They’ve been done to death, vampires and zombies, haven’t they? But what can replace them? Cannibals? Teenagers? Maybe a tasty combination of these horrors?
Camille DeAngelis reports that excitement started about her 2015 novel for young adults, Bones and All, as soon as she pitched it as “cannibals in love”. It’s the first-person story of Maren, a 16-year-old who’s a good sort except that she can’t stop herself eating people, having started with her babysitter when she was three. After covering up for her for years, her despairing mum abandons her, and poor Maren, who, like all of us, is not to blame for the way she is, hits the road, looking for the father she has never known. Having thought she was the only one with this particular problem, she soon meets two others, a creepy old guy called Sully and a hot 19-year-old called Lee, her soulmate.
It’s never explained just how these cannibals manage to consume their victims raw, using only their teeth, in just a few minutes, even as toddlers (Lee started off with his babysitter too) but never mind. The real explanation of this peculiar, never quite substantiated story comes in DeAngelis’s acknowledgements, in which she reveals that she’s a vegan and believes the world would be a safer place if we took “a hard, honest look at our practice of flesh eating along with its environmental and spiritual consequences”. The novel is much more upset by meaty bad breath, whether caused by cannibal carnage or common burgers, than it is by murder. Listerine is gargled nonstop.
So, some mixed motives there. All credit to DeAngelis for managing to wrestle this theme into the template of YA fiction in which teenagers (Twilight’s Bella Swan, The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen et al) must bravely cope with the incredible unfairness of the world in which they find themselves. Now DeAngelis’s fiction has been adapted by the director Luca Guadagnino and his scriptwriter David Kajganich into a cannibal road movie, traversing the rougher parts of America in the Eighties, darkly filmed by the cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan. Idol of the day Timothée Chalamet stars as cute Lee and Taylor Russell (Waves) makes an engaging Maren. Much has been adjusted (they are 18 and 21, for decency’s sake; Maren is in search of her mother, not her dad) but the basic oddity of the cannibalism remains untouched.
For, although Guadagnino gives us generous servings of gruesome chomping and blood splatter, he’s simply not interested in it other than as a metaphor. It’s certainly not meant to scare us. Rather, he wants us “to love these characters, to feel for them, to root for them, and not to judge them”, he told Stage and Cinema. After all, the way anybody is can’t ever be his, her or their fault, can it? So Guadagnino presents these kids as just another version of the disenfranchised, the people living on the margins of society that he has always found sympathetic, even going so far as to hint that it’s his own story more or less, since he sees the movie as a “meditation on who I am and how I can overcome what I feel, especially if it is something I cannot control in myself”.
At the film’s premiere in Venice, Chalamet, overtly speaking for his generation, took the same line, saying it’s hard for the young just to be alive now, so intensely judged are they. He sees Maren and Lee’s condition as “an open metaphor for otherness, for childhood trauma, for shame, for addiction”. And we can only side with outcasts like that.
The cannibalism, though, is actual as well as metaphorical, and that serves to create a juicy tension between repulsion and empathy. Guadagnino has successfully melded here the taste for horror revealed in his re-make of Suspiria (2018) and the tender indulgence of Call Me By Your Name (2017), the film that made Chalamet, then 21 and playing 17-year-old Elio, such an erotic star.
Lee is sweet and fey. He and Maren meet when he chivalrously defends a woman in a supermarket from a drunken boor (the boor gets eaten, all Lee’s victims deserving it one way or another). He’s ever so fetching in his jeans so ripped they’re barely there, dancing beautifully to “Lick It Up” by Kiss in the boor’s hovel. He loves his little sister. To tickle the fan-base, he has sex with a male fairground worker (female in the novel), before gulping him down too.
As Maren, Russell matches him: wide-eyed, morose but stubborn, her difficult journey very much that of every girl coming into her own. They’re great together, an exemplary couple (the fans devoutly wish the actors to be in a relationship in reality, too).
In the end, they even try to change, to live like everyone else (“let’s be people!”). What spoils that happy plan is the return of horrid old Sully, a superbly morbid performance by Mark Rylance, chewing away bloodily in baggy Y-fronts and referring to himself in the third person. Sully’s lonely, and can’t get over the fact that he and Maren once dried off together. He should leave the kids alone. Bones and All is down with them in a way he’ll never be. Even though eating people is wrong. Right?