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3 May 2024

Love Lies Bleeding is a fun, surreal lesbian romance

This Eighties-set film, in which Kristen Stewart and Katy O’Brian play star-crossed bodybuilders, is at its most original when it leans into wackiness.

By Simran Hans

Love Lies Bleeding opens with a twinkling night sky. The image is a nod towards what (or who) is to come: a cosmic romance between two lesbians, set in a lunar landscape. It also works as a joke. The protagonist works at a boxing gym; her bodybuilder girlfriend throws a mean punch. It’s funny then, before the film has even started, that the audience is seeing stars.

The year is 1989 and in the middle of a desert in New Mexico, Kristen Stewart’s Lou is working at the “Crater Gym”, a sweaty sports centre decorated with preening patrons and motivational posters. A woman unafraid of doing life’s dirty work, we meet her with her arm halfway down a clogged toilet.

Lou is stopped in her tracks by Jackie (Katy O’Brian), a statuesque Oklahoma beauty with dimples, who has recently blown into town en route to a bodybuilding contest in Las Vegas. Her exterior remains cool, but Stewart’s intense, roving eyes telegraph lust. When she spies a male gym rat chatting up her new crush, she chooses to close early. After hours, Lou sweetly offers her steroid injections – a convenient excuse to get Jackie to lower her shorts – and adrenaline floods both of their bodies. The two soon fall into bed. Short order omelettes (egg whites only!) and domestic bliss follows, as do several grasping, unapologetically hungry sex scenes.

It’s a welcome respite from Lou’s life outside, which involves dodging the meth-stained smile of her former hook-up (Anna Baryshnikov), avoiding her arms-dealing father (Ed Harris), and suffering through family dinner with her sister Beth (Jena Malone). When she notices a fresh bruise on Beth’s cheek, her steely gaze goes straight to Dave Franco’s JJ – Beth’s abusive, cheating husband. Forget biting her tongue; the furious Lou chews a piece of metal as she drives her pick-up truck home.

What begins as a cheerfully horny romance takes a sideways lurch when Jackie commits an act of revenge in Lou’s name. Hopped up on testosterone, Jackie becomes the hulk in a black bikini, grotesquely smashing in her victim’s face. Director Rose Glass refuses to spare her viewer the visceral details, from the squelch of soft tissue to the snap of a broken jaw. It is Lou who must don the marigolds and drive the getaway car, disposing of the body in a vaginal-looking canyon.

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O’Brian, a real-life former bodybuilder and police officer, is quite the force, and her chemistry with Stewart’s reluctant heroine is electric. Lou is Jackie’s fuel, and she just about swallows her whole; in a fever dream, she imagines throwing her up whole, too. But Jackie’s actual characterisation is thin and vaguely drawn. It’s less of a problem as the plot gets sillier, but noticeable in contrast to Stewart’s more grounded performance. Harris also plays a cartoon, a comic-book villain with scraggly hair and a creepy obsession with bugs.

Co-written with Weronika Tofilska, the film is the second feature from the British director, whose 2019 horror Saint Maud had a similarly mordant sense of humour. Glass has described that film’s protagonist, a lonely and unpredictable palliative care nurse, as Travis Bickle, “if Travis Bickle was a young Catholic living in an English seaside town”. Here, she riffs on the lovers-on-the-lam genre, whose outlaws have tended to buck convention as well as authority.

In the background, radio adverts warn of nicotine poisoning while the Berlin Wall falls on TV. The late Eighties setting feels self-consciously mood-boarded, with the perms and hulking physiques on show effortfully conjuring the scantily clad Schwarzenegger of the time. These period details add texture, but not purpose. Perhaps there’s a link to be drawn between the toxic side effects of Jackie’s expanding body, and the era’s capitalistic embrace of growth at all costs, but the film stops short of an actual critique.

More successful is Glass’s visual depiction of Jackie’s increasing power, as well as her alarm. Muscles pop and veins swell with blood, and later, the character appears larger than life. A giant bikini-clad Jackie holds down her male prey as Lou encourages him to fellate a gun. The film is at its most fun and original when it leans into surrealism.

Glass’s wackiest choice is also her most tender. Love, it turns out, transcends evil, and so Lou doesn’t pull the trigger. She and Jackie transcend too, growing into oversized goddesses that literally fill the screen. The scene reminded me of the artist John Alvin, whose poster designs for films like Blade Runner and Willow also have a swirling, fantastical quality. They stride purposefully across sparkling pastel clouds, smiles plastered across their faces, conquering the cosmos and racing towards a new life.

[See also: When women fight back]

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