Movies

The Big Influence on Bodies Bodies Bodies Everyone Is Missing

A24’s murder mystery pokes fun at Gen Z narcissism, but its roots go much further back.

Four young women stand nervously together inside an opulent living room, drenched in water.
Bodies Bodies Bodies bodies. Gwen Capistran/A24

Bodies Bodies Bodies is a murder mystery in which corpses stack up like firewood, but long before the first throat is cut, the movie’s Gen Z protagonists are slicing each other apart with words. The film is a slantwise slasher, using the genre’s chills and twists for social commentary. When a group of young, wealthy friends gather at David’s family’s mansion to ride out a hurricane, a murder game turns all too real when David is found with a slashed throat. As the friends look for his killer, they turn on each other. They make accusations on very contemporary grounds: People are suspected of murder because they’re “toxic” or “ableist.” Jordan seems dangerously duplicitous because she hate-listens to her friend’s podcast. Bodies keep piling up, and flouting youthfully censorious social mores can be a death sentence.

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Not surprisingly, Bodies Bodies Bodies has been interpreted as a satire of Gen Z morality and cancel culture. This reading has been encouraged by Halina Reijn, the film’s director, who has described it as “a fable and a cautionary tale” about the “narcissism of our times.” (The story is based on a screenplay by “Cat Person’s” Kristen Roupenian, but Reijn helped develop the script with playwright Sarah DeLappe. She had particular input on the film’s twist ending, which hammers this moral home bluntly.) Reijn gets all these beats right. There’s that one-two punch of achingly earnest affirmations immediately preceding a gunshot or a death blow, or the anodyne babbling as the women wipe blood off each other’s limbs.

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But Reijn’s punches and jabs wouldn’t land so effectively if the film were just a bloody comedy of manners. The jokes and shocks work because they’re layered on a more fundamental drama about female passion and aggression. Reijn sees her Zoomer girls’ wild humanity as well as their vapid inanities. Her ability to make these women both satirical “types” and compelling dramatic characters—which has barely been mentioned in dissections of the film—comes from her experience as one of Holland’s greatest stage actresses.

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Bodies Bodies Bodies is less a slasher flick than an Agatha Christie-esque locked room mystery, with a cast of stock characters and motives. The locked room mystery shares a lot of DNA with 19th-century drawing room dramas: there are unhappy couples, embittered ex-lovers, and mysterious strangers, all who have motives to kill, or at least to stir things up. On the stage, Reijn played in drawing room dramas that made intimate power dynamics seem comically horrific. On the screen, she draws deeper social drama out of comic horror.

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As an actress, Reijn has had a long film career, with supporting roles in Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book and the Tom Cruise film Valkyrie, but she received her greatest acclaim in the theater. For 14 years she worked at Toneelgroep Amsterdam with the celebrated stage director Ivo van Hove. She played the lead roles in some of those great drawing-room dramas: Ibsen’s discontented housewife Nora in a revised version of A Doll’s House, and the magnificently destructive Hedda Gabler in his play of the same name. (In Bodies Bodies Bodies, the winsome actress Emma has played Hedda; her friends think that she “wasn’t that great.”) Reijn gave viscerally intense performances of difficult, degraded and demonized women, notably as the lead in van Hove’s brutal interpretation of Taming of the Shrew. She excelled as perverse and bloodyminded characters from literature and cinema: the masochistic Dominique Francon in an adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (which played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave festival in 2017). and the adulterous, murderous Hanna in Obsession, derived from a film by Luchino Visconti.(Obsession was produced at the Barbican in London, and was recorded and broadcast worldwide as part of the “National Theatre Live” program.)

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All the superlatives used to praise stage divas ring hollow in the face of Reijn’s talent. She made van Hove’s work shine because her characters, however misogynistically degraded, maintained a powerful inner strength that didn’t preclude howling vulnerability or mounting rage. Hedda Gabbler’s blackmailer throws her against the wall and pours beer over her head. Dominique is violently raped. Reijn’s shrew was tamed by being forced to urinate on top of a table. (Van Hove has been accused of misogyny, but Reijn rejects the idea: “Of course we are still living in societies where women are oppressed,” she said in an interview. “So why lie about it? Put it on the stage instead!”) In this and other ways, Reijn’s stunning charisma burnished van Hove’s unconventional takes on the classics. He disrupted scenes with splashes of fluids and explosive gestures. (In Obsession, Reijn tries to grab the attention of her distant lover by chucking a bag of trash at him and breaking into a French pop song.) Reijn acted in plays where the truths of power dynamics lay alongside violent and shocking effects. In Bodies Bodies Bodies, the horror film also uses weird juxtapositions to offer similar insights into human nature.

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Given Reijn’s background, it’s easy to see flashes of theater divas in the women of Bodies Bodies Bodies, who gain dramatic potency as the shit hits the fan. Jordan is simmering with rage from the get-go. Embittered by the happiness of her ex, Sophie, she schemes and antagonizes with a steely, unerring nastiness that suggests Hedda Gabler’s itch for destruction. (Like Hedda, she starts swinging guns around, and that ends very badly.) Herrold’s unrelenting performance deserves particular notice; there’s something of Reijn’s own steel in it. Rachel Sennot’s sweetly dippy Alice is fulfilled by her little podcast and happy with her much older boyfriend Greg, a man whose implacable good vibes seem entirely genuine and also very annoying. They bear a squinting resemblance to Thea Elvsted and Eilert Lövborg, Hedda Gabler’s happy unconventional couple, whose contentedness Hedda cannot understand and thus ruthlessly destroys. It is Jordan who first insists that Greg is David’s murderer, and goads the other women into killing him.

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The scene of Greg’s murder (in an indoor basketball court) most closely resembles a van Hove set: a blank, empty cube, unnaturally lit in red, (the color of sex and death in his productions.) The comedy-horror set up of the scene gets upended: the women who are ready to pounce because Greg seems suspiciously outdoorsy are not the ones who take him down. Their comic hysteria is undercut when Greg is felled with startling, unceremonious swiftness by Sophie’s quiet girlfriend Bee, who supposedly does it to protect Sophie from Greg. His dramatic bloody death—and the shocking way that Bee brains him again when he doesn’t go down at once—suggest van Hove’s Obsession, where a mysterious character murders and older man for his lover. In between the jokes about whether Greg’s a secret prepper, and Alice’s earnest belief in his innocence because he’s a “Libra moon,” Jordan and Bee’s more idiosyncratic and timeless demons are the forces that lead most directly to his death. “Destructive forces have always been in Hedda,” van Hove wrote in his director’s notes, countering the notion that society’s sexism is the only reason for the character’s suicide. In Bodies Bodies Bodies, women’s more personal demons, rather than a woke witch hunt, ultimately kill Greg. It’s a more dramatically interesting course of events that makes the film bigger than a mere contemporary satire.

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Bodies Bodies Bodies’ theatrical influences also illuminates the film’s subplot: Sophie and Bee’s ill-fated romance. It forms the heart of the film (Reijn calls “toxic love” her “main theme”), and closely evokes the romance in Obsession, her final collaboration with van Hove. Sophie and Bee—one rich, one a poor drifter, are initially bound together by intense physical desire. Sophie (who Amandla Stenberg plays with Reijn’s kind of shaky-sexy bravado) loves Bee passionately, but Bee doesn’t say “I love you” back. After Bee murders (twice) to protect Sophie, the deaths bind them together even as guilt and infidelity fray their bonds. Van Hove saw Obsession as a tragic story, a doomed love predetermined by fate. Reijn takes the youthful hope and tragic impossibility of the romance as seriously as anything in the movie, and there’s real passion and depth to Stenberg and Maria Bakalova’s performances. Yet as they emerge as the sole survivors of their night of horror, no romantic or tragic ending awaits them. We’re back to the Gen Z present, as the two wrestle in the mud, grappling for possession of a cell phone, searching for texts that will prove Sophie’s infidelity. What they discover is far worse, and leaves them frozen to the screen in a moment of shock and horror, stuck in a very contemporary nightmare. Ibsen’s heroine’s chose death or desertion over societies that they could not live in; for Bee and Sophie, the cell phone promises that there can be no escape.

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