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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

American Mary: The Transmogrification of Mary


American Mary (2012) is a horror film by and about women, written and directed by the Soska Sisters and starring Katharine Isabelle.  It is a dark and transgressive film about the concepts of beauty and self identity.  The eponymous Mary is a medical student struggling to pay her bills and to meet the expectations of her instructors, despite her talent and drive to succeed.  But when, in an odd twist of fortune, she is offered money in exchange for her surgical knowledge and a willingness to participate in less than legal operations, Mary ventures into an underground world of body modification surgeries and revenge.  

The monster in this “monster movie in October” is beautiful.  Mary is an attractive and intelligent young woman, motivated and strong willed, but in the course of the film she is transformed (morally, if not externally) even as she performs body modification surgeries to alter the appearance of her clients.  American Mary is a film about the transmogrification of its central character, the strange and grotesque transformation characterized by distortion, exaggeration and exaggeration.  The tongue splitting, teeth filing, surgical implants, genital modifications, and voluntary amputations of the “bodmod” culture are less extreme and less grotesque than the self mutilation that Mary inflicts upon her own humanity.

There are few likable or sympathetic characters in this movie – male or female.  The men are either abusive and cruel or weak and easily manipulated.  Her med school professors are verbally and sexually abusive. They invite her to a party in order to drug and rape her. And when Mary takes up body-modification work, her male clients and associates are powerless and infantile.  The one exception is the police detective who, in what little we see of him seems honorable and sincerely interested in helping Mary, is, by nature of his role, is pitted against Mary.

The female characters – though more central to the story and more interesting – are just as unsympathetic.

There is Beatrice, a woman so fixated upon the cartoon character Betty Boop that she has endured multiple cosmetic surgeries in order to recreate herself in the image of that animated icon.  She and Mary almost develop an interaction that goes beyond a doctor / patient relationship, but Mary consistently severs it.

Beatrice introduces Mary to her friend “Ruby Realgirl” who desires nothing so much as to become a real doll, completely asexualized.  She asks Mary to remove her nipples and labia, and to sew up her vagina as much as possible.

Later in the movie, as Mary has developed a reputation in the bodmod world, she is approached by twin sisters (played by the writers/directors themselves) who feel they have no connection to anyone else in the world except each other.  They ask Mary to amputate and swap their left arms so that, in the case of the death of either one, the survivor would still have something of her sister.

A horror movie by and about women is interesting – especially since so much of the horror genre seems predicated upon violence towards women.  But I wonder if it can accurately be called a “feminist” film.  As a male, I’m not sure I’m even allowed to offer an opinion on feminist studies, but let me offer a couple of observations. 

American Mary passes the Bechdel test; it has 1) at least two women in it 2) who talk to each other 3) about something other than a man but… there are no real relationships developed between the female characters. 


American Mary also features a strong female central character who takes charge of her own life, but… she can hardly be described as a hero figure.  In her quest for self expression, Mary becomes morally indistinguishable from those who abused her.  They violate her body sexually.  She violates her rapist by practicing her body modification surgeries on him – keeping him hostage by amputating his limbs and sewing his mouth shut…

None of the female characters are especially whole.  Their body modifications seem less motivated by self expression and a secure sense of self identity than by self loathing and loneliness.  I don’t know if this film, which on the surface seems to have all the traits of a feminist work, can really be described as feminist. 

Repeated three times throughout the movie is the song Ave Maria in increasingly complicated arrangements – serving to illustrate Mary’s increasing skills as a surgeon – culminating in her inverted apotheosis.  It’s an interesting movie – well filmed, and powerfully performed.  But it’s very much a discomforting movie.  It shocks.  It purposefully violates our sense of order; it traipses unapologetically over our taboos. 

How is a healthy sense of identity expressed in one’s body?  Are “normal” cosmetic surgeries like breast augmentations examples of self-mutilation or self-expression?  What about circumcision?  Should it be considered a body-modification surgery like piercing, tattooing, branding, or implants?  What makes one more acceptable than another?

Other Monster Movies in October this year:

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