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Bones and All review – tendon is the night in Luca Guadagnino’s cannibal romance

Timothée Chalamet and Taylor Russell play a hungry couple in a sweet, sinister road movie about the all-consuming nature of love

What does it feel like to be in love? Is it a hunger in the pit of your stomach, a growl that won’t quieten no matter how hard you try to keep its wails at bay? Is it the desire to run far, far, far away, fleeing from the source of heat and fire, in an attempt to keep your bloody, beating heart in one piece? And what, even, is romance? Is it the sickly aroma of roses and chocolate encased in cellophane plastic, or is it just inherently knowing that someone would sink their pearly teeth into your flesh if you asked them to do it?

Picture this: a beautiful young couple at a fairground in middle America, kissing amid toothy grins on a ferris wheel as an 80s banger plays in the background. She breaks away from him, saying, sweetly, lightly: “I’m hungry, Lee.” Minutes later he honeytraps an employee, brings him to the point of climax, then slits his throat for his young girlfriend to feast upon, communally bonding over the sights and sounds of flesh ripped from bone.

Luca Guadagnino’s hotly anticipated reunion with Timothée Chalamet, Bones and All, is not really a film about cannibals, despite recurrent scenes of hot young things planting their canines into the epidermis of several unlucky citizens residing in America’s Midwest. No: this is a film about outsiders, how people with trauma bond together like polymers, and how annihilation of the self and body can lead us on the path to something resembling home. Find your person and give them your heart.

Maren (Taylor Russell) has long struggled to keep her craving for human flesh at bay, forcing her beleaguered father (André Holland) to move them from town to town after recurring incidents, until he eventually abandons her to navigate her own way in life. Her odyssey through an overwhelming expanse of Midwestern landscape leads her to discover other “eaters,” including the pitiful Sully (Mark Rylance), sinister Jake (Michael Stuhlbarg), and Lee (Timothée Chalamet), a bruised angel of a rebel with red-streaked hair, ripped jeans and an outsider’s spirit. Falling into one another (with a first date at, naturally, a slaughterhouse), Maren and Lee go on the run in search for food, purpose, and Maren’s mother (Chloë Sevigny), who has the same condition as her daughter and may be able to give her offspring a path out of the moral darkness.

Guadagnino’s first American film dives into the grand tradition of the road trip movie, drawing out the inherent rootlessness in the wide-open horizons of the Midwest through Maren and Lee’s roving journey. The editing is jolting and jarring, snapping us in and out of dreams and nightmares; on the butcher’s block of life, we can only dart from side to side to avoid the glint of the cleaver. The director constructs this tale with equal parts realism and abstraction, sublimating his trademark preoccupation with subdued outcasts through the story’s sinews.

The film is adapted from Camille DeAngelis’ YA novel of the same name, and the film’s main flaws lie in its occasionally unsophisticated plot developments and tropes that feel genetically, well, YA-ish – boogeymen villains rearing their heads in improbable situations, a main character with a sort of insular, “no one understands me” personality-lite vibe who falls for the intriguing bad boy, etc. But it’s not too much gristle to chew through, and if anything, it’s quite admirable that this adaptation manages to feel both youthfully naïve and mature in that searching, esoteric way at the same time. Russell is a naturalistic actor who gets a little lost when up against Chalamet’s wet-eyelashed intensity, but their chemistry is real and rallying despite a conflicting acting approach.

Up-and-coming cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan, known mainly for photographing Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginnings, does remarkable work here – crafting a cold world that can’t accommodate the characters flitting at the societal margins, while retaining a sense of grainy warmth that still feels yearningly romantic. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score, too, is a highlight – a deceptively simple arrangement that grows in scope and fervour as the runtime progresses. The tangible, textural sound of fingers moving up and down frets lends a sweetly metallic twang to Maren and Lee’s love, not a far cry from Gustavo Santaolalla’s guitar-heavy score in the similarly landscape-focused Brokeback Mountain.

Despite several stomach-churning scenes (and they really are quite disgusting, perhaps even pipping recent gory offerings Fresh and Titane to the post), Bones and All may well be one of the most romantic films of the year, or at least the sweetest cannibal movie you’ll ever see: an audacious endeavour that finds its rhythms in grand, gory gestures while still feeling like the specific type of dreamy, patient, mid-budget indie movie that doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Look beyond the skin-deep surface of this quietly devastating and daring paean to the world’s wayfaring outcasts.

Bones and All was screened as part of the Venice Film Festival 2022. It is released in UK cinemas on 25 November.

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