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How ‘Bones and All’ Explores the Ultimate Taboo

Girl eats boy and they live happily ever after.

Credit: MGM

Luca Guadagnino’s film ‘Bones and All’ follows two teenagers who fall in love. They also eat people.

Their unique diet leads them on a cross-country road trip, encountering other ‘eaters’ like them along the way. When the film’s cannibals feast on human flesh, they do so in an animalistic frenzy; they get on their hands and knees and tear the meat apart with their teeth, covered in blood. Maren (Taylor Russel) takes her hostess’ finger in her mouth at the sleepover and we hear a horrifying crunch as she bites down.

The film ends with Lee, played by Timothée Chalamet, telling his lover: “I want you to eat me. Bones and all”. The ultimate act of love for a cannibal.

Why is cannibalism so appealing to filmmakers?

Cannibalism evokes discomfort in an audience since it is arguably one of society’s biggest taboos. The thought of ourselves being eaten, doing the eating, or witnessing it all bring about a similar visceral repulsion. Cannibalism is a violation of the human body in the most terrible way, and it is for that reason we see it so much in film. The exploration of morality, appetite, and lust possible through the act of cannibalism is all too tempting for filmmakers.

Guadagnino’s adamance at the accurate replication of the sinews and layers of skin creates a grim, hard-to-swallow realism. The struggle to eat, the shame that follows, and the nauseating amount of blood all make for an unnerving viewing experience.

Maren and Sully (Mark Rylance), an older ‘eater’. Credit: MGM

The feral behaviour they display when feasting suggests a reversion into a less ‘civilised’ mindset, which is interesting since cannibalism has been used in film and literature to suggest primitive behaviour. The word itself derives from the ‘Carib’ people who, according to Spanish conquistadors, would consume human flesh. This quickly became a literary trope entrenched in racist stereotypes that persisted until the release of ‘Cannibal Holocaust’, a film where a group of Americans become ingredients in a bubbling Amazonian cauldron.

However, cannibalism also suggests wealth and sophistication. In Mimi Cave’s ‘Fresh’, human meat is a high-class, high-demand delicacy. Hannibal Lecter indulges with a glass of Chianti, and in Jonathan Swift’s famous satirical essay ‘A Modest Proposal’, he suggests that the rich should feast on the poor for sustenance. Both a high-class and ‘primitive’ reading of the act of cannibalism indicate an alienation from wider society.

How does ‘Bones and All’ fit into the canon of cannibals?

In ‘Bones and All’, cannibals are everywhere. They are ordinary people stopping off at shops and who work in libraries, not wealthy elites. They feel remorse when they find out one of their victims has a wife and children. This humanisation of cannibals seems odd, because how can we humanise those who commit such atrocious acts?

Guadagnino’s film manages to be intimate and tender despite its grisly subject matter. The promise to lead a normal life together overpowers their human-eating habit, and it almost goes to plan. After being hunted by Sully (an older cannibal played by Mark Rylance), Lee is fatally wounded. His final request is oddly romantic; letting his lover consume him means that they are physically close on a new level. His wish is that the bliss of eating him will overtake the grief of losing him. This is a vision of romance that we as non-cannibals are not privy to, positioning us as voyeurs, peering into a world that is simultaneously out of reach and right under our noses.

‘Bones and All’ is certainly a unique film, blending the horror, romance and road-trip genres. An all-encompassing romance emerges from the bloodiness, and we are forced to confront cannibalism in all its unsavouriness.

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