The Telluride Film Festival provides an annual opportunity to view auteurs in their natural habitat, a “mountain of cinema,” in the words of the event’s foot soldiers, an event that courts cinéastes, forbids selfies and offers a potent Bloody Mary at its spectacular mountainside opening day brunch.
The movies these award-winning filmmakers have brought to this year’s festival have been a mixed bag. Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light,” a valentine to movie theaters, drew a turn-away crowd at its premiere and generally met expectations, with star Olivia Colman covering a multitude of narrative sins. By contrast, festival patrons largely shunned Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths” after it was drubbed days earlier in Venice. And Todd Field, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of “In the Bedroom” and “Little Children,” returned after a 16-year hiatus with “Tár,” an immaculately crafted provocation guaranteed to divide audiences and win Cate Blanchett another Oscar.
Then there’s Luca Guadagnino’s “Bones and All,” a tender story of young love starring Timothée Chalamet and Taylor Russell as fine young cannibals trying to negotiate their natures and doing their best to ethically source their next meal. “This doesn’t seem like a Telluride movie,” an older festival patron mused, debating whether to attend a late-night screening. And on first glance, it doesn’t, which, in some ways, makes “Bones and All” the perfect Telluride movie, a love story spiritually attuned to Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” and possessing an acute understanding of what people on society’s margins must do to survive.
It’s also a movie that opens with its protagonist, shy teenager Maren (Russell, who was a major find three years ago in the unsung gem “Waves”), going to a sleepover and, in the midst of some genial bonding over nail colors, chomping down and devouring a classmate’s finger to the nub.
Guadagnino has been making movies for nearly a quarter century and, of course, is best known for directing and producing another coming-of-age love story, 2017’s “Call Me by Your Name,” which earned four Oscar nominations, including best picture, and launched cries of “Timothéeeeeeeeeeeee” into the ether.
Chalamet earned one of those Oscar nods, and he’s equally good in “Bones and All.” (He always delivers, even when cast opposite sandworms.) Here, Chalamet plays Lee, an “eater” who meets Maren after she has been abandoned by her father, not long after the sleepover incident. They share more than a need for human flesh. They’ve both been ostracized by their families and society. Lee has adopted a “big attitude” because, as he notes, he’s “140 pounds, wet.” He aggressively dances around to the KISS anthem “Lick It Up,” part of a record collection of one of his victims. (For some music snobs, owning that album would itself merit a death sentence.)
Chalamet is a master at conveying wounded fragility, and he’s balanced here by Russell in what should be a star-making turn that is remembered long into the awards season. Maren shakes off her self-loathing and becomes not just a survivor but someone hopeful that she can partake in some semblance of a normal life. If this sounds a bit too romantic for a cannibal movie, do know that Mark Rylance is also onboard, playing a creepy, old-timer eater having the time of his life stripping to his tighty whities to savor a feast of human flesh.
“Bones and All” will be a challenge to Oscar voters who prefer their cannibals to eat their victims’ livers with some fava beans and a nice Chianti offscreen. But Guadagnino has delivered a film that is, in many ways, just as sumptuous as “Call Me by Your Name,” minus all the beautiful Italian countryside and the delicate James Ivory screenplay. (David Kajganich adapted “Bones and All” from Camille DeAngelis’ novel.)
Gluttons for good movies, though, will devour it.