What eating humans does to the body.
In Luca Guadagnino’s latest film, Bones and All, the Call Me by Your Name director reunites with Timothée Chalamet to tell yet another story of young love. This time, instead of being gorgeous gay boys, the lovers—Chalamet and Waves’ Taylor Russell—are high school dropouts and vagabonds who particularly enjoy the taste of human flesh. In Bones and All (based on Camille DeAngelis’ novel of the same name), Chalamet and Russell play Lee and Maren, two young adults whose penchant for eating human flesh has consigned them to the fringes of society, leading them to set off on a road trip through America’s backroads and beltways. Of course, there’s the occasional human snack along the way, but they try their best to be “good,” knowing that feeding on another human requires taking advantage of them. And yet, like an addiction, they can’t resist their deeper hunger. Bones and All tells a surprisingly beautiful tale about love and loss; the film is about loneliness, trauma, and belonging, more than it is about cannibalism.
That said! Let’s circle back to the cannibalism part, because I have some, erm, questions.
If Lee and Maren could have it their way, they’d want to eat flesh all of the time. And I can’t help but wonder if that’s even possible—what about their nutrition? That certainly couldn’t…feel good? “No. Think of it this way,” explained zoologist and author Bill Schutt. “Compare it to somebody who has decided that all they’re going to do is eat cows for the rest of their life. They’re not going to eat fruit, they’re not going to eat vegetables, they’re just going to eat meat. Mammal meat. It can be muscle—you’d eat a steak or ribs—or it can be organ meat: a liver, kidneys, etc. It would be exactly the same.” Schutt, who wrote the book Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, went on: “You’d be getting a lot of protein and fat, no carbs—and very, very few vitamins. Vitamin C, Vitamin D, all the sort of deficiencies that go along with a lack of those vitamins, they become apparent very quickly. Your LDL cholesterol levels are gonna shoot through the roof, you’re probably gonna be lethargic.” (Or, perhaps, you might end up in such precarious health that a shot of apple cider would keep you from sleeping for a month?)
Oh boy, do Lee and Maren really want to eat a lot of human flesh. But: “It’s absurd to think that there would be a [biological] reason for people to just consume human bodies as a regular practice, as a means of nutrition,” Schutt said. Even more so when you remember that these are supposed to be kids on the run, who need all the energy they can muster. Because human flesh is hard to secure, we see Lee and Maren eat other things throughout the movie, but they’re always presented as a second choice. There was a stack of diner pancakes, maybe an apple, some Cornish game hens that are prepared (but we never see them eaten). Seems like they could’ve really benefited from some more serious roughage. And they’re not going to get it from eating a health nut who keeps up with their vitamins and buys farmers’ market veggies, either. “If they consume the contents of their stomach and there happened to be plant matter in there, then they would be getting some partially digested whatever veggies that guy ate,” Schutt humored me. “But you’re not gonna be storing enough of the essential nutrients that you’d get from eating plants and fruit” in your flesh for a cannibal to benefit from them when they, in turn, eat you.
Human flesh can also be unsafe to eat. Even if our hypothetical real-life cannibals would diversify their diet to avoid scurvy, they would still render themselves vulnerable to a whole host of human diseases and blood-borne pathogens. Some of these are serious—bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or Mad Cow disease, has human varieties as well. Kuru, a particularly fatal degenerative brain disorder, has been found among the Fore people of Papua New Guinea, who performed cannibalism as a funerary practice. “It was determined that it was something called spongiform encephalopathy—the closest thing you can think of to that is Alzheimer’s disease. It basically turns your brain into a sponge—there’s holes in it. And this is what happens to you if you eat the flesh of a human, especially from the brains and spinal cord and nerves, of somebody who has this disease,” Schutt said. Some of these issues could possibly be solved if the protagonists were in the business of cooking their meals, but Lee and Maren lean more zombie and less Hannibal Lecter. Every “eater” in Bones and All (Lee, Maren, and some questionable characters they meet along their journey) consumes the flesh raw, right off of the body (*shudders*).
The film, of course, isn’t concerned with representing cannibalism realistically, so much as using it as a narrative vehicle to highlight the more tortuous aspects of the human condition. But cannibalism is something of a taboo bomb—which is partly why it’s so successfully employed in this story as a plot device, why it makes audiences want to watch, and why it left me with so many questions I kind of already knew the answer to. “Here’s the take-home reason why we’re having this conversation and why this movie came out: it’s arguably the number one taboo in the Western world, I’m convinced of that,” Schutt explained. The severity of the taboo around cannibalism is related, in part, to our already sensitive feelings around food. It’s hard for us to make sense of people who eat something we never would. Simply think of the number of food-based stereotypes you’ve heard murmured in school lunchrooms and on playgrounds: we exaggerate culinary differences to the level of panic and superstition already.
Humans eating other humans has long been sensationalized in media. But Bones and All does something new, mixing the surrealism of cannibalism with the very real problems of marginality and addiction, producing a work of social realism where the unreal elements stand out by contrast. Take, for instance, the film’s namesake: Lee and Maren are told by some veteran “eaters” that the pinnacle of cannibalism in their world is consuming a person “bones and all,” which is supposed to have a sort of transcendent effect. When I asked Schutt about the plausibility of that (I had to!), there was a long pause. “Bone is really tough to digest,” he said finally. And the physicality of it? “If you look at a hyena or something like that with massive jaw muscles, their jaws are built for cracking bone and getting that marrow. I’m sure some bone gets eaten, but as it passes the mammal digestive tract, especially a carnivore, it’s gonna move through quickly…In all likelihood the bone is not gonna be digested at all. It’s the marrow inside the bone that would be nutritious.” And, as someone very familiar with Timothée Chalamet’s jawline, I wouldn’t say it’s hyena-like.
Schutt explained that you could put bones in a food processor (though it must be bone-compliant) and grind them up, but eating them is a no-go. “The way our jaws are built”—Schutt’s next book will be about teeth—“if you were to take a decent-sized bone and put it in your mouth and bite down on it hard, you would not be able to break it because your jaw muscles would automatically relax when you get to a certain amount of pressure. In a sense, your body, without you even knowing about it, has determined: if you keep biting like that you’re gonna break your teeth, or you’re gonna break your jaw.”
In a sense, the taboo of cannibalism is the one practical thing Bones and All gets right. “Culture is king,” Schutt said when explaining how food has been one of the easiest ways to establish a cultural “Other” since the earliest stages of modern society. “Cannibalism was used to justify murder and the destruction of civilizations in places like the Caribbean, Africa, and Central and South America. If you were a cannibal—it didn’t matter if you were doing it because it was a religious ritual—then you were not a human.” (It’s this history that makes it so odd to witness the recent emergence of the practice of placenta-eating among some American mothers.) And, of course, this is true in the film as well. Naturally, the act of cannibalism in the film is often compounded with murder: two big no-nos. Though Lee and Maren perform the taboo act in a sensationalized, criminal way, it’s the eating, and not the murder, that truly makes them unable to rejoin society. The attraction to human flesh, as depicted in the film is highly fictional, sure. But one of the most commendable things about Bones and All is the way it uses cannibalism to heighten its depiction of life as an outcast.
“You know how you could eat bones?” Schutt tacked on before we hung up.“I’m thinking about it now: If you really cook them, I’m talking about cooked cooked cooked”—he compared it to the Donner Party’s way of eating their livestock and pets—“if you literally turned them into charcoal, then you could eat it and you might get some type of a nutritional benefit out of it. But not, like, a raw bone. It would tear you up.”