Love Lies Bleeding Melissa Anderson

Roid-raging against the machine: lez lovers embark on a path of vengeance in Rose Glass’s second film.

Katy O’Brian as Jackie and Kristen Stewart as Lou in Love Lies Bleeding. Courtesy A24. Photo: Anna Kooris.

Love Lies Bleeding, directed by Rose Glass, now playing in theaters

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A style in search of an idea, Love Lies Bleeding mixes the sapphic, the sanguineous, and the scatological. The film follows a well-worn genre—criminal lovers on the run, a template that dates back to at least 1950’s Gun Crazy—but does little to revitalize it. Despite a few surprises (I can’t recall Macho Sluts, Pat Califia’s 1988 collection of lez S/M erotica, ever given such prominence in a movie before), Love Lies Bleeding wearingly grinds on from one gore-soaked set piece to the next.

Kristen Stewart as Lou in Love Lies Bleeding. Courtesy A24. Photo: Anna Kooris.

This is Rose Glass’s second feature, following 2019’s Saint Maud, a current-day supernatural thriller set in the director’s native UK about a young, rabidly Roman Catholic palliative-care nurse determined to save the wretched soul of her patient, a tribadic middle-aged choreographer of some renown riddled with cancer. Glass’s latest, which she cowrote with Weronika Tofilska, takes place in 1989 in a flyspeck town in New Mexico, where local discontented gym manager Lou (Kristen Stewart) meets Jackie (Katy O’Brian), a vagabond bodybuilder slowly making her way to a pec-flexing competition in Las Vegas. However dissimilar, the films share certain motifs: blood, fire, the otherworldly, skin pierced by needles, and, especially, bodies in extremis.

Kristen Stewart as Lou in Love Lies Bleeding. Courtesy A24. Photo: Anna Kooris.

Love Lies Bleeding opens deep in the night with a montage of swole, sweaty physiques pushed to the limit. We are at Crater Gym, a spartan warehouse decorated solely with exercise adages: only losers quit, pain is weakness leaving the body. Enduring another kind of workout is Lou, first seen unclogging a shit-engorged toilet. This unsubtle introduction emphasizes the general miseries of her life. At work Lou must fend off the relentless importuning of a rabbity lovestruck employee, Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov). At home—a utilitarian flat in a drab complex called Mi Casa—she feeds the cat, lights a cigarette while listening to a stop-smoking cassette, and masturbates on the couch.

Katy O’Brian as Jackie in Love Lies Bleeding. Courtesy A24. Photo: Anna Kooris.

When Jackie shows up at Crater one evening to do some deadlifting, Lou is immediately besotted. Her fascination is understandable. O’Brian, an actress with extensive martial-arts training whose role here marks her first lead performance in a feature, calls to mind a quote from Lisa Lyon, the bodybuilder immortalized in a series of ’80s photos by Robert Mapplethorpe: her aspiration, she once said, was to look like “a sleek, feline animal.” With her fibrous frame, Jackie moves through the world like a puma. The night of their first encounter, Lou offers her crush a gift, a shot of steroids in the ass, before taking her back to Mi Casa, where Lou bestows even more generosity with her tongue. Just as she’s about to come, Jackie’s massive biceps bulge further, the initial instance of visual effects that grow increasingly outlandish as the film proceeds.

Ed Harris as Lou Sr. in Love Lies Bleeding. Courtesy A24. Photo: Anna Kooris.

Constituting another kind of outré illusion are the hair extensions—lank, dun-colored tresses that hang down a foot or so from the sides of an otherwise blindingly bald head—sported by Ed Harris, playing Lou’s father, the owner of a shooting range, a front for his homicidal pursuits. He is not the only psychopathically violent man in Lou’s family: JJ (Dave Franco), married to her older sister, Bethany (Jena Malone), pulverizes his spouse’s face beyond recognition. This brutality is avenged by Jackie, setting in motion the corpse pileup, conflagrations, and flashbacks bathed in stygian red that dominate the film’s wheel-spinning second half. With this shift to the murderous, Stewart’s acting becomes ever more mannered. She stammers incessantly, like a soft-butch Carrie Bradshaw. O’Brian, in turn, is reduced to mostly jabbing herself with syringes and roid-raging.

Dave Franco as JJ in Love Lies Bleeding. Courtesy A24. Photo: Anna Kooris.

Before all the carnage, spending time with these two has its pleasures. Stewart and O’Brian generate real heat, whether their characters are in bed or not. I would have liked to linger longer in Lou’s apartment the morning after her first night with Jackie, when each woman reveals more about herself to the other. Lou proves to be a solicitous hostess, making omelets for her guest; Jackie’s a bit of a ham, showing off the poses she hopes will win her the top prize at that Vegas competition. But Glass rushes this scene and other quieter moments to get to the bloodshed.

Katy O’Brian as Jackie and Kristen Stewart as Lou in Love Lies Bleeding. Courtesy A24. Photo: Anna Kooris.

In its more placid segments, Love Lies Bleeding also exerts an atavistic pull, in which the arc of Stewart’s career comes into focus. With her shag mullet and tees and jeans, Lou suggests a kinship with Joan Jett, the dykon Stewart portrayed in The Runaways (2010), Floria Sigismondi’s lush recounting of the rise and fall of the ’70s jailbait rock group. Stewart was only nineteen when The Runaways opened, its release landing in the middle of the 2008–2012 run of the Twilight series. The actress became a global superstar thanks to that franchise, in which her character, Bella, epitomized the tremulous, swoony, boy-crazy teen—a persona amplified by the fact that Stewart and her costar Robert Pattinson were a couple in real life for much of the Twilight pentad. Her portrayal of Joan Jett, full of swagger and lust for her bandmate Cherie Currie, complicated Stewart’s highly hetero image onscreen and off—a blurring that continued owing to her choice of roles and coy announcements to the press until she officially came out in 2017 while hosting SNL. I remain ambivalent about whether the sex scenes in Love Lies Bleeding, such as the one in which Lou, her fingers inside Jackie, announces “I wanna stretch you,” are imbued with more “authenticity” now that Stewart is not merely an A-lister but also a celesbian.

I might be too concerned with the details of Stewart’s earlier filmography (and life) because Love Lies Bleeding and another movie released just two weeks earlier, Ethan Coen’s Drive-Away Dolls, have me thinking about the past. Coen’s lackluster feature, though a comedy with less slaughter, also concerns two lezzes on the run from sinister forces and, set in 1999, is similarly a glance in the rearview mirror. I wonder: What, for the makers of these dyke adventures, is the appeal of the retrospective view? To reimagine a genre in which characters like these weren’t at the center? Cinema history refutes this, for the years between ’89 and ’99 saw the release of at least three films about sapphic couples (or quasi-sapphic duos) caught up in crime: Heavenly Creatures, Fun, and Bound. I am not arguing to put a cap on how many of these movies, set in any year, are made. I wish only that looking back would not mean hitting a dead end.

Melissa Anderson is the film editor of 4Columns and the author of a monograph on David Lynch’s Inland Empire from Fireflies Press.

Roid-raging against the machine: lez lovers embark on a path of vengeance in Rose Glass’s second film.
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