Bones and All: The cinematic art of being grotesque

Romance meets cannibalism and body horror in this haunting coming-of-age classic


Eli Badillo, Staff Writer


Cannibalism. The act of eating one’s flesh, or completely consuming a person.

One could argue that it is the most intimate display of love that exists — the only true way for someone to become a part of yourself. Both grotesque and intriguing, the topic has been contentious and popular in the modern filmmaking sphere. Just earlier this year, Ryan Murphy’s, Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, swept audiences off their feet by featuring heavy themes of cannibalism and gore.

Acclaimed film director Luca Guadagnino decided to take his creative bite out of the concept by flipping the entire premise on its head. Last month, he gifted viewers with sweet tender romance accompanied by cannibalistic themes in the new coming-of-age film Bones and All, starring Timothée Chalamet and Taylor Russell.

Maren (Taylor Russel) and Lee (Timothée Chalamet) bonding over their shared ‘interests’.

In this disturbing motion picture, the audience follows young cannibal Maren, newly abandoned by her father after she acted on her impulses. She decides to backpack across the American Midwest in search of her absent mother. Along the way, she meets a few arcane figures. She is introduced to Sully, played by Mark Rylance, who is a fellow ‘eater’. She also comes across Timotheé Chalamet’s character, Lee, a fellow teen drifter who has figured out how to live comfortably and freely as an eater. The two become smitten, bonding over their shared ‘condition’. They continue on Maren’s journey to find her lost parent, as she adjusts to her new identity and lifestyle and picks up a couple of ‘snacks’ on the way.

The most glaringly obvious impression of the film is its setting, which is the bible belt in the 1980s, a time and place so familiar, yet so far gone in today’s media. The film does an astonishing job of acclimating the audience to its time, so much so that when one walks out of the theater, it’s as if they have just stepped out of a time capsule. Even if viewers are of a younger generation and have no memories of the late ’80s, the film still strikes an untapped area of pleasant nostalgia in the audience’s psyche.

Lee (Timothée Chalamet) and Maren (Taylor Russell) eat breakfast and discuss a victim.

With the subtle additions of iconic retro items such as the Chia Pet™, the prominence of the band Kiss, and Lee’s various graphic tees, the environment transforms the film into a pop culture tribute. The stellar camerawork also illustrates this with intentionally grainy wide shots and Tarantino-esque zoom-ins. Unfortunately, the aesthetic is where the pleasant nostalgia ends. As anybody who lived through that time could testify, the ’80s were filled with tragedy and bigotry. Rampant racism, moral panic, the cold war, and the AIDS epidemic plagued the entire decade, and this aspect is not forgotten about or glossed over in Bones and All.

Many critics and reviewers have speculated on the meaning behind the Guadcagnino film. The popular theory is that the film is an elaborate allegory for the AIDs epidemic and the injustice and intolerance that the LGBT community experienced during the crisis. Others believe that the film is an artistic representation of addiction and the struggles that accompany it. Cannibalism is simply a placeholder for the obsessive desires that addicts attempt to repress. Guadagnino has yet to confirm any of these messages, although the ambiguity of the true meaning allows the film to be relatable and applicable to any situation. Overall, the film is truly about the feeling of ‘otherness’ and finding a sense of belonging in a world that doesn’t accept people, even if the thing that differentiates them happens to be cannibalism.

The choice of using cannibalism as a tool to demonstrate social division seems to be a shocking and confusing decision at first, but the usage of cannibalism is masterfully done. One might see the trailer and deduce that the film is just some gory flick created for the sole purpose of satisfying some hidden, degenerate niche. Any viewer of the film would argue the opposite. The film doesn’t do anything to embellish or romanticize its violence or gore. It doesn’t hide it or make it easy to watch, but it is never central to the film’s understanding, plot, or characters, which makes the brutal scenes that much more impactful. The carnage only serves as a  stand-in for whatever human ill the audience wants to assign to it, which allows the audience to relate to the characters even further.

Bones & All is a very romantic story, about the impossibility of love and yet, the need for it. Even in extreme circumstances.

— Director Luca Guadagnino

But why is there cannibalism if not to shock and disgust the audience? Well, the film uses it as a garnish rather than the main focus, and this is shown to strengthen the movie’s main themes. Just like how adding salt to a sweet treat makes the treat taste sweeter, the carnage serves to make the displays of love more intimate and real. The dichotomy throughout the entirety of the film lets the audience recognize and empathize with the humanity of the characters, despite the murder and violence. It allows the connection between Maren and Lee to seem so much more genuine, due to their shared cicrumstance isolating them from society. Every single small element or detail is made so much more consequential precisely because the cannibalistic themes are present; the highs are higher and the lows are lower.

This isn’t to say that the mere presence of such a topic is the key to masterful filmmaking. It is common in many horror flicks to include themes of cannibalism just to get a rise out of an audience, but these films tend to rise just above mediocrity while still showing the same amount of bloodshed. What makes Bones and All such a deft piece of media is the artful and precise way that Guadanigno uses carnage and depravity to weave through the wholesome narrative like a needle and thread through fabric to masterfully tie the storyline together. Overall, the theme of cannibalism is simply a cherry on top of a tender teen romance.

Though this might not be meant for the faint-hearted, Bones and All is delicate and sweet. Maren and Lee have exquisite chemistry, and, through each other, they grow into their ill-fitting shells and learn to live on the fringe of society. This movie is a eulogy to the genre of Americana, as well as a masterclass in sound design and videography. A comfortably uncomfortable film, Bones and All is charming, lived-in, and thematically rich, with a sheer coat of blood covering its exterior.