Love Lies Bleeding, Rose Glass
Still courtesy of A24 Films

Is ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ An Act of Surrender?

After her psychological-horror debut Saint Maud, cinema took Rose Glass’ bright new voice in genre filmmaking and, with Love Lies Bleeding, clipped her wings.

Love Lies Bleeding
Rose Glass
3 March 2024 (UK)

“Blood-soaked” is one adjective chosen by the distributor of Rose Glass’ new film, Love Lies Bleeding. “Electric” is another the publicity machine has churned out. Meanwhile, the title of my colleague Chris Barsanti’s lukewarm write-up reads, “drips with danger and desire“. 

What caught my eye about Barsanti’s review was the evocative description, “Rose Glass drenches Love Lies Bleeding in sensation and texture….” His critique holds true because aside from the potent danger and desire, the hard-boiled crime drama provokes an array of visceral sensations. At the same time, Glass finds the story eludes her, undermining Love Lies Bleeding’s sensory provocation. Whether we call it a sophomore slump after her thematically interesting psychological-horror debut Saint Maud (2019), cinema has taken a potentially bright new voice in genre filmmaking and clipped her wings. 

Set in a nondescript New Mexico town in 1988, Jackie (Katy M. O’Brian), who is en route to Las Vegas for the Bodybuilding Championships, catches the eye of reclusive gym manager Lou (Kristen Stewart). Unbeknownst to Lou, Jackie has landed a job at the local gun club, run by Lou’s criminal father, played by Ed Harris, after fucking Lou’s brother-in-law JJ (Dave Franco) in the backseat of his car. The choices Jackie makes drag Lou into a violent confrontation with her estranged father. 

Love Lies Bleeding opens with the title in a bright red font set to pounding music. The quotes on the gym wall, “Only losers quit” and “Pain is weakness leaving the body”, fill the space with machismo energy. Lou unclogs a blocked toilet that, combined with the body odor and dirty floors, makes one feel nauseous. Glass intends for Love Lies Bleeding to make an immediate sensory impression on its audience, which becomes a trend.

Blood-soaked is a fitting description for a crime film whose death scenes lean into a Cronenberg-esque body horror, while Lou and Jackie’s sex scenes are electric. Watching the two women sate their lust, you can feel their urgent, almost carnal desire for one another’s bodies. Meanwhile, danger escalates throughout the story.

Critics have identified a myriad of influences including crime writers James M. Cain and Jim Thompson, and the Coen Brothers’ 1984 neo-noir crime film Blood Simple. Unlike the Coen’s early lean, dark, and relentless masterpiece, which was at the forefront of my mind, Love Lies Bleeding struggles to engage in the same entertaining way. Instead, it’s a grind, but praise for Glass’s direction lies inside this criticism. 

The nondescript town becomes a place Lou and the audience are desperate to escape. There’s something repugnant about the film as if we’re breathing the same air as the characters. We’re dragged through the nauseating dirt and grime of the blood, sweat, corruption, and guilt. Despite the narrative shortcomings, Love Lies Bleeding is as remarkable as forgettable.  

Kristen Stewart’s strength of presence struggles to elevate the material. Katy O’Brian delivers a strong performance, and Ed Harris (with his outlandish hair) is fun to watch. However, the always dependable Jena Malone, who plays Lou’s sister, a one-dimensional victim of domestic abuse, is wasted here.

Off the back of Saint Maud’s success, is Glass a victim of her hubris? Love Lies Bleeding is certainly a full-blooded and confident film, but it resembles a narrative exercise. Glass shows she can plot this type of story, but can’t equal Blood Simple, for example, or two classic film noir adaptations of James M. Cain’s stories: Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). 

In Love Lies Bleeding, the danger Lou and Jackie face lacks suspense, partly because we’re not fully immersed in the gritty stakes. Instead, Glass passively exploits this danger to provoke the audience’s emotional response. Blood Simple not only expresses the sensation and texture of lust, tension, and violence but bristles with high emotion that puts the audiences inside the relationships and choices of the characters, as Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Glass struggles to strike this complimentary balance and Love Lies Bleeding becomes lost in an underwhelming narrative exercise. Just as Jackie is passing through this town and this story, so is the audience, who are only allowed to passively observe the film’s car crash of human relationships. 

Criticism is not limited to Glass and Love Lies Bleeding, but distributor A24, who empowers filmmakers to exercise poor judgment in pursuing elevated storytelling. Glass, like directors Ari Aster and Alex Garland, twists and bends stories to their breaking point, ignoring the natural limitations. Garland’s messy and indulgent 2022 folk horror, Men, which lazily presents surreal ideas without laying the narrative groundwork, and Aster’s failure to make choices in the 2018 horror Hereditary, is now joined by Love Lies Bleeding. Glass betrays the grounded and hard-boiled crime sensibility for a flirtation with the surreal. Filmmakers should be encouraged to experiment with the cinematic language, but under A24’s hubris, it’s done carelessly and indulgently. 

Does this brief surrealist indulgence position Love Lies Bleeding as an act of surrender? Did Glass have bigger ambitions but shot an early draft of the film, or did she lose control?

Unlike Saint Maud, which finds thematic spaces to explore faith and trauma, Love Lies Bleeding doesn’t need to find this space. Instead, it can rely on a narrative that complements sensation without leaning heavily into themes and ideas. True to its title, Love Lies Bleeding is about the pain of love and how it can become something wounded that we carry with us. While it’s thematically leaner than Saint Maud, it emphasizes Glass’ interest in the motivations of violence, especially love and devotion, present in her feature debut. 

This doesn’t clarify the questions at hand, but Patrick Califia’s 1988 collection of sadomasochism-themed erotic short stories, Macho Sluts, which Lou is seen reading, might. Califia is a bi-sexual trans man, who transitioned in the ’90s, but in the ’80s identified as a lesbian woman, going by the name Pat. 

Carolyn Bronstein, an associate professor of Communication at DePaul University in Chicago, has written about Califia’s anthology. Her article, “The Political Uses of Lesbian Romance Fiction: Patrick Califia’s Macho Sluts as a Response to 1980s Anti-Pornography Feminism”, published in the February 2014 issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, positions Macho Sluts as a political work in its support of lesbian sadomasochism against anti-pornography feminists, notably Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media (WAVPM).

“Most of WAVPM’s members identified as lesbian feminists, a theoretical position that rejected forms of sexuality that perpetuated an unequal distribution of power between partners,” writes Bronstein. “This included heterosexuality, as well as sadomasochism because of its dominant (master/sadist) and submissive (slave/masochist) roles. They viewed aspects of SM, such as the infliction of physical pain and the use of psychological intimidation tactics, as reproducing the power imbalance fundamental to patriarchy.”

Glass may have missed a trick in not using the book’s sadomasochistic themes. While there’s an intensity in the sex scenes, by refusing to embrace lesbian sadomasochism, Love Lies Bleeding may unconsciously side with the anti-pornography feminists. It’s ironic because throughout Love Lies Bleeding, Lou and Jackie alternate between dominant and submissive roles, one more dependent on the other in surviving Lou’s violent father and his allies. 

A sadomasochistic relationship would have complemented the power dynamic and power exchanges central to the story: Lou’s relationship with her father, her desire to protect her sister from JJ, and her burgeoning relationship with Jackie. It would counteract the machismo gaze that threatens to dominate Glass’ female gaze or the feeling that the women are trapped in a patriarchal world, thus empowering the bi-sexual Jackie and lesbian Lou. While it’s not a fix, it may have set Glass on the path to a dark, relentless narrative that would have supported Love Lies Bleeding’s visceral sensations. In its current form, Glass’ hard-boiled crime film is an act of surrender, but even in defeat, she gets under her audience’s skin.

Love Lies Bleeding premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival and was the Opening Night Gala at the 2024 Glasgow Film Festival. It was released theatrically in the US on 8 March 2024 by A24 and in the UK on 3 May 2024 by Lionsgate.