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Timothée Chalamet Shines In Luca Guadagnino’s Ravishing Cannibal Coming-Of-Ager [Venice]

Dec 21, 2022

To love is to want to consume someone whole, to pick their skin and sinews out of the gaps between your teeth, to swallow their pancreas and wash it all down with gulps of throat-fizzing stomach acid. Take the age-old question that dominates the Grindr lexicon: do you want to be someone, be with them, or be inside them? “Bones and All,” Luca Guadagnino’s typically sumptuous, deeply romantic American parable — about a pair of teen cannibals, coming of age against the backdrop of ‘80s Reaganism — literalizes this allure, as any great anthropophagist love story should. It’s a road story where the roads are endless, where guts are filled with diner coffee and, well, diners; where relentless consumers are consumed relentlessly, all in service of an outcast affair every bit as affecting as in “Call Me by Your Name.”
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Closely adapted from Camille DeAngelis’ YA novel with a handful of welcome tweaks, “Bones and All” centers on the story of man-eater Maren, here portrayed by Taylor Russell. She’s an eighteen-year-old with a deeply buried secret: since she was a toddler, when she impulsively devoured the face and hands of her babysitter, she’s been an “eater.” As a result, she and her dad (portrayed by André Holland, the “Moonlight” actor a welcome presence, as he was in “Passing”) are essentially nomadic: every time Maren capitulates to her devilish desires, they’re forced to bug out and begin life anew in a faraway state with new names and livelihoods. The latest is Virginia, where they’ve seemingly rooted for a while; alas, the finger of one of the high school it girls proves too tempting a snack to eschew, and once again, they’re on the run.
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But this time, when Maren wakes up in a new motel, dad is gone: he leaves behind a hundred dollars in cash, her birth certificate, and a confessional tape detailing the crimes of her adolescence, to be destroyed, presumably, once she’s absorbed the sins of his culpability. This is, really, where “Bones and All” begins: a long, winding road movie trekking the rich diversity of the eastern American landscape, variously exploring the veiny pastoral, the Adam’s apple hills, and the moonlit streets of chirping suburbia. We find ourselves, listed not exhaustively, in Maryland, Ohio, Indiana, and Minnesota: this, Guadagnino’s first movie set in America, is as interested in the geographical body as it is the body politic and, well, bodies. Where else, after all, to set a story charged by the biological tick at the core of capitalism, the self-serving desire to consume? It’s no coincidence that Maren first meets her eventual beau, Timothée Chalamet’s Lee, in a Walmart.
The first time Maren encounters another of her ilk comes before that, though: waiting overnight for a Greyhound, appears outta nowhere Mark Rylance’s rogue quirkster Sullivan, or ‘Sully,’ as he gratingly calls himself in the third-person. As with DeAngelis’ novel, he’s an innocuous, simple chap: think Forrest Gump, if he one day arose with the urge to chow down on the throats of his fellow man. He gives her a warm bed to sleep in and, as it transpires, a warm body on which to chew: the place he’s shacked up in belongs — belonged — to an elderly woman, left on her bedroom floor near death. Shared too with the source material is a tickling gallows humor: Sully burps up an old lady like a drunken king at a banquet, shrugging off the bits of biddy that slip from his chin onto the upholstery. It’s not like it’s his to ruin.
With little else to do, Maren’s sole object becomes to find her long-lost mother, following her birth certificate like a roadmap. Along the way, yes, she encounters Chalamet’s Lee: an interesting casting of a character I imagined, at least, to be a little more broad, but one which proves transformative. Timothée agnostics, check in to Chalamet Anonymous immediately: this is the 26-year-old’s best performance since “Call Me by Your Name,” at once imbuing in Lee the hardiness of a burned pariah and the vulnerability of a twenty-something consumed by guilt. It helps that there are few actors you’d want more to be devoured by, but it’s to Chalamet’s great credit that Lee — who slits throats and scoffs on rednecks like it’s going out of fashion — isn’t just eminently credible but downright likable, the sort of guy you’d share a bucket of beers with under the stars. Just don’t, y’know, turn your back.
The prospect of Guadagnino taking on “Bones and All” was always curious: partly, yes, because it’s fiction primarily written for teenagers, and because we’d see him reunite with his Chala-muse, but more specifically owing to the novel’s queer undertones. At risk of projecting my own gay, male subjectivities onto a woman protagonist, it pulsates with the queer idea of being a sexual outsider — Maren consumes her male victims in their bedrooms, often on the precipice of frisson, and is resultingly cast a shameful reject. Guadagnino seems to read it similarly, at least as far as his adaptation would suggest: not only do we reorientate to America in the late-’80s, amid the AIDS crisis and Reagan’s heightened environment of hostility, the novel’s queerness is literalized by way of clever gender-swapping in one of Lee’s victims — a cruel woman carnival worker in the novel, here a delicious twink. Lee slits his throat at climax under the cover of moonlight in the middle of a cornfield, as evocative of “Stranger by the Lake,” or indeed “Cruising,” as anything before or after “Knife + Heart.”
That scene is shot patiently, framing the bodies of Lee and his victim as intertwined, their silhouettes breaking the starscape behind them. It’s one of many magical moments that elevates the grotesque into something beautiful, to the great credit of cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan (who shot the gorgeous Georgian extremism drama “Beginning” in 2020, no doubt his Guada-calling card, and will lend a wealth of spectacle to Sam Levinson’s HBO series “The Idol” later this year). Guadagnino’s confidence in holding on an image has long been one of his most attractive signatures (need we remind you of a certain fireplace denouement), with “Bones and All” providing some of his most handsome camera work since the 2017 coming-of-ager: he has that all too rare sixth sense of where to stick the tripod, and when the camera zips and pans, it moves with purpose. Then there’s the tremendous set work, the sort typical of Guadagnino that makes you wonder: “Hang on, this isn’t really a rundown motel in backwoods, Missouri?”
So infrequently does style coalesce with content like this, but “Bones and All” is one of those rare examples of everyone singing off the same hymn sheet. As the resident king of Gen Z, Chalamet will no doubt be the conversation driver, but god, what an impeccable ensemble we have: Michael Stuhlbarg doing his dirtiest, his nastiest, Anna Cobb performing the kind of childish naivety that can only bode, where people are being eaten alive, tragic inevitability. But then, for all of the blood, guts, and gore, for all of the stomach-cramming gluttony, here’s a story brimming with extraordinary romanticism. What emerges, by the end, is one hell of an ode to giving yourself to the ones you love: your bones and all.  [A]
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