"Love Lies Bleeding"

Review: Queer Thriller 'Love Lies Bleeding' Is Exhilarating, Disturbing, and Seductive

Megan Kearns READ TIME: 4 MIN.

How far would you go for someone you love? How far would you push your body to achieve perfection? These are some of the questions at the heart of the riveting, intense, and seductive queer thriller "Love Lies Bleeding," starring queer actresses Kristen Stewart and Katy O'Brian.

Directed by Rose Glass and written by Glass and Weronika Tofilska, the film is an alluring collision of juxtaposing images, messy and complicated characters, and conflicting emotions. Like a poisoned apple, it entices with a dangerous allure. It teeters on the edge, almost careening into a vortex of chaos.

Set in the late 1980s New Mexico, Lou (Kristen Stewart), a withdrawn lesbian, manages a gym. Jackie (Katy O'Brian) is an outgoing bisexual bodybuilder, new in town, who aspires to compete in a Las Vegas bodybuilding competition. After meeting at the gym, Lou and Jackie start dating. But Lou's loyalty to her sister (Jena Malone) and her strained relationships with her seedy criminal father (Ed Harris) and abusive brother-in-law (Dave Franco) complicate their lives.

"Love Lies Bleeding" opens with close-ups of sweaty muscled bodies pumping iron, lingering on a sign warning, "Pain is fear leaving the body." Via the "female gaze," the camera follows Lou as she sees Jackie in the gym for the first time. She intently watches her working out, admiring her body. They are pulled into each other's orbit.

Lou wants nothing to do with her estranged criminal father. But as she manages a gym he owns, and Jackie works at a gun range he also owns, Lou realizes how hard it can be to escape her past.

The film shows misogyny throughout, specifically in domestic violence. We never see Lou's sister Beth abused, but she always has bruises. And no ambiguity remains: We know her husband hits her. Lou confronts her brother-in-law JJ, but to no avail. When Beth is wounded so badly she's in the hospital, the camera lingers on her horrifyingly bruised and swollen face, bordering on trauma porn. While some might argue it's necessary to witness these images, as a domestic violence survivor, these disturbing images triggered me.

Both excellent actresses, Kristen Stewart (who I've always loved, and is excellent in "Certain Women," "Spencer," "Clouds of Sils Maria," "Personal Shopper," and so many more films), who's bisexual, and Katy O'Brian (beguiling in "The Mandalorian"), who's a lesbian, give riveting, complex, and nuanced performances. They share an electric, palpable chemistry in the film.

It's fantastic that the film had two intimacy coordinators and shows lots of erotic and vigorous lesbian sex that's often aggressive: Slamming into walls while kissing, biting (and sucking) toes. In one scene, Lou reads lesbian erotica book, "Macho Sluts."

While depicting a supportive queer couple, "Love Lies Bleeding" also shows the problems in their relationship. Lou gets upset when Lou finds out that Jackie had sex with a man right before they started dating, as Lou asked Jackie if she was experimenting before they had sex. Jackie says that she "likes both" women and men. As a bisexual woman, I can relate; I have faced biphobia from straight people, as well as some within the LGBTQ+ community.

Reminiscent of other films about pushing your body beyond its limits in search of perfection – such as "Black Swan," "The Wrestler," and "The Iron Claw" – "Love Lies Bleeding" delves into addiction and how far Jackie will go to transform her body. She tells Lou that she got into bodybuilding because she was bullied for being a "fat kid." Rather than embrace her body at any size, she works out incessantly. When Lou injects Jackie with steroids, it's a tender, almost erotic act full of intimacy and vulnerability. But addiction plagues as she takes steroids more frequently and succumbs to 'roid rage-fuelled outbursts, becoming increasingly violent, including toward Lou.

Horror elements also abound in this visually arresting film: Bloodied bodies, gun shots, and a shattered jaw up the gore factor. Haunting flashbacks lit in red reify themes of bloody violence. Body horror themes occur with scenes of squishy sounds of Jackie's muscles and veins bulging. At the film's climax, we witness a subversion of the "monstrous feminine," with an homage to a notorious 1950s sci-fi horror film.

As with her first feature-length film, "Saint Maud," Rose Glass explores psychological issues. In the earlier movie the themes were religious fervor, mental illness, and how far someone will go for their faith. Here, she delves into obsession, queer love, and violence, looking at the lengths someone might go to in order to protect and avenge.

Glass reteams with cinematographer Ben Fordesman and editor Mark Towns, who both worked on the captivating "Saint Maud." Clint Mansell's stunning hypnotic score is ethereal and otherworldly.

An exhilarating and excellently crafted film, "Love Lies Bleeding" reminded me of The Wachowskis' neo-noir "Bound" with its alluring sapphic love story of erotic sex and crime. A queer love story and a bloody revenge story that rapidly spirals out of control, "Love Lies Bleeding" dynamically depicts complicated queer women characters and revels in the messiness of life and love.

"Love Lies Bleeding" opens in NY and LA on Friday, March 8, and in theaters nationwide Friday, March 15, 2024.

by Megan Kearns

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