Eye-popping premises are common in cinema, but a cannibal love story stands out. That central conceit makes an adaptation of Camille DeAngelis’s novel Bones and All surprising, even more so when you consider that it won’t be relegated to arthouse theaters. With a wide release in the US slated for Thanksgiving weekend (very funny), it’s guaranteed to be one the stranger movies you could sidle into at your local AMC, and it’s worth taking a bite out of.
The attempt at box office success feels like an anomalously earned swing for all involved, who bring plenty of critical acclaim but hardly any established money making power. Timothée Chalamet is the biggest name, and he’s merely a moderately known actor with a solid fan base. Bones and All, though, isn’t even his film, despite what the marketing may tell you. In front of the camera it belongs to Taylor Russell, who’s had a modicum of mainstream success with the Escape Room series but hangs her hat on a stunning turn in 2019’s Waves. Behind the camera it’s a reteaming of writer David Kajganich and director Luca Guadagnino, whose last film, 2018’s Suspiria, you also could’ve caught at an AMC (I did). It was a movie whose tone, themes, and content felt very out of place at a multiplex, and its box office return reflected the unease. Yet somehow the decision was made to give this top notch group another go at bringing a disturbing story to the masses.
Or, at least on its face, Bones and All is a disturbing movie. There’s some gore, yes. People do eat each other, but at every opportunity Kajganich and Guadagnino turn away from the gruesome and towards something sweet.
What’s shocking given the premise of the story and the precedent Kajganich and Guadagnino set with Suspiria is just how uninterested the film is in titillation. With Suspiria they took a ‘70s giallo classic and made it a tale of all-consuming lust. Titillation was its purpose, even if it went about it in an artful way. Here, they sweep as much sex and blood as they can under the rug, engaging instead with the myriad but messy assortment of metaphors for their central duo’s fleshy romance.
One of the metaphors is sex, of course, but it’s rarely made explicit. Pieced together lore on the nature of the afflicted’s cannibalistic drive indicates that it increases as they hit their teenage years, and our first glimpse of the urge being acted upon is interwoven with an intense desire for intimacy. The metaphor takes a backseat, though, to its primary focus: the aimlessness and self-loathing stemming from a childhood of withheld love, or worse, outright abuse.
Guadagnino’s an arthouse guy, so no matter how mainstream he’s attempting to be, he can’t help but give away these themes through flicking, impulsive edits that draw underlying currents to the fore. They aren’t as frequent or intrusive here as they are in his other films, which creates an odd sense of trading accessibility for paucity. Bones and All feels like one of those YA adaptations we saw frequently years ago, complete with skimmed over metaphors and outdated plot beats (one of which, essentially the climax of the movie, is a mundane and unnecessarily protracted swerve into the truly disturbing). It’s a strange sensation, watching this movie, because you can see the building blocks of all these great artists’ work – Russell and Chalamet find remarkable tenderness in their roles while Kajganich and Guadagnino slow down the duo’s road trip to a pensive crawl – while feeling the familiar structure grind away the rough (and much more interesting) edges.
Rough edges are typically where Guadagnino thrives, so their absence here is surprising. And even if you aren’t familiar with Guadagnino going in, it’d be reasonable to assume a cannibal love story would have some bitterness. The unspeakableness of their appetite fits right into the storied tradition of forbidden romances, ones where your allegiances are torn or complicated by distasteful desires. But Bones and All sidesteps these questions, managing to make Russell’s Maren and Chalamet’s Lee broken but loveable scamps. Violent, yes, but with a code and seemingly no better options. Their love is simple and easy. It’s their circumstances that are hard, and those don’t all stem from the cannibalism they inherited from their parents. Other things were passed down as well, and these weigh more heavily over the proceedings. One wishes the metaphorical connection to these were more solidly established or that they resulted in a more spikey central romance, but finding sweetness within all the mess is the ultimate point of the film, and in that, it succeeds.
Release: in theaters now in NY and LA, everywhere November 23rd
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writers: David Kajganich
Cast: Taylor Russell, Timothée Chalamet, Mark Rylance, André Holland, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Gordon Green, Chloë Sevigny