Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All (2022)
Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet lead Luca Guadagnino’s film adaptation of the YA cannibal-love story based on Camille DeAngelis’s novel.
Bones and All
Screenplay by David Kajganich
Based on the novel by Camille DeAngelis
Luca Guadagnino’s films are characterized by tenderness, violence, and attention to detail. Conjuring worlds as diverse as the idyllic Italian summer of Call Me by Your Name (2017) and the excessive Walpurgisnacht of his Suspiria (2018), his direction is distinctive for its insularity, pulling the viewer into these settings with unusual force. Those who, upon hearing that his new project Bones and All (2022) was about cannibalism, assumed it was conceived in light of the actor Armie Hammer’s peculiar and sadistic sexual allegations (which ruined plans for production of a Call Me by Your Name sequel) will be surprised by this film’s intensity and specificity of vision—naturally, it had been in development for years before the scandal. Adapted from Camille DeAngelis’s 2015 young adult novel by the same name, in Bones and All, a hunger for flesh manages to transcend its own implications of cruelty. Through Guadagnino’s attentive work, cannibalism becomes a metaphor for closeted queerness: a way of dramatizing both the consummate longing and consonant shame of wanting something you shouldn’t.
The film stars Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet as Maren and Lee, misfits who crisscross 1980s America in a variety of sun-faded cars. As with previous Guadagnino projects, the fantasy here is anchored by a painstaking sense of place. An Italian director still based primarily out of Milan, Guadagnino’s vision of Americana nonetheless astonishes, as sumptuously precise as Spielberg’s was four decades earlier. This kind of easy-going rusticity has been imitated ad nauseum, with diminishing returns ever since E.T. (1982). Guadagnino refills our hollow image of the heartland, driven largely by the earnestness and chemistry of his two excellent leads.
Maren and Lee are misfits in a very specific sense: they both have a deep hunger for human flesh, which despite their ethical restraint sometimes gets the better of them. Both also seem to particularly prefer their own gender. We’re introduced to this concept following Maren’s awakening as a “feeder,” which happens when she shares an intimate moment with another girl at a house party. Instead of a first kiss, Maren bites off the girl’s finger. This initial act of violence is not malicious but confused; when she discovers how much she hurt the girl, her first reaction is to run out of the house in shame. Soon after, she meets Lee, who is about Maren’s age but has already come to terms with his predilection. Crossing state lines in the stolen cars of the people he targets, Lee is a bad boy at peace with his problem, and Guadagnino introduces Maren’s interest in him through a particularly memorable scene during which Chalamet, with a dyed red mop of hair, dances around an abandoned living room to the sound of KISS’s “Lick It Up.” Desire and consumption again intertwine.
This film’s unexpected triumph lies in its ability to spin a relatively conventional love story between Chalamet and Russell, while simultaneously asserting that each of their characters is driven by the homosexual desire they sublimate through the cannibal metaphor. These conflicting motivations shouldn’t really work onscreen yet do, largely thanks to the fact that Maren and Lee’s relationship, while passionate, retains the chaste intimacy of a typical YA novel, while their appetitive detours include the shock and gore of a body horror flick. Bones and All manages to balance somewhere between these two genres, allowing the familiar fulfillment of a heterosexual romance to act as cover for the film’s truly audacious statement about the relationship between queer desire and social exclusion. In one memorable scene, Chalamet literally cruises his next victim, pulling him into a cornfield with the promise of kisses, only to open his jaw a little wider and dig in.
Bones and All’s recreation of the 1980s includes due reference to the Reagan administration. (In one of the promotional images preceding the film’s release, Chalamet and Russell hang out in the bed of a pickup truck featuring a REAGAN/BUSH ’84 bumper sticker.) The fortieth President, who infamously refused to acknowledge the AIDS epidemic until well into his second term, presided over a period of American history when queerness was violently stigmatized and fearfully repressed. This makes the period-specificity of Bones and All doubly potent for its sinister implications, as the other cannibals Maren and Lee meet during their travels embody something like a tour through queer archetypes and stereotypes from an era before it was safe to be out—from the lonely oddball to the institutionalized wreck.
What’s fascinating about the metaphor in Guadagnino’s film is that cannibalism is something practically everyone can agree is a disgusting and unnatural way to behave. In that sense, it bears little resemblance to the public consensus about homosexual relations today, but has quite a lot in common with the outlook on homosexuality back then. Guadagnino’s gambit lies in allowing an act of immorality we consider steadfast (it will never be okay to eat another human being) to stand in for one that has radically changed its moral meaning over the past century. In doing so, we are more sharply reminded of how different things once were, condemning even our protagonists’ core urges as inhuman and gross. What’s more, some of the cannibals in Guadagnino’s film feel the same way we do, and go to great lengths to try and excise the part of themselves they wish they could live without—a kind of conversion therapy that, as in real life, never really works.
One particularly disturbing example of this taxonomy is Sully (Mark Rylance), a Lynchian loner who finds Maren before Lee and first explains some of the rules of her life as a marginal citizen. Preferring to eat only those who are already dying, Sully at first appears as an aging and gentle eccentric, an exemplary version of how to get by despite staying true to one’s nature. But as the film progresses he continues to reappear, in increasingly creepy iterations, fixating on Maren as a spurned confidant. When the climactic crisis finally arrives, it’s significant that our protagonists’ undoing is not at the hands of the “upstanding citizenry” they’ve been trying to outrun, but is undertaken instead by one of their own, driven to madness by decades of deprivation. In fact, Guadagnino’s film firmly implies that madness is the consequence of anyone who ignores their true nature for too long, and this insanity has the potential to pull others down with it. Never straying far from the flesh-eating metaphor, Bones and All offers a startling recrimination of sun-dappled mid-century American nostalgia, as a place with a dark side rooted in denial.