Love Lies Bleeding Review: Portrait and a Provocation

The film, which premiered at Sundance and showed at the 74th Berlinale, is now in Indian theatres.
Love Lies Bleeding Review: Portrait and a Provocation

Director: Rose Glass

Writer: Rose Glass, Weronika Tofilska 

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Anna Baryshnikov, Dave Franco, Ed Harris 

Duration: 104 mins 

Available in: Theatres

Love is clumsy. How clumsy? Suppose you vomit your lover, them landing in a pile of translucent slime in front of you. That is love. To gun your lover’s side girl, their projectile blood splatting on your lover’s face. That, too, is love. Removing the yolk from eggs being cooked, by hand, per their preference. That, obviously, is love. A theory of love that emerges from the banal, to the brutal, the bizarre, Rose Glass’s Love Lies Bleeding, following up on her acclaimed work of body-horror, Saint Maud (2019), works as both a portrait and a provocation.

Lou (Kristen Stewart) runs a gym in a middle-of-America rusting city with a star-spangled sky. Why America? Because as Glass, whose last film bled in a British seaside town, notes in interviews, this is a country where there are signs outside film festival theaters demanding no firearms. Lou plunges the protein powdered shit that clogs the toilets, among other things. She is cool. Enter, Jackie (Katy O’Brian), who spends her first night in the city sleeping above a highway, doing pull-ups. She is training for a bodybuilding competition in Las Vegas. She has sex with Lou’s abusive brother-in-law, and through that, cracks a job at Lou’s father’s shooting range. She crosses paths with Lou at her gym — this is, you realize, an incestuously small town — and it is instant attraction, but more movingly, instant affection. The plot thickens when love begins to be seen as something that needs to keep being proven, keep producing evidence of its stain. On the heart. On other bodies. This turns to madness, foul mouthed tensions, body resizing, and ultimately, a union that isn’t bittersweet as much as sour and spicy. 

Kristen Stewart in Love Lies Bleeding
Kristen Stewart in Love Lies Bleeding

A Town of Oddballs

Lou’s relationship to her bug-eating father (Ed Harris), an arms dealer, is at best distant, and that with her brother-in-law (Dave Franco) is crimson curdling, and this opens up a chasm. The FBI lurks eerily, as does a sugar-hopped blonde with rotten teeth, all heart eyes and baby talk for Lou. The film keeps stacking its oddballs as Jackie jacks up, each flex of her muscle sounding like metal being bent, like something cracking, the veins looking less like veins and more like a string of crackers waiting to explode. It is terrifying, just as much as it is pleasurable, much like the love Lou shares for Jackie. As David Cronenberg, a titan of the body-horror genre, asked of one of his characters, “It’s the best sex she’s ever had and also the most terrifying — does she want more of it or not?” 

I do not think it is a contested claim that A24 is writing into existence, conscientiously, one sedimented film after film, its own aesthetic posture — grungy, sexy, witty, verbose, progressive, with a metallic wash. The Art Review called it “film distributor-turned-lifestyle brand”, noting how they emerged at a time when the word “indie”, instead of referring to the structures within which a film is made, came to represent an aesthetic. Sometimes it is so hard to cut through this posture because it is so thick with text, so pungent in its inflection. A film can feel buried. Love Lies Bleeding has all the hallmarks, but it is easy to see it, perhaps fitting, as a string of stings, with no bite. That is, at least, how I saw it, at first, the strangeness of the film becoming its essence, the confected tension becoming its natural language. There is no truth. It is all a demented posture.  

A still from Love Lies Bleeding
A still from Love Lies Bleeding

Still, Kristen Stewart’s performance, for one, turns tender the film’s phantasms, bringing its stratospheric exaggerations back to firm ground. The pauses in her conversations have to be studied. When Jackie asks her if she can stay with her after their first night, her initial silence is both registering the request, but also refusing to be immediate in its reaction. These pauses become a space where she, like us, is absorbing the sheer outrance of the various violences being thrust on her path. It is so playful, so tragic, her getting caught up in these knots. Lou just wants love, and if it comes with the mess, she is willing to wade through it, and if need be, become it. And somewhere in these pauses, these swerves of thought, these spaces from which she jumps into the chasm, Love Lies Bleeding blooms its meaty heart. 

This review was originally part of our Berlinale 2024 dispatch. Film Companion's coverage of Berlinale was made possible by the support of Goethe Mumbai. 

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