For most, William Eggleston’s lush photography of Americana probably doesn’t call to mind ravenous cannibals who also happen to be star-crossed lovers. It clearly did, however, for filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, who has been open about the fact that Eggleston’s pictures partly inspired his newest movie, Bones and All.
In Bones and All, whose theatrical release is widening this week after a limited run in New York, two young Americans venture across the country while falling hard for each other. One of them, Maren (Taylor Russell), has been abandoned by her father and gone in search of her mother, who left her long ago. The other, Lee (Timothée Chalamet), has left his family and begun looking for himself. Drawn together by chance, they become inseparable.
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Maren and Lee share a dark secret: they both have a penchant for human flesh, which makes them “eaters,” the preferred term for in their underground community. They feast on unsuspecting strangers whom they encounter on their road trip. They do so partly out of passion, partly out of duty to their needs. Less expectedly, they also chow down with an unexpected degree of remorse for the inescapability of their condition.
In an interview with i-D, Guadagnino said that, when he started work on Bones and All, he “went straight to reviewing some catalogues I had of William Eggleston’s work: the desolation of the interior and exterior scenarios of middle America.”
Eggleston’s photographs often picture oddball sights: a sad-looking ice cream shop with nothing else around it, a car parked near a fragment of a GE advertisement that matches the color of its hood, a gas station whose diesel pump is rusting over. (Similar images, some of them never before seen by the public, are now on view at David Zwirner in New York.) Even though people are sometimes present, these are images which evoke ghost towns, places whose inhabitants filtered out long ago.
Yet Eggleston is never judgmental of what passes before his camera. He treats it all with a degree of curiosity, delighting in the pastel tones of leather diner booths or the gaudy red ceiling of a friend’s home. He captured these hues starting in the ’60s using color photography, a mode that at the time was considered unserious and unartistic. Along with his colleagues William Christenberry and Stephen Shore, Eggleston helped change that perception.
Bones and All’s cinematography, lensed on 35mm by Arseni Khachaturan, pays homage to this sensibility, depicting vacant parking lots and quaint greasy spoons using a similar color palette to Eggleston. In invoking Eggleston’s photography, Guadagnino has found a way to mirror the alienation that Maren and Lee face every day.
Yet the art connections here run deeper than Eggleston, as is often the case with Guadagnino, whose 2018 remake of the Italian arthouse horror movie Suspiria was loaded with homages to avant-garde art, some of which briefly got him in a bit of legal trouble.
One artist who acted as a spiritual guide during the making of Suspiria, the Viennese Actionist Hermann Nitsch, hangs in the background of Bones and All. Nitsch, who died earlier this year, was known for performances that involved the ritualistic slaughtering of animals and sprays of blood. These were shock tactics meant to jolt bourgeois audiences, and they succeeded in enraging animal rights activists many times over.
Fear not: no animals are killed onscreen in Bones and All, just humans. Yet the scenes where fingers are plunged into gaping wounds and strips of skin are gnawed off were apparently inspired by Nitsch’s art. Guadangino told the Guardian, “His work, uncompromising and relentless as it is, is a very beautiful example of the position of the artist, who has to go there and be daring, in a way that is really shattering the house.”
There is a more direct homage in the character of Sully (Mark Rylance), a spooky elder eater who initially acts as Maren’s teacher, before beginning to seem more insidious. Sully is frequently garbed in a fishing vest and a fedora with a feather poking out—a bald admission that he’s on the hunt, even when he’s seemingly off duty.
This is the same outfit that was often worn by artist Joseph Beuys, whose sculptures and performances marked an attempt to merge art, politics, and daily life, all in the name of education. Sully attempts to do something similar for Maren, whose status as an eater he is able to ascertain simply by smelling her from far away. He then brings her back to a house, where he shows her first how to cook a Cornish hen that he’s about put in the oven, then how to disembowel the home’s owner, a woman who appears to be suffering a stroke. Maren eats her dinner—human viscera, that is, not the bird—then, the next day, runs away in fright.
As for other direct art allusions, there’s painter Elizabeth Peyton’s poster for the film, which shows Maren and Lee kissing, their faces covered in smeary strokes that recall blood. This is a visual quotation from the film’s end, though to reveal what is actually being depicted would be to give away the climax.