top of page

Bones and All: The Balance Between Soul and Spectacle

by Julia Peavey

Before his death in 2019, prolific American fiction author John L'Heureux expressed discontentment at the increasingly extravagant tendencies of the literary world, noting that “Obscenities are too often used for shock value, as a kind of shorthand for real expression of emotion. You've got to scale down your monstrosities. A scream is not a discovery.” His words, though undeniably relevant, have largely fallen upon deaf ears.

Subtlety, intricacy, and implicit complexity are sacrificed more than ever in an era of ultimate accessibility, shorter attention spans, and information overload. Only the truly staggering seems to hold the interest of the masses, thus spectacle - bigger explosions, more scandalous exploits, visual effects which warp the screen - is a persisting characteristic of modern box office successes. Film has always been a medium which portrays the most dramatic edges of ourselves, but now it must go further than ever before just to stand out. Storytelling, therefore, is tactically driven towards the darker, less socially acceptable aspects of human life which revel in their near-fantastical ability to oppose mundane tradition and social norms with a heavy hand.

Yet what happens when an exception defies L'Heureux's presumption, when the presence of spectacle doesn't reduce the nuance of emotional expression or wash art away? If, paradoxically, a story isn't a product of the obscenity which defines it? Such an approach could be passed off as impossibly idealistic at first glance, despite the merge of opposites - horror and romance - being one of the oldest tropes in human storytelling. As ancient themes are progressively heightened by more daring and more shocking features, those features can easily overshadow tender, meditative moments of character study even when guided by skillful creative oversight. Thus, the wholly unanticipated and utterly remarkable nature of Luca Guadagnino’s Bone and All represents one of the boldest actions of modern cinema: an attempt to represent “The Ultimate Taboo” of cannibalism as part of a love story.

Bones and All, adapted from Camille DeAngelis’ 2015 novel, follows the story of Maren, a young woman pushed to the fringes of rural, Midwestern society by abandonment. Embarking on a journey of uncertainty and self-discovery, she crosses paths with Lee, a fellow outsider who seems to hold all of the answers she’s searching for as he tries to piece his own identity together. The pair find an intimate sense of belonging in each other that soon blossoms into tender romance, and even as they face challenges which question their morality and bring them to the edges of their own natures, their story maintains distinctly relatable, distinctly human realities. All of this would describe a typical, if not particularly touching coming-of-age indie film if not for one key detail: Maren and Lee, as well as many of the hauntingly unforgettable characters they meet along the way, are “eaters” - humans with a genetically inherited need to consume other humans.

In embracing the distinct absurdity, violent horror, and dehumanization of cannibalism as an opportunity to explore the condition of “outsiderness” and the burdens faced by a young generation, Luca Guadagnino’s directorial approach is atypical. During an August interview with entertainment-centered news outlet Deadline, Guadagnino noted that he “wasn’t interested at all in the shock value, which I hate. I was interested in these people. I understood their moral struggle very deeply.” He firmly believed in his ability to portray Maren and Lee as characters defined by complex, universal struggles and not their carnal urges, further saying that, “You can make a movie about cannibals if you’re there in the struggle with them, and you’re not codifying cannibalism as a topic or a tool for horror.” This indicates the way in which Bones and All focuses in regard to cannibalism - rather than overwhelmingly centering on its gruesome elements, it’s primarily seen as something which the film’s young protagonists feel isolated, unworthy, ostracized, and ashamed for. They can’t “get better” or change the part of themselves that they’ve been abandoned for, thus they carry guilt and uncertainty only heightened by their limited possibilities. Cannibalism is a seemingly unbreachable, perceptual boundary of discomfort put in place by society, yet the isolated and lonely, self-doubting, and self-loathing experience of the cannibal protagonists greatly reflects prevalent struggles with drug addiction or sexuality.

There is soul in these relatable impressions, emphasized by the competing dynamics between characters, within characters, and with the world. The road movie structure of Bones and All is significant in establishing this, with the explorative yet suspenseful nature of constant movement through detours and red herrings, one-off encounters and unexpected diversions, purity and stretches of peace. Thus, moments of brutal spectacle cannot substitute expression when both realities simply flow into one another. Especially apparent is the way in which setting both dilutes and amplifies cinematic mood, as the endearing beauty of wide-open Midwestern landscapes is punctuated by a deep sense of bleakness. The landscape echoes with a sort of deteriorated freedom, the perfect backdrop to a story of tragic yearning and the search for hope. There is space there, both evident in the endless horizon of the Great Plains and significant in the idea that, though characters pushed out by society into the lonely unknown, they are not pursued. There's no constant, overshadowing fear of being caught or punished by civil systems, which puts a distinctly different emotional weight on the individual choices of characters to kill - their only consequence is moral, which defies an element of retributive spectacle commonly found in outlaws-on-the-run road plots. This decision allows for the film to focus on world-building, which it commits without shyness when establishing the often eclectic traits of the “eaters,” yet leaves room for the development of a surprisingly soft and compelling relationship.

Yet the concept of cannibalism itself - particularly the grisly, pragmatic, and animalistic portrayal that the film undertakes - is not a boundary which can simply be leapt over. For all the escapism offered by rose-tinted shots beneath of lush, evening skies and poetic chemistry between lovers, there’s no looking past moments of gross, gut-wrenching horror complete with shockingly realistic sound design. In light of this, perhaps both the most successful and unsettling element of the film is how seamlessly it transitions between moments of brutal, horrific violence and delicate, heart-filled connection. Guadagnino has previously shown his creative aptitude while breathing life into both warm, aching romance (2017's Call Me By Your Name) and severe, grotesque horror (2018's Suspira remake), but it's balance and uncanny fusion which illuminates his stylistic brilliance even more brightly. Rather than dancing between two opposites in a jarringly hesitant fashion, the integration of intimacy and atrocity feels disturbingly natural, as if one refuses to exist without accepting the other. Guadagnino’s hand within every detail of the movie, particularly the most humanizing of them, is apparent in demonstrating how, as he’s previously stated, he wants “people to love these characters…to not judge them, to feel for them, root for them.” Despite this desire, Guadagnino holds distinction through his exploration of morals without the imposition of them; he manages to effortlessly avoid the strong correlation between shock value and imposition in itself. Additionally, he doesn’t aim to exclude his audience or become esoteric, even telling Indiewire that he chose to leave his most gruesome scenes out of the film’s final cut by saying, “I shot so much more, but in the editing process, my editor and I were always clear that we should never be selfish about our capacity to portray horror. A lot of pain was happening to the characters, a kind of sacred reverence [which we honored].” Yet this careful control doesn’t ensure a world of palatable comfort, and so, for someone with such a broad knowledge of his audience, Guadagnino holds a rare trust of them. He won’t compromise his world for those who can’t see past their own misgivings to the art lying underneath, so both takes a great risk in how his work is received and engages the ability to explore every corner of the human experience within an absurd or unconventional setting.

As an audience, we can't expect not to experience horror and disgust when presented by the spectacles of violence and cannibalism - it would, in fact, be dangerous not to. But it doesn't mean that it's impossible to find the humanity, vulnerability, and moral complexities of stories with a multitude of layers, particularly those crafted by a director like Luca Guadagnino. It's not the duty of a viewer to be in agreement with those on screen or captivated by everything which they see, but it is vital to be open to the choices made in all forms of storytelling. While the "obscenities" L'Heureux refers to may be the most initially defining points of a story or identity, they're not always overpowering - though it's too rarely found, there can still be space for emotional expression and artistic soul to recognize and rejoice in. People will undeniably walk away from Bones and All calling it “the cannibal movie,” a name by which headlines have already carved out its place in popular culture, but what may very well stick with those who surrender to its creative directions most isn't as expected. The deep, pervasive sense of love and the idea that, despite a seemingly hopeless loneliness, there are people like us and there are those who are accepting, and that is what lingers most. Luca Guadagnino himself says as much: “It’s a love story, but it’s also a violent story and it’s a violent road movie; it eventually might end up being perceived as a horror movie by the audience. I think the audience has the right to say the last word. But if it’s up to me, it’s a love story”.

With all things considered, John L’Heureux stands correct - to be shocking can indeed be an excuse to draw attention, to be affecting without thought or brilliance. But to take such a disheartening trend as a reason not to search for glimpses of wonder or humanity simply perpetuates loss of value and truth; pessimism is the loom from which apathy is woven. As polarized as they often are, soul and spectacle truly can rest beside one another. Simply having the capacity to create and experience both is a sign for hope.


bottom of page