Love Lies Bleeding is a sapphic, sweaty crime thriller with serious muscle

Fresh from its screenings at the 2024 Berlin Film Festival, Eliza Janssen reviews Love Lies Bleeding: an off-the-rails love story that gives Kristen Stewart the chance to be silly, sexy, and just a tad Twilight-y again.

Oh to be flirting with Kristen Stewart on a moist gym floor, when she coyly offers you a boxed gift. There are no chocolates or Pretty Woman-esque bejewelled prizes inside; just syringes of performance-enhancing steroids, the first blushes of a toxically codependent sweat-junkie romance.

There’s no gain without pain, of course, and the love story between Stewart’s secretive character Lou and her musclebound new squeeze Jackie (Katy O’Brian) goes from meet-cute to meaty criminal mishaps in no time. Love Lies Bleeding will turn off some sensible A24 fans with the depths the pair sink to, offering a far gnarlier, trashier, sweeter vision than director Rose Glass’s acclaimed horror debut Saint Maud.

But my audience at the Berlinale ate up every bit of OTT gore, every shot of protein shake dripping down cleavage, every sting of the synth scored to ape erotic thrillers of the 1980s. This movie is a good goddamned time. Especially for the gals who’ve been waiting for a full-blown, gratuitous lesbian K.Stew role like this.

The film is entertaining and sensual from the get-go, but its premise begins from a far more serious place than the bonkers climax we’re ultimately treated to. Jackie is a drifter—think a big-hearted female version of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in They Live—with goals of bodybuilding greatness at an upcoming competition in Las Vegas. She has to screw a vile Dave Franco in his car for a job at a gun range run by bug-obsessed Big Bad Ed Harris. Both men rock insane wigs in this film; we’re off to a great start.

Glass alternates between macho, claustrophobic indoor spaces and doom-filled desert nights, starry velvet skies dominating half the frame. We can totally intuit why the anti-social Lou gravitates towards Jackie, with her big dreams and bigger physique. They’re both badass women with hard pasts in aggressive, masculine spaces—even their steamy sex scenes feel like an escalation of something dark, rather than a safe, feminine retreat from the film’s tough world.

Glass and co-writer Weronika Tofilska are playing with the time-honoured tools of Coen-esque neo-noir, erotic thrillers, and pulpy lesbian exploitation cinema here, and those tropes can become overbearing as the film becomes more plot-centric. For instance: Harris’s villain turns out to be Lou Sr, and Franco is Stewart’s loathsome brother-in-law, whose domestic abuse sends Lou Jr’s sister (Jena Malone in a relatively thankless, shrill role) to the hospital. Pent up with roid rage, Jackie goes on a violent revenge mission on her new sweetheart’s behalf. The body count rises from there—and Love Lies Bleeding can’t quite maintain the nervy cool of its opening act to account for each nutty new murder.

Kristen Stewart is beyond capable as the butch anti-hero at the centre of these crime-thriller shenanigans. She starts the film in a familiar mode, biting her lip and deadpanning at the mortal threats she faces (“Are you threatening me?”, her dad asks over the phone; she takes a long time to anticlimactically respond “….yep.”). But Glass has also gifted the actor a chance to relish in her undersung charisma, playing both a twisted romantic lead and, gradually, a comedic lead too. As the bodies pile up, Lou is left racing around, covering up Jackie’s bloody tracks; most of her dialogue in the last half-hour of the film is the frazzled syllable, “huh?”. She’s actually giving a young Bruce Willis, in his action roles where he plays a hapless everyman up against insane odds.

Martial artist Katy O’Brian is a terrific discovery, too, in a role with demanding and specific physical requirements that’s reminiscent of Zac Efron’s tragic turn in The Iron Claw. She bears the brunt of the film’s somewhat shaky second-act choices, where plot contrivances force the lovers apart and Jackie spirals into roid-induced psychosis that’s not entirely developed. The immediate power of her body, salivated over by Ben Fordesman’s cinematography, lends the film its risque exploitation element—something that feels entirely unique even when the movie’s suspense slackens.

I’m curious to see how the bananas action climax of Love Lies Bleeding is received by audiences. It’s completely silly, hallucinatory and romantic, and kind of ruins some of the work the film has done in establishing the gritty experiences of its down-on-their-luck heroes.

Early on, Glass relishes flashback scenes of Lou’s grim past with her dodgy dad, flooding the screen with inky black and sanguine reds. Wearing a long wig in these high-contrast moments, Stewart looks momentarily much like Bella Swan, the equally befuddled victim of love she played in the maligned Twilight series.

The resemblance only makes Love Lies Bleeding even more of a venal, juicy delight to savour. Even when it becomes tonally messy, Glass indulging in all the nightmarish desire and delusion that was so restrained in Saint Maud. As Edward Cullen once said of a younger, more innocent K.Stew: this movie might be my own personal brand of heroin.