Wednesday 8 May 2024

Flesh and bone: "Love Lies Bleeding"

I was less enthused about Rose Glass's debut feature Saint Maud than many, but even I could detect within it a transgressive promise - that its maker wasn't thinking about her material in the flatly literal way most first-timers moving into the horror genre do. At the invitation of indie faves A24, Glass has now been tempted across the Atlantic to shoot super-widescreen under big American skies, to let her hair down and her instincts run wild. Every frame of Love Lies Bleeding speaks to a freedom Glass just didn't have in the British film industry - up to and including the freedom to set foot outside the box and go well over the usual multiplex-thriller lines. She limbers up with small transgressions: an overhead shot of a toilet backed up with shit, sex in a car, used condoms tossed to the kerb. Yet as the movie settles into its primary locations of gym and shooting range - leading us to anticipate some form of gun show - it's apparent that Glass and co-writer Weronika Tofilska (currently wowing as a director on Netflix hit Baby Reindeer: another transgressor in the making) have absorbed a full forty years of theses on the body: its strengths and limits, what we put into it and what comes out. That thinking emerges here in a thousand and one vivid details: gym manager Lou (Kristen Stewart), trying to kick the cigs, masturbating on a couch next to the remains of a TV dinner; a briefly glimpsed clip of Gulliver's Travels on a TV, foreshadowing events to come; bodybuilding wild card Jackie (Katy O'Brian), whom Lou hooks up with (and hooks up with steroids), applying foot powder in longshot, an observation that lends an extra spice to a later instance of toesucking. At all points, Glass's fascination with these bodies is palpable, but it's neither purely academic nor merely superficial. Beneath the sensation and spectacle her crime plot generates, there's a taut narrative exoskeleton and a pulsing, often pulsating tissue of human feeling. Plentiful skin, yes, but also something more substantial to hang it all on.

After all, these bodies are people, too: their constituent flesh and bone a further rebuke to the adolescent thinness of Challengers, with its wipe-clean characters composed of pin-up posters and Twitter polls. By way of complete visual contrast, Glass's film is authentically gross and grabby; it has bad hair, worse teeth and terribly sticky fingers. (The styling throughout is a whole other level of perverse.) After the provincial setting of her debut, Glass has made what appears a very American film: in its mullets and stoplights, its pancakes, milkshakes and bullets in the head, its voracious sense of appetite. (It's a Glass-full, all right.) The good news is that those influences that sat undigested close to Saint Maud's surface have here been fully metabolised. There's a generous dollop of Lynch (some stroboscopic white-line fever as Lou and Jackie go on the lam), but it comes at exactly the point a Lynchian fugue is merited and most effective. Love Lies Bleeding works well as a thriller: after the initial, careful scene-setting, you feel it almost physically accelerating as events start to get away from these characters. Viewers of a certain vintage will be reminded of that golden run of 1990s neo-noirs that began with One False MoveRed Rock West and Bound and became a studio interest with Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan. Yet Glass is pursuing more explosive, transmogrifying effects that the makers of the above films (with the exception of Raimi) probably wouldn't have thought to go for: she's been raised on Jim Thompson and David Cronenberg, which gives her new and surprising places to go. Only in a rushed-seeming climax does she seem to lose her way a little: this is maybe the one film on general release that could do with being ten-to-fifteen minutes longer, the better to set up or contextualise its wildest swing. (That should come with confidence: more time is a virtue for which even American filmmakers have to hold out.)

For all its transgressive verve, Love Lies Bleeding's strongest stretches bear out the old-fashioned strengths of script, actor and director, unified in a common cause. The transformation Glass worked on the mousy Morfydd Clark for Saint Maud is here even more striking for being worked on performers with North American levels of self-assurance; those actors visibly became allies, willing to back their leader to the hilt, and pursue the R-rated extremes she wanted them to pursue. O'Brian has the showiest role, physically shapeshifting in what presents as a long-overdue distaff variant on Robert De Niro's work in Raging Bull. (Told you this was a quintessentially American endeavour in its appetites - although if you close one eye and squint with the other, the plot starts to look something like Frankenstein or Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World.) Next to her, Stewart gives a masterclass in stealth acting, working expressive wonders with kicky, single-word ejaculations: a sarcastic "yay" as Lou finally unblocks that toilet, a very funny, self-chiding "no" as she spots the pack of smokes protruding from a corpse's pocket, a stunned "huh?" as she's double-crossed by someone close to her, a decisive "yup" as she fights back. (An arc in three-letter words, gifted to a character called Lou: crossword compilers stand and applaud.) Seeing Jena Malone - the Stewart before her time, the Stewart 1.0 - cast as Lou's sister is like seeing the indie stars align; and Dave Franco and an apparently mummified Ed Harris do a sterling job of embodying the worst attitudes known to blue-collar man. After several weeks of notionally major, much-trumpeted American movies that have seemed more like ideas for movies - free-floating, vaporous, so sketchy you could poke a finger through them - it's fun to see a movie with ideas. If Love Lies Bleeding can't finally trap them all between its mitts, it sure serves body, and it does have heft. This one grips and bruises - and if you're not expecting it, it may also give you a slap or two upside the head.

Love Lies Bleeding is now playing in selected cinemas.

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