Sundance: First Reactions to Kristen Stewart’s “Brutal, Triumphant” Lesbian Pic ‘Love Lies Bleeding’

The official description for Rose Glass’s Love Lies Bleeding on the Sundance Film Festival website calls the A24 pic “an off-the-wall, rambunctious lesbian love story” that “crashes into a family drama of the darkest ilk in this muscular thriller.” It’s also cited for “violence, graphic sexual content and other mature content.”

It’s a pretty spot-on description — plus some surprise scenes best saved for the film’s March 8 release — and the capacity crowd seated inside Park City’s Eccles Theater on Saturday night greeted the world premiere with an enthusiastic response and partial standing ovation. A man seated next to The Hollywood Reporter relayed a single adjective to a friend after the credits rolled: “Crazy.” Other times as the action unfolded, there were cheers, wows, fidgeting as one character’s face is destroyed in an act of violence, and maybe a few laughs at unintended moments.

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Written by Glass with Weronika Tofilska, the film follows a reclusive gym manager Lou, played by Kristen Stewart, who falls hard for Jackie, an ambitious bodybuilder, played by Katy O’Brian, who has hopes of making it to Las Vegas for a competition. After a domestic violence situation arises between Lou’s sister, played by Jena Malone, and her husband, a villainous Dave Franco, the plot hits overdrive as Jackie’s violent tendencies bring out the worst in her.

The cast also includes Ed Harris as Lou’s father and Anna Baryshnikov as a local woman obsessed with Lou. The A24 and Film 4 pic was produced by Andrea Cornwell and Oliver Kassman. Glass previously directed Saint Maud, which premiered in the Midnight Madness section at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The world premiere Sundance showing also marked the first viewing for the actors, and festival veteran Malone took a moment to offer her reaction during the Q&A. “I’m having a hard time just acting normal. I’m just still so incredibly moved by the film,” said the actress. “I think it blew [me] away. It’s so beautiful and powerful. It was the best script I ever read — it really was. I mean, hands down. I know that things transform, but it’s such a beautiful film. It’s really going to just sink in, and it’s going to take a little bit [because] I’m overwhelmed. I’m in awe.”

Harris used the same word as Malone to describe his reaction, going so far as to single out Stewart and O’Brian. “I’m just in awe of the two of you guys and what you accomplished,” Harris said of the two twisted lovebirds. “Fucking beautiful. I’m just really proud to be a part of the movie.” He also elaborated on getting extensions for the film that stretched halfway down his back, a choice approved by Glass. “I got these extensions put in, and I figured I’d just show up on a set, and she’ll tell me how long she wanted it to be. And she said, ‘That’s fine.’”

Glass praised her actors for taking a risk to work on the film. “I’m glad that you guys liked it,” she said to the audience before turning her attention back to the talent. “Because to do some ridiculous stuff, I knew it had to be grounded in performances that just felt very real and lived in to balance out the craziness. Everyone just went with it and never looked at me going, ‘Really?’, which is a nice feeling.”

That certainly applies to Stewart, as the role offers something audiences have never seen from the 33-year-old star. Not only does her character Lou fall head over heels for a bodybuilder but also the two have some passionate and intimate lesbian sex scenes that include oral sex, brief toe-sucking and one encounter that finds Lou instructing Jackie to masturbate while she watches from inches away. She also is first seen in the film unclogging a toilet with her bare hands, and by the end, she’s stained by blood more than once. Needless to say, this is not Hulu’s Happiest Season, the last time the openly gay actress played queer onscreen in a holiday dramedy of sorts.

“The script is, like, totally different,” Stewart said, describing Glass as a sculptor. “I definitely trusted her when she was like, ‘Go in, go berserk,’ or, like, ‘Be real in this moment.’ I think it all came from a place of discovery and love and you tell yourself any story to justify loving something. We all have these horrible little monsters in here.”

Glass said that she initially wanted to set the film in Scotland, but once the setting changed to the United States, she had Stewart in mind very early on. “I was very much hoping that she’d say yes, and thank God she did.”

The final question of the Q&A was directed at newcomer O’Brian who segued to acting (Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and The Mandalorian) after competing as a professional bodybuilder. She was asked about her workout regimen. As someone who competed, she said, “it wasn’t that hard.” If anything, she explained, it was easier than doing it on her own thanks to hired help courtesy of the production.

She had a nutritionist and a trainer, and even the support of one of the producers, who hit the bells with her. “What was really cool is that [Oliver Kassman] came and worked out with me sometimes and my buddy George. I had people support from the set, too, because they wanted to come and train with me. One of our props girls was, like, a mad powerlifter,” she explained. “It was really cool to have people who [were] working just as hard as I am, if not way harder on set, come and train, too. It was a really cool, supportive environment. I did not do it alone.”

It’s been a big Sundance for Stewart thus far. The festival veteran has already premiered and promoted her work opposite Steven Yeun in Love Me for husband and wife filmmakers Sam and Andy Zuchero, and she was honored during the opening night gala with a Visionary Award for previously bringing 10 films to Park City. At that event, she told THR about why she was so smitten by Sundance.

“My biggest takeaway is that whenever I hear that one of the movies that I’ve been a part of gets accepted here, I am overjoyed,” she said. “There are so many paths to audiences. There are so many paths to fellow humans. To get through to people here is just really visceral and tactile and real and personal. The first time I came here I was like 14, and I’ve been back a bunch of times, and it’s never not been that way.”

She continued: “Sundance is like, it’s the cool one. I wish I had a better word for that, but I always wanted to be in the land of [Evan Rachel Wood], Jena Malone and Natalie Portman. I was always like, if I could get to go hang out there, I would be so happy. And I’ve gotten to do it so much. I fucking love this place.”

See reactions to Love Lies Bleeding below and read THR’s review here from chief film critic David Rooney, who writes that the film “makes the still-glorious queen of lesbian romantic crime thrillers, Bound, look almost demure.”

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