If you decide to jot down the answers every time you ask a person what their biggest fear is, chances are, your notebook will scream out the hauntings of loneliness. Sure, people around us have different, more specific fears pertaining to their respective circumstances. But in the scarcely visited corner of our minds—with the dusty little drawer that is seldom opened lest we find things we don’t want to revisit—thrives the undying anxiety that we will be all alone someday. For some people, however, that anxiety has proven to be true. But whether it is your anticipation of involuntary solitude or your experience of it, every human affliction craves a sense of solidarity. And that is where cinema comes in. The perils of abandonment and loneliness have been a thing of bewildering fascination for the most communicative medium.
Explored in various expressions and repercussions in films, the acute lack of kinship as a theme has grounded some while others went unhinged. Luca Guadagnino’s coming-of-age horror essentially worships human connection while shrewdly establishing the struggles of living on the edge of society as the breeding ground of loneliness. And it does so with a variety that is often hard to come by in films that revolve around the central character’s isolation. In the 1980s setting of “Bones And All,” every character earns a sense of empathy, but the tolerant observation of their miseries doesn’t necessarily attempt to absolve them of their wrongs. In Guadagnino’s vision, loneliness gets to be the primary demon being fought off by the individualistic impulses of some characters. And at the same time, other characters are being held hostage by their own isolation while their Stolkholm Syndrome blocks out the possibility of being vulnerable.
When I heard that the maker of “Call Me By Your Name” would make a coming-of-age tale of young cannibals, I expected that campy gore would take a backseat while the complex psyche of the misfit leads would take over the narrative. Guadagnino made it a point to set expectations straight and promised a story of untamed love. “Bones and All” turned out to be an unsurprising fulfillment of all the promises. It also very generously surpassed expectations with its nuanced explorations of why the characters do what they do. The omnipresent loneliness darkens Maren’s existence from the moment she is introduced to the very last shot. It screeches out loudly, almost deafeningly, to draw in other victims of it into the narrative. The web of characters desperately looking for a sense of companionship is the driving force of the story from the very beginning to the end. The need to consume the flesh of their own species burdens the unfortunate characters. While that itself is the primary reason none of them particularly fit in, Guadagnino’s understanding of isolation isn’t limited to just that. We get a fine dissection of how unhealthy parenting, abuse, and mental illness create a domino effect of abandonment. Let’s look at how all of that played into the lives of all the odd characters that crossed paths, for better or worse.
Born into a life of destined rejection, Maren didn’t need the added trauma of growing up without ever seeing, let alone knowing, her mother. But the grim patterns of life work in mysterious, often excruciatingly cruel ways. Her father tried to be there for her. Especially for a conventionally normal man who at first had no idea that his daughter was plagued with the urge to eat human flesh, he tried quite hard. But the first time we see a bloody-faced Maren being escorted into a hideout by her father, we get a sense that they’ve never really broken the ice about her issues. Our suspicions are confirmed when she wakes up to see that he is gone and finds the tape of him describing all the instances of Maren taking lives. Her father went so far as to cover up her crimes, but what he never did was talk about them or tried to get her the help she so desperately needed. A completely bizarre approach to parenthood left Maren entirely lonesome in a world that already wasn’t a place for her.
Isolated even more for the safety of people around her, Maren never really had the privilege of making friends. She ate her nanny when she was a toddler, ate her friends as a kid, and as a teen, despite the hope that the urge would not take over, she bit off a girl’s finger at a sleepover. Running from one crime scene to another, Maren could never really put down roots or connect with anyone. The magnitude of her loneliness was intensified to a great extent as she didn’t even know that there were others like her out there. And when she found another “eater” for the first time, he happened to be a massive creep with an air of imminent danger. Companionship did come her way when she met Lee, a charming drifter afflicted with the same demons. Being two lone puzzle pieces in a world that is playing a whole other game, neither Lee nor Maren could ever dream of fitting into the cracks of someone that seamlessly. And when they did find their respective places in one another’s existence, it was heaven on earth, even in a shared life of drifting, killing, eating, and running. But loneliness haunted her even when she was too distracted to feel its presence. When she met her mother for the first time and was made to feel like a monster, she screamed out that she would never be like her mother. But ironically enough, on her path to not being as unstable as her mother, Maren ended up being a deserter just like her. She disappeared from Lee’s life out of the blue and confined herself to the false sense of safety that was born out of her own abandonment issues. Repeating the cycle of desertion is a predominant trait riled up by the insecurities that burden the people who were once the victim of the same. She did break out of it, however, and came back to Lee. But like a predator following its prey, loneliness followed Maren into her happy domesticity. Lee was taken from her. All of her best efforts at fixing up her life and maintaining a beautiful companionship could not save her from the fate of being pushed back to square one and being all alone once again.
Lee’s self-proclaimed “cool-guy” detachment hardly fooled us. Deliberately staying off the radar and isolating himself, Lee made quite a life. Drifting around, eating people, stealing their belongings, and moving on were the only things that he had in his life. His lone-wolf persona was, however, nothing more than a facade he put up to spare himself any heartbreak. His hunger for companionship showed its real face the minute he found Maren and took her with him. Sure, it’s believable for a drifter with no significant purpose to impulsively take part in a road trip with a kindred spirit. But Lee’s attachment to her was almost that of a caregiver or a protector. Their attachment was primarily formed by their shared identity as “eaters.” But Lee’s protectiveness was rooted in the fright of an unsafe kid in a house with two loved ones and an abusive parent. Lee was alone all along. Neither his mother nor his sister Kayla understood what haunted him. But even in the seclusion caused by his secret, he loved his family and went so far as to kill his abusive father in order to protect them. Learning to fend for himself all his life made him believe that he didn’t need anyone at all. The mask of his hyper-independence slipped off when Maren ditched him. He let his guard down with her, and when she was gone, he showed his vulnerability for the first time to his sister. And when Maren came looking for him, his craving for love and emotional intimacy made him take her back without a second thought. Once he had tasted the good life with Maren, a lonely existence was unacceptable to him. And it wasn’t just his life that he couldn’t imagine without her. His grand gesture of asking her to consume him was his way of making sure that even in his death, they were wholly together.
Being the human embodiment of the desperate fight against loneliness, Sully had it all wrong all along. For a seasoned eater with the nose of a bloodhound, the only one keeping him isolated was himself. We can assume that Maren wasn’t the first eater he tried to befriend. For someone as clingy and frantic as him, he must’ve met and driven away others along the way. Maren saw the warning signs early and had the good sense to get away. But Sully followed her, hoping that a lonely teenage cannibal like her would take very little convincing. A long life of being all by himself evidently took a toll on that already messed-up mind of his. When Maren turned down his offer of companionship, instead of playing it smart, he antagonized her even further with his awful behavior. In his frenzied state of mind, he kept a long chain of hair taken from everyone he ever consumed. While it most definitely isn’t unusual for serial killers to keep trophies, the chain of hair was of much greater significance to Sully. It was a way of denying his seclusion with the thought of his victims being there with him. For a lonely cannibal, presumably in his 70s, Sully knew that time wasn’t his friend. His all-consuming desire to have someone by his side drove him to absolute insanity. The idea that Maren was his last shot at having someone made him track her down long after he had last seen her. His pursuit was fruitless, no doubt. But his last unintended revenge exhibited how contagious loneliness really is.
“Bones And All” ardently avoids the risk of glorifying or glamourising the idea of loneliness. Neither the stream of the narrative nor the characters reject love when it comes their way. There’s no Travis Bickle to be found here. Nor is a joker being cheered on by the crowd. If anything, the film celebrates companionship over anything else. And instead of going by the exhaustingly overdone trope of voluntary solitude, “Bones and All” wholeheartedly appreciates the beauty of emotional availability. I have to believe that Maren reading James Joyce’s Dubliners wasn’t a random prop decision for the film. It’s a perfectly placed easter egg, silently instituting the theme of loneliness as a trigger for almost all the events in Guadagnino’s film.