No sooner had I put on my new sweater — a Christmas gift from my parents — than I started bleeding all over it. This wasn’t really a surprise as much as it was an inevitability of winter break spent in my parents’ apartment. I’ve always been prone to nosebleeds, and especially so during New York’s protracted winter dryness. Tilting my head back and reaching for a wad of tissues, I excused myself from the breakfast table and closed my eyes until I could feel the blood start to stem. Keeping calm in the face of a nosebleed is something I’ve learned from years of stained sweaters, bloody tissues and panicked apologies. Nosebleeds are such a pervasive aspect of my life that I’ve come to expect them at even the most inopportune moments. No job interview is too important, no bathroom makeout is too passionate, to be interrupted by a nosebleed.
To be susceptible to nosebleeds is to live with constant interruption. And I’ve always felt alone in this, since I never really knew anyone else with chronic nosebleeds. My only experience watching other people bleed from their nose was in movies, but even this wasn’t much company. Boxing and sci-fi movies like Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) and Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981) made nosebleeds seem like the kind of thing you only got after extreme head trauma, by way of repeated jabs to the face or the strain of exercising telepathy. In movies, nosebleeds were always induced. There’s something less climactic about Jake LaMotta being subject to a spontaneous nosebleed from New York’s winter dryness than Jake LaMotta having his nose busted open in the heat of a title fight.
Lately, though, the nosebleed as interruption has made a fittingly sudden entry into popular cinema. Lady Bird made waves in 2017 for its reinterpretation of the classic coming-of-age story in the new millennium, portraying the tragedy and comedy of teen angst with uncompromising honesty. That Greta Gerwig’s film depicts its protagonist having a nosebleed in the immediate aftermath of her first sexual encounter only contributes to that sense of honesty. The unexpected nosebleed only adds to the awkwardness of those initial fumbles through intimacy. Any sense of a magical movie moment is dispelled, and the characters are forced to sit and wait for the nosebleed to pass. The nosebleed forces an unexpected beat into the flow of the scene, as the characters have no choice but to grapple with the interruption.
Call Me by Your Name was 2017’s most transcendent love story — the final and best film of Luca Guadagnino’s “Desire Trilogy.” But its portrayal of desire is underpinned by the same honesty that Greta Gerwig so artfully weaves into every line of Lady Bird. In Guadagnino’s film, the advent of the unexpected nosebleed during a particularly excruciating lunchtime conversation provides interruption as escape. As one character leaves the table, the other has an excuse to go check on him. Sitting on the floor of the kitchen, the lovers finally have the chance to just talk, and to be alone with each other. The nosebleed, in all its inherent awkwardness, is reprieve from the posturing and faux-politeness of the lunch table.
In a marked shift away from the classic films of yore (read: the eighties), the paradigmatic nosebleed of 2017 catalyzes intimacy and honesty. Where in Lady Bird it interrupted the falseness and performativity of first sex, the nosebleed of Call Me by Your Name gives us interruption as a chance for unmediated closeness.
Looking up from the movie screen, to the state of a year in which political and personal divisions have grown starker than ever, it’s interesting to speculate on the sudden cinematic appearance of the sudden nosebleed. On the one hand, 2017 felt a lot like getting repeatedly punched in the face, a la Raging Bull. But on the other, the problem with 2017, or one of them, was that it felt so hard to know what fight to engage. Hurt came from all directions and none, unexpectedly.
It’s a strange balm for these films to have found in the sudden and unexplained nosebleed a source of closeness. The nosebleed is weird, but also it’s the biological tick that jerks us from the rush of our everyday, shaking us into heightened awareness. The nosebleed, in these films, is as much a reprieve as it is a call for reflection.
If you live with chronic nosebleeds, you expect them constantly. And you expect them to ruin your Christmas breakfast, your job interview, your Tinder date. Lady Bird and Call Me by Your Name seek to reframe the spontaneous nosebleed as an instance of happy interruption, a moment for being honest with each other about the dryness of our collective noses and the innermost anxieties of our collective imaginations. These movies remind us that for every sweater stained and every tissue box depleted, there’s a coordinate moment of reflective pause for which we have our nosebleeds to thank.
—Will Gottsegen is a senior at Pomona College learning to love his nosebleeds one day at a time.