Gayness, cannibalism, ‘Bones and All’

Images courtesy United Artists Releasing.

8/10 I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that the team behind Suspiria is following it up with something described as “the cannibalism movie.”

1988- In Bones and All, an epic romantic cannibal road movie, Maren Yearly (Taylor Russell) is thrown out by her father because her compulsions to eat other people have become too frequent for him to cope with. Yearly drifts on what unfolds into an epic, life-long journey across the U.S., meeting others like her, delving into her own past and learning how to exist in the world.

There’s immediately a homoeroticism attached to the cannibalism, as Yearly’s first onscreen episode starts with her sucking another girl’s fingers. Director/producer Luca Guadagnino is gay and known for his gayness, rising to prominence in America recently with extremely queer films Call Me by Your Name and Suspiria, and Bones and All mirrors the queer experience very tightly – on the surface level, at least. Yearly is thrown out of her home for something she cannot change about herself. Her first encounter explicitly ties cannibalism to sex, and that’s reinforced later when her boyfriend, Lee (Timothée Chalamet, who also produces), is shown killing a same-sex partner for food during a sex act. Sully (Mark Rylance) carries a rope of his victims’ hair, recalling the AIDS Memorial Quilt. There’s a lot of emphasis on the eaters’ sense of outcasting and isolation, a lot of discussion about “first times” and “nothing wrong with me,” and they can immediately sense each other by smell – it’s not subtle, and it’s not meant to be subtle.

Also, you can just look at them. This is not the outfit of a straight person.

“Surface level” is an important qualifier here, because this metaphor gets into some really hateful territory if you follow it through. Eaters are necessarily serial killers, and there’s a lot of really rough history around the depiction of queer people as serial killers in movies, and there’s really nothing Bones and All can do to avoid tropes about gays being monsters. It’s easy to see what Guadagnino is digging into this mud to get at here.

Just about everything in the past 20 years of mass media, from superhero movies to the “Harry Potter” series to, most prominently, The Matrix, are all either deliberate metaphors for growing up queer or can have that metaphor easily mapped onto them, but what sets Bones and All apart is its focus on metaphorical – sometimes – queer sex acts, not just metaphors for the experience of being queer in a straight world.

The film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a productive example for contrast. In the film, Potter spends the majority of the runtime learning about all the locations and history of his new environment and meeting all the new people he gets to wave his wand at, and this is what the film really savors, both as a film rooted in his exploratory perspective and as a high-profile book adaptation. Almost all the runtime is spent exploring queer aesthetics, very little is spent on Potter learning how to do queer things in class. The goal is to present a wizarding world to a muggle audience, not delve into the day-to-day of spending time in that world.

What makes Bones and All so different is it’s all about the day-to-day of being an eater. Yearly is gruffly informed that there are others like her, and most other eaters are met with suspicion and fear throughout the film. All the focus is on the details of the closed-door activities that define them as a community. Sully and Lee talk to her about their sustainability considerations and what ethics they try to hold themselves to. When they meet another couple of eaters on the road, the discussion is about their experiences eating. Tons of eating – and, of course, the gay sex the film attaches to it – is put onscreen.

It’s a beautiful road movie. Elliott Hostetter is the credited production designer, though I can’t really give him credit for the beauty and danger of rural America in twilight.

There’s special attention paid to bringing the audience into the sensory experience and making it all as second-person as possible. There’s a ton of focus on the slopping and crunching noises of eating – which is a pretty lazy gag, we’re seeing far too much of that used as shorthand in horror. Editor Marco Costa establishes a zooming jump-cut technique to illustrate the sensation of smelling another eater.

The setting is also very different. Bones and All isn’t set in any kind of superheroic or wizarding world, it’s set in the ‘80s, in the endless backwater stretching across the continent, the trees, the little fields and unseen roads and neighborhoods, behind the bushes where you’d go to have sex with a stranger. The environment grounds the film, but it also helps shift around its priorities – since the fantastic elements are limited to what the characters are doing, not every inch of the frame, its relationship to the real world seems more solid.

Where most contemporary queer metaphors in film are made for and about contemporary viewers, Bones and All is set during the height of the AIDS crisis, when the queers who had thought it was safe to come out during disco and the sexual revolution were pushed back into the closet – the ones that survived, that is. That attitude is the biggest, most painful way Bones and All stands apart, and the detail that’s most absent in the mainstream queer narrative. Where other characters joyously come out into a world that suddenly makes sense, Yearly is dumped at the side of the road into one of paranoia and ever-present death.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at 

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