Strip the flesh from the bones of the latest film by Luca Guadagnino and the skeletal story framework is a familiar one: it’s an outlaw lovers road movie, sharing DNA with dustbowl odysseys such as Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde. The backdrop for Bones and All is the 1980s, but it echoes the poor-eat-poor urgency of those other pictures, the poetic desperation of beautiful, rootless drifters taking what they need to survive. What sets this film apart, however, is the fact Maren (a magnetic Taylor Russell) and Lee (Timothée Chalamet) are “eaters”. Their survival depends on regular cannibalistic binges.
Guadagnino doesn’t shy away from the visceral shock of their unspeakable impulses: both Maren and Lee spend much of the time smeared in the congealing blood of their victims. And the act of feeding – tearing with teeth, face deep in the flesh of another human – is feral, animalistic and shameful. There’s a palpable threat, too, in the fellow “eaters” they encounter: Mark Rylance’s lip-smackingly grotesque performance as creepy loner Sully is particularly notable. But there’s also humour here – Maren’s realisation of her true nature comes at a disastrous slumber party – and crucially, there’s a real emotional weight.
In a way, the film is a distillation of themes from Guadagnino’s previous work. The intertwining of food and erotic appetites links back to I Am Love; the achingly romantic yearnings of first love (and in Chalamet and Michael Stuhlbarg, two cast members) are shared with Call Me By Your Name; the lurid genre impulses show the bloody fingerprints of Suspiria. But in the elegant balance of these seemingly incongruous elements, Guadagnino has outdone himself.