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“Bones and All” in cinemas: The longing to just be human

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The Midwest is a mythical landscape in American history. From here the frontier, the settlement of the country, pushed further and further towards the Pacific coast. The states of Ohio, Missouri and Nebraska belong to the so-called heartland, and this is also where the heart of America beats. This is always important in the US election campaign, for example, when the votes of “ordinary people” are being courted.

The best way to get to know the real America is in the car

The “wide country” between the metropolises now has a less flattering name: das fly over country, which is best crossed by plane. But that, too, is a lesson from the Trump years: the best way to get to know the real America is by car, stopping at towns in whose name European settlers and the largely wiped-out First Nation left their mark. This is another reason why road movies and westerns became two central genres in the revolutionary years of Hollywood in the 1970s.

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This heartland has a double connotation in Bones and All, the new film by Italian director Luca Guadagnino. Europeans who shoot in America like to paint a glorified picture of this country. Films like “Paris Texas” (Wim Wenders) or “American Honey” (Andrea Arnold) are always about their own projections. Guadagnino ticks off the stations of this rite of passage – in the form of the road movie as well as the coming-of-age romance – rather casually, the official abbreviations of the states are displayed. “Bones and All” is only marginally about America, but there is a deeper reason why he moved Camille DeAngelis’ young adult book to the late 1980s, the last crisis years of the Reagan era.

It is a time of discord, which Guadagnino, who is well versed in film history, quotes here. One cannot help but think of Terrence Malick’s pessimistic gangster ballad “Badlands,” which put the Midwest on the New Hollywood map.

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But in the deserted countryside and small towns that 18-year-old Maren (Taylor Russell) and slightly older runaway Lee (Timothée Chalamet) patrol with stolen cars, the promises of the Reagan years are gone. The Belarusian cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan captures the monotonous landscape with just enough specificity to give his images a dystopian mood – as a backdrop against which the friendship of two disoriented youths stands out like a small miracle.

On her journey, Maren (Taylor Russell) meets the mysterious Sully (Mark Rylance).
© Photo: Yannis Drakoulidis / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

But the heartland has another, literally bloody, meaning in Bones and All. And how effortlessly these two aspects find each other without repelling each other speaks for the director of the gay coming-of-age story Call Me by Your Name and the occult body-horror film Suspiria. Maren and Lee belong to a species of cannibals that roam this America in search of food. They find their victims on the fringes of society: people like them, whose existence and disappearance nobody notices; who remain anonymous even in (natural) death.

Bones crackle on the audio track

Lee has been eking out a living this way for years, occasionally checking in with his mother and younger sister. Maren, on the other hand, has just been left behind by her father (André Holland) because he can no longer cover up the bloody traces of his daughter. The girl inherited her disposition from her mother (Chloë Sevigny), who is the destination of her road trip. On the way, Lee introduces the inexperienced Maren to life as a cannibal, he “rips” their first victim together for her in a field: the fountain of blood stands out lyrically in the half-darkness. The bubbling gurgle of the carotid artery causes a starved shudder between lust and greed in Maren.

Nevertheless, in Guadagnino’s love story there is never a speculative joy in crossing borders. Panning to an arrangement of family photos showing the victim (while bones crackle on the audio track), the moral dimension of her act is brought to life even at the moment of death. Objects such as photographs or the Walkman, on which Maren is listening to a long farewell message from her father, are a constant reminder that her instinct to survive is costing others their lives.

The Big Country: Lee (Timothée Chalamet) and Maren (Taylor Russell) roam the Midwest.
The Big Country: Lee (Timothée Chalamet) and Maren (Taylor Russell) roam the Midwest.
© Photo: Yannis Drakoulidis / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Cannibalism is a stark metaphor for the sense of alienation—whether social, political, or economic. But the violence in “Bones and All,” even where its portrayal is realistic and graphic, never comes across as an end in itself. (There are, however, people in “Bones and All” whose ending triggers glee.)

The fact that anthropophagy also describes a social disposition becomes clear in the scenes in which Lee and Maren meet like-minded people. Loner Sully (Mark Rylance), a dandy-like character in a plumed hat, speaks of himself in the third person and develops an unhealthy fixation on Maren. And while camping, they meet a cannibal couple (Michael Stuhlbarg and the director David Gordon Green) who move among people without a moral code. The social Darwinism of the Reagan years, proto-“American Psycho”, speaks from their jovial campfire confessions.

Guadagnino cannot be credited enough for the fact that “Bones and All” is first and foremost a coming-of-age film with tender care for its characters. His films do not serve as a reference, but rather the miniseries “We Are Who We Are” about a group of army kids’ search for meaning on a US base in Italy. With his intuitive understanding of their as yet unformulated longings, Guadagnino gives his youthful characters room to develop without it sounding like an adult trying to understand a world that is foreign to him.

(From Thursday in 12 Berlin cinemas)

In Bones and All, Taylor Russell heartbreakingly expresses these doubts and fears through her slightly defensive body language and vulnerable facial expressions. At the Venice Festival she was awarded the Young Talent Prize, while Guadagnino received the director’s lion. Can you think of two nicer awards to recognize that there is hardly a better director for young actors than Guadagnino? Chalamet, his “Call Me by Your Name” star, stars alongside Russell – not dissimilar to his character – already ripped off like a mentor, the cool skater with ripped jeans and a penchant for hard rock that the more sensitive Maren can chafe at for so long until she finds her own identity.

Coming of age in “Bones and All” is not to be equated with a sexual awakening, in Reagan’s America one has to understand growing up even more fundamentally. “Let’s just be ‘human’ for a while,” Maren says to Lee at the end. And they overlook the vastness of the prairie, on which 150 years ago the buffalo grazed.

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Source: Tagesspiegel

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