Love Lies Bleeding review: Kristen Stewart leads a hypnotic, steroid-fuelled fever dream

The British director of ‘Saint Maud’ has returned with an intense lesbian love story about women yearning for power

Clarisse Loughrey
Thursday 02 May 2024 12:21 BST
Love Lies Bleeding Trailer

When Lou (Kristen Stewart) first sees Jackie (Katy O’Brian) in Love Lies Bleeding, from across the floor at the gym she works at, you can read the desire on her lips. Lou’s an introverted lesbian in a New Mexico desert town so rural that, at night, the sky fills with a thousand pin-prick stars. She comes home at the end of the day, puts on an anti-smoking cassette while she lights up, and microwaves a meal her cat will end up feasting on while she tries to masturbate on the couch. It’s better, at least, than what she does have as a sexual outlet: Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov), with her tar-stained teeth and disconcerting eagerness.

But, then, here comes Jackie, a drifter bodybuilder on her way to a competition in Las Vegas. She has a little pink nylon jacket, a smile as sweet as sunshine, and muscles so thick they ripple like ocean waves. Love Lies Bleeding bottles that hot, feverish, salvatory desire, only to shake it like soda pop and then ping off the cap.

It’s directed by Rose Glass, who co-wrote its script with Weronika Tofilska. Glass is a British filmmaker who made an arresting debut in 2020 with the Scarborough-based religious horror Saint Maud, which imagined the orgasmic extremes of a heavenly visitation. She brings that same intensity, now, to America, at the tail end of the Eighties, and to all that is beautiful and destructive about love.

Lou seduces Jackie with a needle full of steroids. Jackie moves in. They have sex. Lou makes her an omelette in the morning (Jackie asks her to skip the yolks next time). They have sex again. Lou licks chocolate protein shake off of Jackie’s chest. Suddenly, their sapphic heaven is interrupted by a phone call. Lou’s sister Beth (Jena Malone) is in the hospital. She’s been assaulted – again – by her husband JJ (Dave Franco), a sick bundle of violent insecurities. Their world is nothing but controlling, vindictive men: a gym full of creeps and a father (Ed Harris) who Lou has tried and failed to extricate from her life.

Glass is a macabre fabulist, decorating her movie with dimly lit spaces, blood-red flashbacks, and the ominous call of a seemingly bottomless canyon. But the feeling that permeates it all is desperate frustration – specifically, a woman’s yearning for the kind of power that could finally even the odds. Stewart is brilliant here, in a way that adds Love Lies Bleeding to her own, expanding catalogue of desire on screen, from her wholesome romcom Happiest Season to the giddy perversions of David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future. But, O’Brian, already intriguing in her turn as an Imperial grunt in The Mandalorian, is also a real standout, lending Jackie just a touch of naivety; the thwarted belief that she could save the world purely by punching her way through it.

Bloody brilliant: Kristen Stewart in ‘Love Lies Bleeding’
Bloody brilliant: Kristen Stewart in ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ (A24)

As Jackie starts to unravel due to her steroid use, Love Lies Bleeding turns from hypnotic close-ups of popping veins – twinned with Clint Mansell’s eerie synths and an unearthly, squelching soundscape – towards the bigger questions about gender and power. Is Jackie’s brute strength the key to freedom? Or just another way to damn these lovers to the same patriarchal myths about control? Not all of Glass’s provocations achieve the same effect – a birthing scene feels inserted purely for its body horror potential – but, still, the overall result is incredibly compelling. Not many artists are this brave when it comes to probing at our sexual desires, and what they reveal about us.

Dir: Rose Glass. Starring: Kristen Stewart, Katy O’Brian, Jena Malone, Anna Baryshnikov, Dave Franco, Ed Harris. 15, 104 mins.

‘Love Lies Bleeding’ is in cinemas from 3 May

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