels almost real. There is a lived-in quality to him and Stuhlbarg that’s kind of disturbing. Rylance is fully transformed into Sully. It’s in the way he walks stiffly, the way he stutters. Everything he does speaks to a desperation for companionship and deep trauma that has come to define his attachment to others. He, like Chalamet and Russell, is sensational, and I think the way the film focuses on his drool (and Russell’s snot) is a good way of communicating the overwhelming senses that these characters experience.
All of the Luca Guadagnino films that I have seen thus far share the same general audience stumbling block. The thing is that his deliberately paced films can feel quite slow. Does this film need to be as long as it is? I’m not sure. You could say that the inevitability (and predictability) of the ending feels more inevitable (and predictable) because you are made to sit with the film for so long. You might also say that the road trip angle of the film doesn’t fully work as the specificity of each state doesn’t quite come through (though I suspect that could be different for an American).
Transfixing and sometimes startling, Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All is a genre-bending coming-of-age road romance film with pinches of horror and gore that, to me, is all about rejection, abandonment, loneliness, and the need to feel seen. I think of it not so much as a horror romance film, but rather I see it as a gory cannibal romance film with a beating heart. I’m not sure it’ll connect with mass audiences, but it’s a strong cult film in the making with plenty to chew on.
9 out of 10
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.