At one point in Bones And All, two famished cannibals devour the corpse of an elderly woman. The camera, however, doesn't linger on the carnage, instead cutting to a framed photo of the woman in her wedding dress. She was a person once, the film points out. She had a life too. What a tragic ending.
Director Luca Guadagnino repeatedly taps into this rich vein of empathy for the characters in the film, a blood-soaked romance that juxtaposes the yearning for touch with the craving for flesh. It’s a cannibal love story that tugs at the heart, even as its characters go for the jugular. Guadagnino fills his road trip story with empty houses and deserted streets, abandoned people and the weight of secrets, letting a tender romance between two outcasts emerge from the sprawling loneliness of the country they’re travelling through. In Bones And All, desire and danger are just two sides of the same coin.
Adapted from Camille DeAngelis's young adult novel of the same name, the film begins with the teenaged Maren (Taylor Russell) defying her father and sneaking out for her first sleepover. Guadagnino creates an atmosphere of intimacy between her and the other girls – sharing the same piano bench, reflected in the tight confines of a mirror, lying down shoulder-to-shoulder from under a glass table. This buildup of closeness only makes the impending violence that much more unsettling. Maren noses up against her friend, eyes soft and desirous in a way that teeters into sexual frisson. Then she bites down on her finger, hard, as mangled flesh and blood spatter become the focus of the scene.
Maren is an ‘eater’, compelled to eat human flesh, and this latest instance of her bloodlust is what causes her father to finally abandon her. He leaves behind her mother’s birth certificate and a tape explaining what little he knows of her condition. Guadagnino contrasts the intimacy of the prologue with a slew of images that capture Maren’s isolation – her, seated at a table alone, the stark white walls of her crumbling apartment, clutching her dad’s jacket long after he’s gone.
Travelling across the American Midwest in search of her mother, Maren meets Lee (Timothee Chalamet), another eater, and the two embark on a road trip together. Echoing the sleepover scene, in which tenderness and terror blend together, their first kiss takes place at a slaughterhouse, a moment of affection staged at a site of death. Later in the film, Lee takes advantage of a young man’s sexual interest in him to lure him to an isolated spot before devouring him, reinforcing the idea of forbidden desires.
Maren and Lee drive through the sprawling country trying to figure out where to go next, even as they're repeatedly reminded that the only route for their kind results in a dead end. Their choices are bleak – suicide, a lifetime of eating other people, or solitary confinement. Unlike the films in Guadagnino’s Desire Trilogy, the country isn’t presented as sun-soaked and alluring. Instead, it’s dark and deserted, its yellows faded. Friendly encounters eventually turn menacing and Maren and Lee reflect on a lifetime of missed nurturing from the people who could have given them what they now seek.
In a land of death and decay, the two carve out a life of their own. It’s a potent tale of fulfilled yearning, rendered more tragic by the looming sense that it can’t last. Maren and Lee’s relationship comes to resemble the one in Aamis (2019), another film about transgressive acts committed in service of strange appetites. The end, however, makes the strongest case for the film’s intertwined themes of desire and death yet, depicting how their love is just as much in the offering as it is in the consuming – of how belonging to someone means giving yourself over wholly to them, bones and all.