Love Lies Bleeding, the new film by director Rose Glass, is a simple girl-meets-girl noir story. At least, for about half of its running time.

Set in a nowhere town populated by gun nuts and ne’er-do-wells, it opens with a chance encounter between Lou (Kristen Stewart) and Jackie (Katy O’Brian). The former’s trapped in this dump because she needs to protect her sister, and the latter has sailed in to try and pursue her dreams of becoming a bodybuilding superstar. They shoot each other up with steroids, make food for each other, and fall in love. 

They are, from the outset, different. They don’t fit into this place, with its villains and deadbeats. Not just because they are queer – but because they want for more, and desire something bigger than the diners and gun ranges on offer.  

Which is the impetus for Love Lies Bleeding’s sudden, mid-film shift. The more Lou and Jackie fall out of step with the town, the more they begin to literally change. Jackie, always strong, starts to become superhumanly so. Her body expands outrageously, until, before the audience has really noticed what is going on, she is a giant, dwarfing the town and its denizens. 

Jackie (Katy O’Brien), Love Lies Bleeding, A24

In this way, Love Lives Bleeding owes more to the cinematic genre of body horror than it does to the noir trappings it initially flirts with. And more than that, it investigates one of body horror’s key themes – the way that difference can manifest not just in our minds, but on our skin. 

The mind and the body, the body and the mind

Body horror as a genre is a continuation of the work of philosopher Baruch Spinoza. For Spinoza, the body and the mind are the same thing – the one substance. They are “numerically identical”, as in, there is no separation whatsoever between them. When you point to the mind, you are also pointing to the body. Indeed, Spinoza was a monist – as in, he believed that all things were made from one singular “entity.” Spinoza called this entity nature; some have called it God. 

Importantly, this monism means that for Spinoza, our emotions, thoughts, and desires are inherently embodied. On Spinoza’s view, we are not just a brain, controlling a fleshy automaton of a body. We are in our own skin. Or, more precisely, we are our own skin. Anything that we think or want expresses itself physically, because our brain is inherently physical. 

This view tells us interesting things about both body horror cinema, and about otherness. Namely, that if we are other – if we step outside the mainstream of sexuality, gender, or ability – then that otherness will manifest ourselves in our body. There is no hiding our difference on this view; no successful way to “pass”, as though we are part of the established norm. Anything that we think and feel will make us physically different, and therefore will be able to be read by others. We will always be a square peg in a round hole, and everybody will always know it. 

Love Lies Bleeding takes the most extreme version of this perspective – Jackie’s gigantism is a physical manifestation of her difference that means she can’t fit through doorways, let alone pass as one of the town’s regular citizens. She is other, which means she doesn’t just occupy mental states that run against the mainstream. Her difference changes how she carries herself in the world – and how she is perceived. 

Love Lies Bleeding, A24

The othered body and its power

Body horror films do more than merely diagnose the physical manifestations of otherness, however. They also pass a sort of moral judgment on it. Many entries into the genre don’t see this otherness as something to be avoided, or stripped away. Indeed, they see it as something to be embraced – a source of considerable power. 

Take, for instance, Carrie, directed by Brian DePalma, in which a young alienated woman discovers that she has telekinetic powers. Carrie is the subject of relentless bullying – in the opening scene, we see her body shamed for its difference, as she has a period in the communal shower, much to the cruel glee of her schoolmates.  

But when she discovers that which makes her different is the same thing which makes her special, she becomes significantly stronger. The film’s bloodbath of an ending, in which Carrie decimates those who have humiliated her, is a strange sort of coronation – Carrie is literally wearing a crown while she murders a roomful of her enemies. She’s stopped trying to fit in. Instead, she has thoroughly, wholeheartedly embraced her otherness. 

Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), Carrie, 1976, MGM

This is point of view is also backed up in the literature about Spinoza. As many Spinoza scholars have noted, understanding is the key to Spinoza’s project – he believed in the ethical value of the accumulation of knowledge – and because of his monism, this understanding is one centred in the body. “For Spinoza the critical task is to formulate an ethics of knowing, which begins with an understanding that body and mind are two attributes of the same substance,” write Paul Stenner and Steven D. Brown. “Increasing the capacity of the body to both be affected and affect others is the means by which the knowing subject progresses.” 

In these body horror films, assimilation with the status quo is impossible – how could Carrie, with her telekinesis, ever be like others? How could Lou, the giant, ever pretend to be different? But more than that, however, assimilation is not even desirable. Instead, these films are a rallying cry to those who do not fit into boxes; to the outcasts. They say, “any changes will be noticeable on your skin, so you cannot hide them.” And they say, “any changes will be noticeable on your skin, so you should not hide them.” 

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