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‘Love Lies Bleeding’ review: Shot through the heart

Rose Glass' film has a sweaty, sensual charge and electric performances from Kristen Stewart and Katy O'Brian

Katy O'Brian and (right) Kristen Stewart in 'Love Lies Bleeding'
Katy O'Brian and (right) Kristen Stewart in 'Love Lies Bleeding'

It’s been a while since the Central Board for Film Certification has been in the news. It helps that Indian filmmakers are so aware of what can get them into trouble that they just avoid it now. And it’s true that the Hollywood films that release here, nearly all blockbusters or franchise instalments, rarely offer up a hard R. Heading into Love Lies Bleeding, I hoped the censors had relaxed their moral standards. No such luck: the two love scenes were cut to shreds. Oh, and the labels on beer bottles were blurred, because how will audiences (in India) buy (American) beer if they don’t know what it’s called?

There remains, thankfully, enough of Love Lies Bleeding on the screen to put the viewer in a dreamy headlock. Rose Glass’ film is set in 1989 (the Berlin Wall is about to fall) in a small town in New Mexico. Lou (Kristen Stewart) is the manager of a scuzzy gym. She lives alone with her cat, fends off the attentions of Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov) and worries about her sister, Beth (Jena Malone), who’s stuck in an abusive marriage. Then, one day, Jackie (Katy O’Brien) appears. She’s a bodybuilder headed to Las Vegas, ripped from head to toe, and Lou is so infatuated she can barely look at her directly.

Glass’ film has a sensual sheen that recalls the heyday of the ‘90s erotic thriller. Ben Fordesman’ camera lingers on Jackie’s Olympian physique; we see the sweat glint and the sinews pulse. Clint Mansell’s score is a throbbing electronic wash—though for the first moment of intimacy between the two women, Glass uses Kay Starr’s ‘Stars Fell on Alabama’, a jazz number from 1948. An exquisitely horny montage a little later is soundtracked to ‘Nice Mover’ by Gina X Performance, a song that’s equal parts lusty and sinister.

Love Lies Bleeding too exists in the fertile space between lusty and sinister. Lou has a past—or rather, an uneasy present she’d very much like to be past. Her father, Lou Sr. (Ed Harris), is a gangster who may have killed her mother. She doesn’t talk to him anymore, but when Jackie gets a job waitressing at his gun range, we know it’s a matter of time before it all blows up. The film’s first moment of graphic violence is as shocking as Christina Hendricks getting shot in Drive (2011). Love Lies Bleeding did bring to mind Nicolas Winding Refn’s film; both are genuinely felt love stories against the backdrop of hideous violence and electro-pop. Yet, as the film progresses, Glass takes bigger and bigger swings, moving beyond neo-noir into more phantasmagorical realms. 

One of the films Glass made her crew watch was the pervy, brilliant Crash (1996). Even without this knowledge, there are multiple signs pointing to Cronenberg. Lou trying unsuccessfully to move on from her gangster family has shades of A History of Violence (2005). There’s the casting of Harris, so memorable in that film, and Stewart, incandescently weird in Crimes of the Future (2022). Lou Sr. is a bug enthusiast—a Cronenbergian hobby. And there are vivid flashes of body horror, not just a face with the skin hanging off it but the more surreal sight of a human coughed up like larva. 

Stewart is a natural heir to Gena Rowlands in that watching her is often unsettling and nearly always surprising. Every now and then she’ll say a line—something simple like “That’s big of you” or “Yup”—in a way no other actor would. She’s so adept at playing on-edge characters it would be fascinating to see try her hand at someone who’s entirely at peace. Still, as good as she is here, the star turn is O’Brian’s. She’s magnetic from the moment she appears, with her easy confidence and broad smile that’s the exact opposite of Stewart’s nervous grimace. Late in the film, Jackie gets so angry that she roars and her shirt rips. It’s a superhero moment the likes of we haven’t seen in ages.  

Also read: What to watch this week: ‘Love Lies Bleeding’, ‘Ripley’ and more

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