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Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All and the Inescapable Desire to Belong

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When one hears a film being billed as a cannibalistic love story, it's fair to picture something akin to Claire Denis’ “Trouble Every Day,” a movie marred with gore and entrails despite the almost tender relationship at the film's center. In Luca Guadagnino’s “Bones and All,” however, the gore takes a backseat to the story, with the camera focusing instead on the body and mind of the film's protagonist Maren (Taylor Russell). 

In one of the film's first scenes, Maren attends a slumber party with acquaintances from school. She and another girl lay beneath a table. As they paint each other's nails, shoulder to shoulder, as Maren talks about her absent mother. A gaze is then shared between the two, and just when it appears that they might kiss, Maren guides the other girl's finger into her mouth and bites down. Chaos erupts. Maren runs out of the house, the vast openness of night swallowing her up in its darkness. 

Maren's hunger is not just for human flesh but also to belong. When she travels to a different state and meets Lee (Timothee Chalamet), another eater, and feeds with him, she is finally not alone. Maren appears the most comfortable in their meeting and subsequent relationship, no longer punishing herself for her desires, instead leaning into them with an almost unbecoming unabashedness. The camera holds on the two often as they feed instead of their victims, further attempting to humanize them with the camera and, therefore, through the human eye. Guadagnino reminds us of what these two characters represent: they aren’t killing for the sake of killing but rather doing so because they don’t know what else to do. It’s because of Lee, who not only doesn’t appear guilty for his hunger but appears comfortable with his sexuality as well, that Maren learns to embrace these aspects in herself. 

Maren’s intrinsic need for connection stems from her loneliness as a queer Black woman, and she doesn’t find a remedy to this loneliness until she finds someone else who has faced similar ostracization. Though Lee is white, he is all things that don’t mesh well with the American Midwest in the 1980s: he likes rock music, he’s unapologetic in his willingness to not belong, and he also appears to be queer. It isn’t until these two find each other that Maren becomes comfortable within herself, Lee leading the way into some cannibalistic ritual fuelled absolution. His willingness to feed upon human flesh mirrors his willingness to be different, unafraid of the boundaries that society wishes to place upon him. 

While their positions differ solely based on their race, that doesn’t diminish Lee’s position as someone who can guide Maren into a world of hope and belonging. Before meeting Lee, Maren has just been abandoned by her father (André Holland) and moves through the film's frames like a ghost, wandering aimlessly. At the beginning of her journey, she meets Sully, an older feeder who attempts to show her the ways of their people, but she finds no connection with him, as his view of the world is fractured from a lifetime of loneliness. Lee, however, immediately connects with her. The two instantly recognize something within each other, almost as if a radar has gone off in their minds once they meet. The land and the world they inhabit doesn’t feel big enough for them despite its vastness, but perhaps their hearts hold enough space for each other. 

Maren’s ostracization from society correlates to not just her having cannibalistic tendencies but her burgeoning queer desires as well. Her father attempted to hide her from society all her life and ultimately abandoned her on her 18th birthday, proving Maren’s desires too complicated for him to fathom or deal with. This abandonment forces her to gain an agency she’s never had, seeking out her mother to understand her affliction to human flesh. She becomes tethered between her father, whose voice message she repays on a tape recorder throughout the film, and her mother (Chloë Sevigny), a ghostly figure trapped in Maren’s memory. This suspension between these two abandonments further propels her into a state of otherness, forcing her to grapple with the ostracization that her parents have also had a hand in. 

Later, Maren is forced to grapple with the inherent violence of being an eater and the potential violence that could be done to her by society if they were to discover her true nature. After spending most of the film trying to find her mother, Maren finally locates her at a mental institution. There, we are forced to gaze upon a woman sitting in a chair in the corner of a dirty room, gaze filled with fear and hatred. Maren’s excitement is broken when her mother lunges at her with a fury so fierce it's startling, using all her strength to attempt to kill her own daughter. 

The violence Maren witnesses here in her first meeting with her mother changes the trajectory of her life. Now that she's found her mother, what else is left? With her mother unable to give her the solace she initially sought, Maren becomes further unbound and aimless. She is frightened by her mother’s outburst, but perhaps the similarity between this attack and how Maren views herself as an eater frightens her the most. Finding oneself within their parents' faults, especially the one with who you have the least physical similarities, further ostracizes Maren from her connection to the world beyond the eaters. It's only with her relationship with Lee that she feels whole, and the two soon embark on a different journey, one that sees them attempting to build a life together. 

Like many films that focus on Black characters but aren’t directed by Black filmmakers, “Bones and All” becomes lost in the representation of Black people within cinema. Maren’s position in the film's narrative is inherently ingrained in her Blackness and, along with that, her queerness as well. While Guadagnino doesn’t necessarily seem interested in a specific queer reading of the film, that doesn’t mean that these readings should be disregarded or are less important. For some, “Bones and All” is more than a story about two young cannibals; it's about being forced to find your place in the world, shattering the glass of the dome of what you once believed the world to be. 

Maren’s longing to belong mirrors her hunger, insatiable even in times of hope. At the film's end, as Lee lays dying after saving Maren from Sully, he tells her he wants her to eat him, “bones and all.” The act is said to be the ultimate achievement for an eater, something unimaginable in its bliss. In asking this of Maren, Lee is also allowing her to satiate her physical and spiritual hunger. By eating her lover, she consumes everything he taught her about belonging and love. Finally, in this act of ultimate consumption, Maren can come to terms with her cannibalistic nature and her position as an outcast in society. 

She realizes here that although she may strive for a normal life, it will not be granted to her. In eating Lee “bones and all,” she gives herself over to a life of loneliness while simultaneously giving herself over to the unexplainable pleasure of consumption. With this last act of violence, the film lays bare the question of belonging and asks us what we must do to fully belong in a society that will not accept us. Will we subject ourselves to a life of suffering, or will we finally embrace the aspects of ourselves that the world deems as wrong? “Bones and All” allows Maren to toe the line between these questions, but it's ultimately this closing act of embracing her nature as an eater that exhumes her from giving the audience, and herself, a definitive answer. 

Kaiya Shunyata

Kaiya Shunyata is a freelance pop culture writer and academic based in Canada. They have written for RogerEbert.com, Xtra, Okayplayer, The Daily Beast, AltPress and more. 

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