Love Lies Bleeding: Rose Glass and the Monstrous Queer Feminine

To a new world of gods and monsters!

Septimus Pretorius (The Bride of Frankenstein)

There are many monsters in Rose Glass’ sophomore feature Love Lies Bleeding. The genre hybrid film positions almost everything in the outskirts Albuquerque, New Mexico as potentially threatening. In Glass’ Saint Maud, the Scarborough, North Yorkshire seaside setting created both a sense of timelessness and seediness. The crass reality of the town merged with the ocean. The seedy truck stops, car parks, and dirty bars of the outskirts of Albuquerque are melded with the endless and erasing desert. It’s a perfect place to disappear, and one Lou (Kirsten Stewart) wishes she could leave behind. The place has eaten her soul.

Working in a cheap gym called Crater, Lou spends most of her time watching people “feel the burn,” while cleaning out the shit clogged toilets. She’s dodging the rotten toothed Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov) who wants her to have “some fun,” and going home to sleep on her couch, feed her cat, and masturbate disconsolately.

Lou claims she’s living this purgatorial existence for one reason alone: to care for her sister, Bethany (Jena Malone) whose pugilistic husband JJ (Dave Franco) is about one swing away from killing her and leaving her kids without a mother. Something Lou has dealt with in her own past. She’s a motherless daughter.

In classic film noir tradition, a femme fatale walks into Lou’s life — in the form of a glistening and overwhelmingly enticing muscular beauty, Jackie (Katy O’Brian). On her way from a farm in Oklahoma to a body building competition in Las Vegas, Jackie has made a short pit stop to train for the competition. What Jackie doesn’t realise is that she’s entered a town where people only get to exit on the say so of Lou Sr. (Ed Harris looking and acting like a ghoul) whose border criminal activities have the town in his malignant thrall.

The moment Lou sees Jackie her world spins off its already precarious axis. Lou’s reclusive caution is abandoned. A head rush of steroids, sex, and stomach crunches follows. A woman who played dead is brought back to pulsating and orgasmic life. Everything moves like a speeding car getting close to careening of the edge of a cliff.

Jackie hasn’t only become involved with Lou, but through a one-night hook up with JJ, she’s working with Lou Sr. on his Louvile Gun Range. JJ is a twitchy little rodent (with the hairstyle to prove it) who is trying to look big in his father-in-law’s eyes. Eyes which see just a bit too clearly what is going on. Lou Sr. may be getting on a bit but he’s a deadly manipulator. Everyone wants something, and the price is high if he can provide it.

Jackie and Lou soon become co-dependent. Their steroid fuelled sex is only part of the amour fou. They are living in extremis. Jealousy, rage, and violence are inevitable. So too distrust. Neither woman has truly been in love before, and they don’t know how to negotiate it. Does love mean becoming the embodiment of an Erinyes and carrying out the semi-conscious wishes of your lover even though she didn’t ask?

Although Love Lies Bleeding follows neo noir conventions it reconfigures them into something grander. Pulpy and pulping violent crime is Glass’ way of delivering pure body horror. The gaze constantly moves between how glorious and how “erroneous” Jackie’s body is for patriarchal standards. As a queer woman in 1989 she’s already a “Macho Slut” and her relationship with Lou is one of transgression going beyond the sexual. They are un-women and ur-women. Lou can be seen as Jackie’s Victor Frankenstein. Helping to shape a body and mind she cannot control. Lou is also the stimulus who turns Jackie into a Hulk. When the “monster” decides she wants her prize, her body building trophy, nothing will get in her way.

Glass is a director whose goal appears to be to embrace and subvert conventions. Saint Maud was about obsession and repressed desire. Self-loathing turned outwards. As much as it is Blake and seaside Cronenberg, it is also a Gothic Horror. Morfydd Clark’s “Maud” is trying to save the soul of Jennifer Ehle’s Amanda because she wants to possess her body. To renounce her but also be her.

Although Glass never planned on shooting in New Mexico, it is difficult to imagine a better place for Love Lies Bleeding. Not only did it afford Glass and co-writer Weronika Tofilska the opportunity to work with Stewart, Harris, Malone, Franco, and the mesmerising Katy O’Brian; it gave them a canvas to create an eldritch cosmic horror love story. The gypsum mine where bodies have conveniently vanished for years under the auspices of Lou Sr. is akin to an alien landscape. Become untethered in the desert is the risk is losing more than one’s bearings. It’s a place where minds are lost, and sins are everlastingly written.

Love Lies Bleeding is the name of an Amaranthus, it is also the title of a poem by Christina Rossetti. Rossetti who wrote about intoxicating and addictive juices proffered by hideous goblin men who clawed at a young girl as she sought the cure for another. “…kiss’d and kiss’d her with a hungry mouth” was the way of sensual salvation. Rossetti who wrote of worms and death. Of grotesque men who Helter Skelter, and hurry skurry. Although Glass was looking for a title which spoke of melodrama, she also hit upon the essence of Blake’s The Sick Rose. Both Lou and Jackie are death dealers — but their violence is in response to a greater violence. Literary allusions aside, there is actual bug eating by Lou Sr. who keeps his specimens to enrich his soil. There are men who pierce and bind. Violence is the ouroboros for every major character.

There is something “wrong” about Lou and Jackie and their steroidal love story, but there is also something so very “right” about it. These women see red. They are made to bleed, and they make others bleed. They clean up messes and create them. But for Lou her love of Jackie gives her the opportunity to protect at all costs which Beth rejects from her. She’s doing her best to be good to someone who needs her to be good to her. They are both tender buttons and blind agitators. They are Eros and Thanatos in battle. Lou and Jackie will kill for each other, die for each other, or potentially end up obliterating each other.

From the sickening and pulverising sound design by Paul Davies, to the pulsating and propulsive soundtrack by Clint Mansell, and diegetic music from Nona Hendryx, Colourbox, Patrick Cowley, Gina X Performance, and Shiho Yabuki — Glass proves that she is not looking at a bubble gum pop version of the 1980s. It’s the Kathy Acker and John Waters queer underbelly.

Working through the pain, or fucking the pain away, two lovers collide like meteors and let loose a scream. Yet for all the intensity and grit, Glass also creates moments of comic catharsis. People die but Glass also wants to make you laugh as a cat might just give the game away to an FBI agent stalking Lou looking for her mother. A series of ill-timed traffic lights means that there is a witness to a crime. Lou spends ages trying to give up smoking just to light up again after a scene which borders on a Coen brothers crime comedy.

It’s easy to proclaim a film an “instant cult classic” but also lazy. Yet Rose Glass is already pecking at cult classics in Love Lies Bleeding. Glass and her cinematographer Ben Fordesman, production designer Katie Hickman, and Kristen Stewart’s hand-cut mullet and Ed Harris’ wig guarantee the film is seared into your brain with a hot poker.

Love Lies Bleeding is the queer as fuck, sleazy but sincere, thriller that no one even suspected they needed. Now it exists people will wonder how they ever lived without it. William Friedkin’s Cruising just found its lesbian equivalent and it is beyond being out of this world – it’s an unchartered galaxy with astonishing deities.

Director: Rose Glass

Cast: Anna Baryshnikov, Kristen Stewart, Dave Franco

Writers: Rose Glass, Weronika Tofilska

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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