‘Take, eat, this is my body,” said Jesus at the last supper, a line I remembered while reading Piers Paul Read’s book about the survivors of the 1972 Andes plane crash, and remembered again watching Luca Guadagnino’s new film, adapted by screenwriter David Kajganich from the YA bestseller by Camille DeAngelis – although here there isn’t quite the same transformative miracle. Bones and All is a macabre horror, an emo adventure in revulsion, a tale of young and forbidden love, and a parable for that terrible secret thought, scary but also euphoric, that enters into everyone’s head in their teen years: I am different.
We are at the tail-end of the Reaganite 80s, an era lacking the surveillance and DNA technology which, in the present day, might have taken a bite out of this movie’s plausibility. Taylor Russell plays Maren, a shy, smart kid who has just started at a new school, living on the edge of poverty with her careworn dad (André Holland). One of her new friends invites her to a sleepover, where the mood of humid, girlish intimacy excites Maren in ways her new friends could not have anticipated: she bites someone’s finger off and eats it.
Maren is in fact a cannibal, and her terrible addictive compulsion has kept her and her dad on the run for years. And when her dad abandons her on her 18th birthday, Maren heads off on a mission to find her mom, to find out who she is and why she does this. Along the way, she finds there are other secret cannibals, “eaters” or “feeders” (who use a phrase redolent of Tod Browning’s classic Freaks: “one of us”). Their ethos is never to eat one of their own and it is from them that Maren learns of the ultimate cannibal experience, to eat someone completely: bones and all.
Maren is to fall in love with a wiry, fragile, beautiful runaway called Lee, played by Timothée Chalamet in his delicate, cheekbones-and-all style. Unlike Bella and Edward in Twilight, there is no question of refraining from sex, but Maren is nonetheless horrified by what Lee is prepared to do to get his fix and horrified at what she finds out about her mother. She and Lee manage to make a life together in the straight world, yet there is a dark shadow in their carnivore romance: a creepy old “eater” called Sully, played by Mark Rylance, who inducts Maren into the way of the cannibal and has further gourmand designs.
Lee and Maren’s cannibalism has something bizarrely innocent about it – and Guadagnino’s achievement is to provoke us with this wild absurdity and yet sell it to us, to persuade us to believe they are outlaw victims of fate, like Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Terrence Malick’s Badlands.
The flesh-eating compulsion portrayed in Bones and All is very different from the cannibalism of Hannibal Lecter, which is far more cynical and worldly. Nor is it simply a YA metaphor for rebellion and marginalisation and dissenting identity politics, mischievously designed for a young audience who have probably embraced veganism. It is also about poverty and homelessness, the ruthlessness of survival and the secret shame of that special sort of hunger that stays with you even when you do survive. Bones And All is an extravagant and outrageous movie: scary, nasty and startling in its warped romantic idealism.
• Bones and All screened at the Venice film festival, and is released on 23 November in the US and 25 November in the UK.