Every so often you encounter a work of art that feels like it was made specifically for you—a type of magic that nevertheless arrives burdened by the threat of mirage. In the age of algorithmic tyranny, learning of a Taylor Russell, Timothée Chalamet-fronted, Luca Guadagnino-directed interracial cannibal romance initially just made me suspicious. Like some computer spit out a diagnostic report showing an increase in clicks on cannibalism and Bones And All was the attempt to capitalize on it. But then I watched the film.
I've written before that the cannibal is the most significant socio-political figure of the last several centuries, an observation I'd only amend to elongate the time period. Bones And All demonstrates why. If Frankenstein reflects anxieties around technological and scientific advancement by raising moral, ethical questions about the postreality of such creation (questions more relevant than ever with regard to AI, hi M3gan!), Bones And All reflects anxieties about the elemental core of human beings as extensions of and belonging to the natural world.
Cannibals are probably my favorite iteration of The Swallowing to think and write about because they are simultaneously the most human monster and the human distanced furthest from itself. They obliterate the "human" as a category distinct from "animal," the distinction between desire and hunger, between sex and food. And particularly when presented from a Subject position, they raise profound questions about love, morality, divinity, and consumption; questions that aren't just socio-political but fundamentally theologic in nature. In short, discussions about cannibalism are always simultaneously conversations about God. Approaching one will always lead you to confront the other.
Central though the romance between Maren and Lee is, I want to focus primarily on their relationships with their parents, biological and otherwise. Chalamet may have taken center stage in the film's marketing, but Bones And All really belongs to Russell. It's Maren's arc that the story is constructed around, a major part of that being the moral crisis of her existence, which is to say, the crisis of her parents' relationship with each other and the resultant relationship to her. This starts with her father.
Maren's father, Frank (André Holland) is her Black parent. He's also not an "eater." Parenting her, we learn, has been a matter of attempting to suppress, contain, and control her appetites while shouldering the fiscal, social, legal, and spiritual consequences when that endeavor inevitably fails. By the legal turning point of her eighteenth birthday, he is tired and, as he confesses, horrified by his daughter's urges and the monstrous things his love for her led him to do. Ultimately, this is why he abdicates responsibility as her parent, and it's this abandonment- this story about herself- that Maren struggles with throughout the film. Is she really the monster her father believes her to be? Or is it possible to be something else?
This internal struggle is one fairly universal to the queer experience. Even if our loved ones eventually accept us, that question of whether we'll be rejected for who/how we desire always takes precedence, and for this reason, the film can easily be read as a queer coming-of-age story. In equal measure, it can be read as a metaphor for the experience of addiction. Looking at it through a racial lens, however, tells a somewhat different story about Black biracial identity.
To be born of an interracial partnership and rejected, abandoned, or abused by one's Black parent is a unique trauma; a wounding difficult to articulate and for which a nuanced social script doesn't really exist. More unique is defiant resistance to the temptation to valorize the white parent. Maren grows up knowing nothing of her mother, an absence she fills with hope. Over the course of this search for herself and her roots, she encounters a number of cannibals, each of whom represents some vision of her possible future.
The first is Sully (Mark Rylance), a terrifying embodiment of a surrogate father. He teaches her how to use her sense of smell and offers her "someplace dry and safe" at a moment where she- both predator and prey item- is extraordinarily vulnerable, assuring her all the while that he's "got rules. Number one is you never…eat an eater."
Prior to their meeting, Maren believed herself to be "the only one." Sully remedies this loneliness; takes care of her by affirming her appetite ("whatever you and I got, it's gotta be fed") while preparing her for the harsh realities of cannibal life, namely the moral quandary of how to feed oneself without becoming a murderer. The intimacy between them- that act of finding oneself in the Other- is as tender and tragic as it is horrifying. When Maren runs away, the heartbreak on Sully's face is genuinely palpable.
Lee is the next eater she encounters, and theirs is a different type of intimacy, one absent the power dynamic of age, where they're able to relate to one another in distinctly less creepy ways. He agrees to take her to the city in Minnesota where she was born- the only lead she has on her mother- but as Lee warns at their first meeting, "everyone's got their rules," and those rules are wildly disparate.
Such rules are challenged when they run into another couple, Jake (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Brad (David Gordon Green), who are somehow even more menacing than Sully. From Jake, Maren and Lee learn about "full bones," what he calls the occasion you first "eat the whole thing, bones and all." The event, they discover, is a significant one in an eater's life, and it's from this conversation they learn that Brad isn't actually one of them. His cannibalism is a choice; one made when he- a former cop- discovered Jake mid-act and was not repulsed but entranced. Assuming the roles of both romantic partner and mentor (which is to say, a parent of sorts), Jake responded by offering him a bite.
Like Sully, Jake and Brad represent a way of being in the world repulsive to Maren and Lee, albeit the latter to a lesser extent. This incongruity is challenged after the first time they hunt and feed together. Maren can't help but be consumed by guilt while Lee insists they "have to do it." Both are terrified of the reflections they see in the mirror they hold to one another, and more terrified yet of the future in front of them. "How dare you make this harder," Lee says in response to Maren's despair, a statement as full of self-condemnation as accusation.
In Minnesota, they quickly find Maren's grandmother and, with her, answers to some of Maren's most pressing questions, namely about her mother's whereabouts and- more precisely- her appetites. When Maren finally finds her mother, she's incarcerated in a state hospital, heavily medicated, her arms gone having chewed them off herself. The attending nurse presents Maren with a letter she'd written several years prior, one that details her reasons for leaving. "All I ever wanted in this world was love…but we can't have it as we are," she writes. "The world of love wants no monsters in it, so let me help you out of it." Then she attempts to eat her daughter.
In the Roman adaptation of Greek myth, it was prophesied that the titan, Saturn would be overthrown by one of his sons, just as he overthrew his own father. As such, Saturn decides to immediately devour each son following their birth, believing this would eliminate the perceived threat. Such is the basis for Francisco Goya's terrifying painting, "Saturn Devouring His Son," which depicts the titan mid-bite, grief-maddened, human and not simultaneously. Looked at closely, his eyes always remind me of the panicked look some animals get when they seem to be acting purely on instinctual compulsion—your dog wracked with guilt while actively gnawing on whatever they know they're not supposed to be gnawing on.
The painting and its adjacent myth- the subject of other significant works- has been interpreted in several ways, all of which really come down to analyses of cannibalism, time, and power. Lee eventually confesses to Maren that his father, like her mother, tried to eat him. Confronted with the literal circumstance of eat or be eaten, Lee didn't just prove himself capable but actually devoured his father. He is the son, Jupiter, who fulfills the prophecy and frees himself by meeting violence with violence.
There is one point on which all perspectives on cannibalism converge: that consuming the flesh of another human being is a transcendent, transformative act. What it transforms you into exactly- god or monster or both- is another matter altogether. This is the crux of Lee's individual struggle. If "you are what you eat," what does the consumption of his (abusive) father make him? What does it mean about the person he's destined to become, who he might be in the future, to have incorporated and been nourished by a person who disgusts him?
And what of Maren, the moral cannibal? As noted, Taylor Russell and Chloë Sevigny's casting introduces a racially gendered aspect to the parent-child power struggle depicted in "Saturn Devouring His Son." It's unclear as to whether Maren knows her mother is white before she meets her (her grandmother is revealed to be an adoptive parent). In this movement is a compelling spin on nineteenth and early twentieth-century tragic mulatto narratives where Blackness is treated as a monstrous discovery. Bones And All flips that script entirely.
I've written before about the cannibalism practiced during chattel slavery and Jim Crow, the most famous example being the consumption of Nat Turner. The tension thus in a white mother who threatens to devour her Black daughter, who believes removing her from the world is the best expression of her love, is certainly charged—and even more so when considered alongside characters like Toni Morrison's Sethe, a Black mother who arrives at the same conclusion for very different reasons. Because of the circumstance of the institution, Maren is spared Lee's experience. She does not eat her mother. She vows never to "be her."
Derrida once described the future as "necessarily monstrous," which is to say, the monster is the embodiment of futurity and time itself. Our parents are not just our creators but often the first visions of the future we either reject or accept, which is to say, they're often the first iterations of The Swallowing we encounter in the long road trip that is the becoming of ourselves. The romance between Maren and Lee is born of their shared attempt to transcend what seems inevitably ill-fated; to grant each other permission to be nourished by "the world of love" they find in each other.