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Category ArchiveFilms by Women

Women-Directed and Women-Centric Feature Films at 2018 Boston Underground Film Festival (BUFF)

Now in its twentieth year, the Boston Underground Film Festival (BUFF) is “committed to the celebration of alternative vision and cultivation of independent, provocative and experimental filmmaking.” Transpiring in Harvard Square with screenings held at the Brattle Theatre and the Harvard Film Archive, “devotees will spend five days in synaptic snap-crackle-and-pop ecstasy, worshiping at the altar of fantastically strange and unusual moving pictures from around the world…”
BUFF is dedicated to diversity with an impressive array of women-directed and women-led feature films, as well as short films. Directors Issa López (Tigers Are Not Afraid) and Jenn Wexler (The Ranger) will be in attendance at the screenings of their films.
BUFF will run from March 21st-March 25th. Below are the women-directed and women-centric narrative and documentary films featured at the festival.


My Name Is Myeisha
2018 | USA | 85 minutes
Director: Gus Krieger
Screenwriter: Rickerby Hinds & Gus Krieger
Cast: Rhaechyl Walker, John Merchant, Dominique Toney, Dee Dee Stephens, Yvette Cason, Gregg Daniel
Brattle Theatre
“On the evening of December 28th, 1998, Myeisha Jackson’s night ends with her asleep in her car, her cousins outside, and police on the way. In the fleeting moments before the unthinkable occurs, she awakes with a start inside her inner dreamscape and contemplates her life–what it was and what it was going to be. A metaphysical trip into Myeisha’s mind reveals a life brimming with promise on the cusp of adulthood–her secrets, goals, flaws, strengths, loves, and talents–and is fueled and expressed by her love of hip hop, dance, and spoken word as she comes to terms with what’s happened to her.”


Liquid Sky
1982 | USA | 112 minutes
Director: Slava Tsukerman
Screenwriter: Slava Tsukerman, Anne Carlisle, and Nina V. Kerova
Cast: Anne Carlisle, Paula E. Sheppard, Susan Doukas
Brattle Theatre
“Heroin-seeking invisible aliens land on top of a NYC apartment inhabited by a drug dealer and her androgynous, bisexual, nymphomaniac, fashion model lover: Margaret (played by co-writer Anne Carlisle). The aliens quickly get hip to a better drug–orgasmic pheromones–and start vaporizing her casual sex partners. Things get weirder as Margaret’s arch nemesis Jimmy (also played by Carlisle), a lonely, horny neighbor across the street, and a German scientist get involved in the proceedings.”

THURSDAY, MARCH 22nd | 7:45 PM

Pin Cushion
2017 | UK | 82 minutes
Director: Deborah Haywood
Screenwriter: Deborah Haywood
Cast: Lily Newmark, Joanna Scanlan, Loris Scarpa
Brattle Theatre
“New to town, the inseparable dafty duo Lyn and her daughter Iona are excited to have a fresh start. Determined to establish herself successfully after a rocky start, Iona drifts away from her bestie/mum and becomes BFFs with the school’s equivalent of the “Heathers.” Forlorn, Lyn attempts to make friends of her own, but after a lifetime of being othered, she still struggles with the same vicious trials and tribulations of being different that her daughter now faces.”

THURSDAY, MARCH 22nd | 9:45 PM

The Theta Girl
2017 | USA | 98 minutes
Director: Christopher Bickel
Screenwriter: David Axe
Cast: Victoria Elizabeth Donofrio, Shane Silman, Darelle D. Dove
Brattle Theatre
“Gayce, a take-no-shit young woman, deals a hallucinogenic drug called “theta,” facilitating an audience for her friends’ all-girl rock band. When Gayce’s friends are brutally murdered, she must solve the mystery behind the murders and protect herself from the killer. She discovers the connections between theta and the murders – and learns a terrifying truth. That the world — indeed her whole reality — is not as it seems.”

FRIDAY, MARCH 23rd | 7:15 PM

The Queen of Hollywood Boulevard
2018 | USA | 92 minutes
Director: Orson Oblowitz
Screenwriter: Orson Oblowitz
Cast: Rosemary Hochschild, Michael Parks, Ana Mulvoy Ten, Roger Guenveur Smith
Brattle Theatre
“On her 60th birthday, the proud owner of a Los Angeles strip club finds herself in hot water over a twenty-five year old debt to the mob, leading her on a downward spiral of violence and revenge through the underbelly of Los Angeles.”

FRIDAY, MARCH 23rd | 9:45 PM

Let the Corpses Tan
2017 | Belgium/France | 92 minutes
Director: Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani
Screenwriter: Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani
Cast: Elina Lowensohn, Stephane Ferrara, Bernie Bonvoison, Marc Barbe
Brattle Theatre
“After stealing a cache of gold, Rhino and his gang discover a near-abandoned Mediterranean hamlet hideout, occupied by an inspiration-seeking woman. Their bucolic surroundings become a horrific battlefield when uninvited guests arrive on the scene to foil everyone’s plans.”

SATURDAY, MARCH 24th | 2:15 PM

2017 | Poland | 128 minutes
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Screenwriter: Olga Tokarczuk and Agnieszka Holland
Cast: Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka, Wiktor Zborowski, Jakub Gierszal, Patrycja Volny
Harvard Film Archive
“Janina Duszejko, an elderly woman, lives alone in the Klodzko Valley where a series of mysterious crimes are committed. Duszejko is convinced that she knows who or what the murderer is, but nobody believes her.”

MARCH 24th | 7:00 PM

The Ranger
2018 | USA | 80 minutes
Director: Jenn Wexler
Screenwriter: Jenn Wexler and Giaco Furino
Cast: Chloe Levine, Jeremy Holm, Granit Lahu, Larry Fessenden, Amanda Grace Benitez
Brattle Theatre
“When Chelsea and her friends get in trouble with the cops, they flee the city and go on the run. Fueled by a hallucinogenic drug called Echo, they hope to lay low—and get high—in an old family hideout in the woods. But Chelsea’s got reservations about going back to nature and secrets she’s not sharing with her friends. When a shot rings out, her past comes crashing back, and the punks find themselves pitted against the local authority— an unhinged park ranger with an axe to grind.”

MARCH 24th | 9:30 PM

2017 | France | 108 minutes
Director: Coralie Fargeat
Screenwriter: Coralie Fargeat
Cast: Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Kevin Janssens, Vincent Colombe
Brattle Theatre
“What starts as a weekend getaway between a married man and his mistress quickly devolves into a deadly game of cat and mouse when his hunting buddies arrive. Director Fargeat revamps and recalibrates the rape-revenge trope from a female perspective, creating a violent, visceral monomyth about the rebirth and survival of a woman wronged seeking to even the score.”

SUNDAY, MARCH 25th | 12:00 PM

Something Wicked This Way Comes
Director: Jessica Barnthouse and Stacy Buchanan
Cast: Kip Weeks, Skip Shea, Izzy Lee
Brattle Theatre
“Something Wicked This Way Comes is a full-feature exploration into the popular horror culture of New England. Through discussions with genre luminaries, horror fans, and natives, the film discovers popular conventions within the genre and identifies how they’re driven by the history, eerie settings, and social issues of the area. And through the stories of actors and local filmmakers, it aims to discover if the area’s passion is strong enough to help grow an independent film industry.”

MARCH 25th | 6:15 PM

Tigers Are Not Afraid
2017 | Mexico | 86 minutes
Director: Issa López
Screenwriter: Issa López
Cast: Paola Lara, Hanssel Casillas, Rodrigo Cortes
Brattle Theatre
“A dark fairy tale about a gang of five children trying to survive the horrific violence of the cartels and the ghosts created every day by the drug war.”

MARCH 25th | 8:45 PM

Good Manners
2017 | Brazil/France | 135 minutes
Director: Juliana Rojas & Marco Dutra
Screenwriter: Juliana Rojas & Marco Dutra
Cast: Isabél Zuaa, Marjorie Estiano, Miguel Lobo
Brattle Theatre
“Clara, a lonely nurse from the outskirts of São Paulo, is hired by mysterious and wealthy Ana as the nanny for her unborn child. The two women develop a strong bond, but a fateful night changes their plans.”

To purchase tickets and for more information, please visit Boston Underground Film Festival’s website. All film and festival descriptions are courtesy of Boston Underground Film Festival.

Top 10 ‘Bitch Flicks’ Articles of All-Time in 2017

10) How I Met Your Misogyny by Lady T
“Tonight, How I Met Your Mother will end its nine-year run with a one-hour season finale. A show that spawned countless catchphrases and running gags, How I Met Your Mother  will be remembered for its nonlinear storytelling and its portrayals of romance and friendship.
“It will also be remembered as one of the most misogynistic sitcoms on TV.”

9) Nine Pretty Great Lesbian Vampire Movies by Sara Century
“Almost unfailingly exploitative in its portrayal of queer women, this specific sub-genre of film stands alone in a few ways, not the least of which being that the vampires, while murderous and ultimately doomed, are powerful, lonely women, often living their lives outside of society’s rules. And I love everything about that… except the part where they’re all mass murderers. When there is so little representation of powerful queer women in film, it becomes difficult to fully dismiss the few that exist, even if they are ultimately negative or problematic.”

8) Rabbit-Proof Fence: Racism, Kidnapping, and Forced Education Down Under by Amanda Morris
Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), directed by Phillip Noyce, is a powerful and assertive film version of this tragedy. Based on three real-life Indigenous survivors of this era, known collectively as the Stolen Generation, the film is set in 1931 and tells the story of three young girls who were kidnapped on the government’s authority, forced into an “aboriginal integration” program 1,200 miles from home, and who are determined to run away and make it home on their own by following the fence. Unfortunately, the school’s director hunts them with the veracity of an early 1800’s US slavemaster. He is relentless and determined, but the girls are as well.”

7) 13 Disappointing Things about Grace and Frankie by Robin Hitchcock
“Grace and Frankie stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as the title characters, whose husbands Robert and Sol (Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) leave them for each other after admitting to a 20-years-running affair. Grace and Frankie move into the beach house the couples shared and forge an unlikely friendship while navigating the single life for septuagenarians. The show has its charms, such that I might have watched the entire season without journalistic integrity as a motivation, but ‘Grace and Frankie’ let me down in a lot of ways.”

6) The Women of Deadpool by Amanda Rodriguez
“The newly released Marvel “superhero” movie Deadpool is more of a self-aware, raunchy antihero flick that solidly earns its R rating with graphic violence, lots of dick jokes, and a sex scene montage. It mocks the conventions of the genre while still giving us its warped version of a superhero origin story, a tragic love story, and a revenge story. Basically, it’s a good time. While Deadpool is entertaining, self-referential, self-effacing, and full of pop culture references, how does it measure up with its depiction of its female characters? The movie sadly does not pass the Bechdel Test. However, there are four prominent female characters worth further investigation.”

5) Stoker: The Creepiest Coming-of-Age Tale I’ve Ever Seen by Stephanie Rogers
“Its genre-mixing, unpredictability, and innovative storytelling, particularly with how it illustrates the hereditary aspect of mental illness, works incredibly well. […]
“Seriously though, what the hell did I just watch? One could categorize Stoker as any of the following: a coming-of-age tale, a crime thriller, a sexual assault revenge fantasy, a love story, a murder mystery, a slasher film, a romantic comedy (I’m hilarious), or even an allegory about the dangers of bullying, parental neglect, or keeping family secrets. Throw a recurring spider in there, some shoes, a bunch of random objects shaped like balls, along with a hint of incest, some on-screen masturbation, imagined orgasmic piano duets, and a handful of scenes that rip off Hitchcock so hard that Hitchcock could’ve directed it (see Shadow of Doubt), and you’ll have yourself a nice little freakshow!”

4) Wentworth Makes Orange Is the New Black Look Like a Middle School Melodrama by Amanda Rodriguez
“Wentworth is an Australian women’s prison drama that is much grittier, darker, more brutal and realistic than Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black could ever hope to be. This bleak realism also makes Wentworth‘s well-developed characters and situations much more compelling than its fluffier American counterpart. Don’t get me wrong; I really enjoyed Orange Is the New Black. The stories of incarcerated women are always important because they are a particularly marginalized and silenced group. […]
“Though OITNB and Wentworth deal with similar themes, Wentworth (based on an Aussie soap opera from the 70’s and 80’s called Prisoner) takes a no-holds-barred approach to subjects like officer sexual exploitation of prisoners, turf wars and hierarchy, sexuality, the inmate code of silence, gang beatings, gang rapes, prison riots, and the brutality of the crimes that landed these women behind bars.”

3) The Virgin Suicides: Striking Similarities Between the Lisbon and Romanov Sisters by Isabella Garcia
“Two sets of sisters, different in circumstance but alike in experience: the four Romanov Grand Duchesses of Russia and the four Lisbon sisters from 1970s Michigan in The Virgin Suicides. […] Clear links between the two sets can be drawn, but ultimately reveal that in both situations, living in a gilded cage only leaves behind a haunting memory.
“[…] While the Romanov sisters were continually in the limelight, the Lisbon sisters in The Virgin Suicides were under the watch of the neighborhood boys’ eyes. Seen as unattainable and ethereal in their white peasant dresses, much like those that the Romanov princesses wore, the boys fell for them.”

2) Bob’s Burgers: The Uniquely Lovable Tina Belcher by Max Thornton
“Delightful Tina. Shy, painfully weird, butt-obsessed, quietly dorky, intensely daydreamy Tina. Tina is a little bit like all of us (and–cough–a lot like some of us) at that most graceless, transitional, intrinsically unhappy stage of life that is early adolescence. She is also a wonderfully rich and well-developed character, both in her interactions with her family and in her own right, and she’s arguably the emotional core of the whole show.”

1) Lilo & Stitch, Moana, and Disney’s Representation of Indigenous Peoples by Emma Casley
“…The 2002 film Lilo & Stitch features sisters Lilo and Nani, who are of Indigenous Hawaiian descent as two of the central characters. Looking at Lilo & Stitch can provide a valuable lens in which to analyze the upcoming Moana, as well as other mainstream films attempting to represent Indigenous cultures.
“Lilo & Stitch has been heralded as a film that avoids many of the harmful stereotypes of Polynesian culture that so many other white-produced works perpetuate. However, it is also worth considering how Lilo & Stitch as a film exists in the world, beyond the content of its storyline. Regardless of its individual merits, Lilo & Stitch is a money-making endeavor to benefit the Disney Company, which has not always had the best relationship (to say the least) with representing Indigenous cultures or respecting Indigenous peoples.”

Top 10 ‘Bitch Flicks’ Articles Written in 2017

10) Queen of Katwe Is a Gorgeous Inspiring Look at a Young Black Life Fully Realized by Candice Frederick
“Yes, it’s wholesome and finishes on a heartwarming high like many other cherished Disney stories. But at its core lies a story of redemption, cultural pride, feminism, and economics — elements of a young life contending with extraordinary challenges. […]
“Queen of Katwe is a mesmerizing story of a life fully realized, a life that’s often overlooked and not given a chance. Its young cast, led by Nalwanga’s nuanced performance, help illuminate layers of humanity resting deep in the ‘slums’ of Uganda, exhibiting talent well beyond their years. Meanwhile, Oyelowo and Nyong’o’s performances temper the film with heart-wrenching emotion. And Mira Nair’s touching portrait of Katwe’s inspiring young queen with a dream is one to remember.”

9) Céline Sciamma’s Films (Girlhood, Tomboy, and Water Lilies) Capture the Complexities of Adolescence by Charline Jao
“French director and screenwriter Céline Sciamma of Water Lilies, Tomboy, and Girlhood has gained critical acclaim for her portrayals of adolescence and coming-of-age, particularly on themes of gender and sexuality. Sciamma’s movies are intimate character studies, punctuated with dancing, tiny details embedded in body language, and a serious respect for younger viewers. For all the cringe-worthy or mediocre child acting that permeates film, Sciamma has a remarkable ability to draw out nuanced and organic performances in her works, oftentimes from non-actors.
“[…] The adolescent or teenager sits on the threshold of adulthood by sitting between child and adult, figuring out their rites of passage and space within society. This undefined, yet crucial space is an uncomfortable one and Sciamma’s films excel because they embrace the chaotic ambiguity of youthful liminality.”

8) Hush: A Resourceful Heroine with Disabilities for the Horror Genre by Cassandra A. Clarke
“What’s brilliant about Hush, written by Mike Flanagan and Kate Siegel (who stars as the lead), is it pushes the envelope of the survivor’s tale further through its main character, Madison ‘Maddie’ Young: a woman who is deaf, mute, and lives alone in a rural area. In addition to featuring a female protagonist with disabilities, Hush crafts a home-invasion story that isn’t about her ‘problems’ or obstacles or the attacker at all, but rather it focuses on the tactful solutions she chooses along the way.
“…Its depiction of Maddie as a full, engaging character who fends for herself and thrives alone is an asset to adding more characters with disabilities in films, especially horror, as not victims but stars.”

7) Gilmore Girls: Rory Gilmore Is an Entitled Millennial by Scarlett Harris
“That’s because she’s never had to hustle; everything has been handed to her. She only watched her mother struggle to raise her on her own, and even then it’s established that Lorelai went to great pains not to expose Rory to her struggles. […]
“To be fair, Rory is largely a product of her upbringing. Until the events of Gilmore Girls as we know it — Lorelai’s reconciliation with her rich parents so Rory can go to an expensive private school and then Yale — Rory was raised by an independent, struggling, small-town single mom. Whatever life lessons she learned there were swiftly erased by the ensuing plot developments: her rich grandparents and then her rich father paying for her education and European holidays, her rent-free accommodations, and breaks in school and work to ‘find herself’ similarly bankrolled by Richard (Edward Herrmann), Emily (Kelly Bishop), and Logan (Matt Czuchry). […]
“Despite her flaws, I relate to Rory because she displays all my — and my generation’s — worst characteristics.”

6) The Love That’s Really Real: American Psycho as Romantic Comedy by Caroline Madden
“A 2006 YouTube video created a parody trailer envisioning American Psycho (2000) as romantic comedy. While the stark juxtapositions between the classic boy-meets-girl formula and a horrifying portrait of a serial murder are amusing, the sentiments between them are not so far-fetched. Although primarily a horror film, American Psycho has a satiric backbone that appropriates codes from the romantic comedy genre to expose the absurdities of our gender ideals. Director and co-writer Mary Harron’s lens skewers the qualities we find appealing in romantic comedies as terrifying.
“Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a concoction of the romantic comedy and drama archetype of ‘the bad boy.’”

5) The Revenant Should Be Left in the River to Drown by Celey Schumer
“Don’t believe the hype. You have been conned. The Revenant is a terrible film. […]
“This white-man-against-all-odds tale of revenge has been told so many times, even Michael Bay is probably like, “Eh, can’t we find something more original?” […]
“The second galling part of the film is its abhorrent treatment of Native peoples. It is at best mediocre, at worst condescending, and at all times unremarkable lazy recycled fodder. Almost every time Hugh has an interaction with a Native American person, they meet with disaster. Honestly, Chief Elk Dog (Duane Howard) and his men are the only ones operating with their own agency and justice in their quest to rescue his kidnapped daughter, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o). But we hardly see them and are left to infer all of this information, until of course Hugh the White Man comes to Powaqa’s rescue. […]
“Can we see this whole movie from the Arikara tribe’s perspective? From Powaqa’s perspective? That would be an actual game changer.”

4) The Eyes of My Mother Is a Gorgeous Coming-of-Age Horror You’re Not Likely to Forget by Candice Frederick
“Oh, how I love this age we’re living in in which women characters on the big and small screens are allowed to be inappropriate, messy, b**chy, and sexual. It just further illuminates the myriad complexities women embody, painting a more thorough profile of inclusive feminism. But even while Hollywood has been consistently pushing these boundaries in more recent years, few films have explored morbid sensuality through the gaze of a woman better than writer/director Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother. […]
“…Pesce explores the nature of human instinct and arrested development in a way that is uncomfortable to watch yet immersive just the same.”

3) 20 Years of The Craft: Why We Needed More of Rochelle by Ashlee Blackwell
“I was flustered and empathetic to a character that was virtually invisible to an entire school population outside of her small coven of comrades, unless to be the unchecked target of racist scorn. This made her experience even that more isolating in contrast to her white female counterparts who, if they did get that brief seat at the table, were promptly dismissed for their class, burn scars, and not performing for the teenage ‘good ‘ol boys’ club. The most glaring difference; Rochelle was never going to get that seat. […]
“The movie for many sparked the thirst to explore the deep intersections of the weirdo. Rochelle was the social outcast with the other handful of social outcasts of St. Bernard Academy, sure. But how do we cinematize the Black girl outcast teenager that many of us felt like? That just so happens to be a practicing witch?
“Much of what can be read of Rochelle relies heavily on those of us whom she meant so much to. What kinds of conversations did young Black girls have back in 1996 and are having now about the importance of her presence in a film that at least, didn’t blend her in colorblind rhetoric? How did many of us find camaraderie, empathy, and imagination in Rochelle’s broader, unseen story?”

2) Caitlin Snow: It’s Time to Give The Flash’s Overlooked Heroine Her Due by Lacy Baugher
“Plus, the decision to continually depict Caitlin as afraid of herself and her abilities is unsettling. Women are almost always taught to fear their own power, instead of embracing it or attempting to understand it. It’s sad to see that pattern repeating on a show that has so few leading women in the first place.
“Caitlin’s journey – whether she ultimately keeps her powers or not – should be about figuring where she fits within Team Flash, within her family, and within her own idea of herself. We have seen Caitlin unnerved by the darkness inside her. She has issues with her mother and even occasionally with members of her own team. She’s certainly lost enough to want to burn the world down twice over. But she’s never really gotten the chance to deal with any of those issues on-screen in a significant way. This Killer Frost arc offers a perfect opportunity for her to finally do so. Caitlin’s journey shouldn’t be about whether she might turn into a monster, it should be about her becoming whole.”

1) Too Feminine, Too Pretty, and the Gendered Bias in the Critique of Sofia Coppola’s Films by Claire White
“However, while being one of the most discussed women directors, it is hard to think of a female director who is under as much scrutiny as Sofia Coppola. This is especially true when it comes to her signature pretty and feminine filmic style.
“When it comes to the critique of Sofia Coppola, her filmic style is too often described along the lines of being too pretty, too feminine, or as style over substance. …Male directors, however, who exhibit the same attention to style and aesthetics, are not held to this same ideal. As explored in Rosalind Galt’s book Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image, prettiness in film is not exclusively female or feminine, and is thus unfair to use as a critique against women directors’ films. […]
“There is a double standard in the way prettiness is regarded in cinema. ‘Pretty’ is for female directors, but for male directors, prettiness isn’t ever uttered, and reverence is received in its place.”

Suturing Selfhood: ‘American Mary’ and the Unconventional Feminine Repossession of Self

Written by Eva Phillips, this article is part of our theme week on Women in Horror.
[Trigger warning: discussion of rape]

Suturing, as an act, sanguinely carves its way throughout Jen and Sylvia Soska’s 2012 body-modification-centric horror film American Mary. Before we ever see a face or hear a word of dialogue, we watch sinewy, achromatic flesh being sliced open, spread apart, and methodically stitched with black thread by blacked gloved fingers. We watch this, stunned by the juxtaposition between the very focused, dotingly nimble work of the gloved fingers and the grotesquely wrinkled and malleable flesh. We watch this also jarred by the ethereally doleful rendition of “Ave Maria” — importantly and perspicaciously, a hymn that beseeches a female savior to ward off earthly demons and evils — that sonically sutures into the slicing and massaging of the flesh. Before we ever see a face or hear a word, we are informed that this suturing is an act of salvation, not something to be reduced to a simple barbarism. As it is portrayed in the first few moments of the film, suturing is a complex extension of the two selves involved in the act.
These first scenes of suturing — which, as we are shown in an almost whimsical reveal, involve dead turkey flesh rather than human flesh — introduce us to the proclivities of the film’s protagonist, Mary (an unequivocally cool as hell Katharine Isabelle), a profoundly bright and profoundly broke medical student in her final stages of schooling before becoming a surgeon. Before understanding Mary as an individual, we are introduced to the presences in Mary’s life which vex and threaten her in strikingly insidious ways. Specifically, her sniveling, vitriolically brooding professor, Dr. Grant (David Lovgren), is presented moments after we watch Mary carefully and gleefully “operate” on her turkey patient as a direct contrast to the joy she derives from her chosen field. During a slideshow presentation in class, in which Mary’s phone is bombarded with messages and calls from debt collectors for defaulting on her loans, Dr. Grant lashes out at Mary in the middle of class, barking that having her phone out is “fucking rude” and later admonishing her to “stop fucking up.” This violence through language establishes a paradigm that persists throughout the film in which female expression, female control over their anatomy/body and others’ is aggressively and oppressively impugned upon and violated by male domination. Mary’s passion and talent — and thus selfhood — exists imperiled and impeached by the overtures of men.

To juxtapose this, the Soska Sisters brilliantly introduce, through their own masterful process of directorial and narrative suturing, the world of underground body modification and Mary’s unexpectedly intimate and empowering relationship with it. Body modification, which has longstanding cultural values and implications, has emerged as a prominent subculture in which individuals seek to perfect and alter their form to their vision using techniques such as implants, scarification, surgical reconfiguration of particular body parts, and more. The culture is known for a wide array of widely sought after artists — like this guy — and informs many films and television shows, particularly those examining transcendentalism in scientific-modification communities — think Orphan Black — and the multidimensionality of the culture has permeated the filmic consciousness in significant ways.
In American Mary, Mary is thrust into the belly of the beast rather unceremoniously and under non-consensual pretexts: in her interview at a beyond-grimy strip club to secure a job to make more fast cash, Mary is implored by her potential future employer to stitch together an identity-less man who has been brutalized and ripped stem-to-stern by the club’s bouncer. Mary sutures the man’s wound in exchange for five thousand dollars cash, violently vomiting afterword, and in turn imbricates herself into a world which will challenge her to re-conceptualize her notions of autonomy and self-governed craft.
What is significant about Mary’s consequential immersion into the world of body modification is that it is engaged by (very) willing, consenting participants who are firstly and predominantly women. As pertinacious as they are distinct in their appearance, the women who help to “launch” Mary’s body-mod specific surgical career — Beatress (Tristan Risk) and Ruby Realgirl (Paula Lindberg), who seek to surgically modify their appearances to resemble Betty Boop and a human doll — value body mod and surgical transformation as a distinct form of sovereign self-possession that reclaims bodies otherwise controlled or possessed by external forces. Grandiosely, Ruby summarizes the allure and the empowerment of body mod, stating “I don’t think it’s really fair that God gets to choose what we look like on the outside, do you?”
This sort of direct control over one’s physical features, particularly when enacted by women/for women, this craven need for specific suturing that allows Mary to not only hone her craft, but define herself through her knack for flawlessly changing skin and bodies. She articulates her selfhood with each stitch while simultaneously allowing those she operates on to attain their purest selves. It is certainly no coincidence that during Mary’s operation on Ruby, the rendition of “Ave Maria” we hear in the opening scene is woven in to the scene just as effortlessly as Mary’s surgical tools carve and reshape Ruby’s flesh. Both women are symbiotically asserting selfhood through an act often thought to barbarously or carnally be “just for men.”
Themes of feminine self-expression and self-possession take on another dimension in turns of representation when the disturbing element of bodily violation (through rape) is jarringly introduced into the film’s narrative. Mary, who has purchased a new car and clothes with the exorbitant gobs of under-the-operating-room-table money she makes through body mod, attends a party hosted by the repulsively skeevy Dr. Grant, where she is a lone female presence surrounded by lecherous men in her desired field. Already coded as a predator, we are not shocked but nevertheless paralyzingly appalled as Dr. Grant drugs and rapes Mary, all while filming the violent transgression. It would almost seem this act, and the Soska’s directorial choice to unflinchingly present the violation in its entirety (often from Mary’s “perspective”) betrays the trenchant themes of female self-possession and autonomous expression established in the film, and falls into the triggering and tiresome trend of rape and sexual assault in other films. However, keeping with the Soska’s own sentiments conveyed in their 2014 interview with Bitch Flicks, the inclusion of the graphic assault scene is reflective of the prevalence of violence against women — sexual, physical, emotional, and so on — that is often ignored, disputed, or monetized. The violence that is acted upon Mary is not a plot device nor a gratuitous exploitation of the female body — and the ensuing violence she enacts as either retribution or psychological processing is not portrayed as erotic or glamorous. Rather, it is seen as coping — tasteless, merciless, and often directionless coping to contend with an act that defied explanation. What is critical, though, is that Mary never loses nor surrenders her mastery over suturing and the identity she consecrates through that (though, she does relinquish from the male-dominated “legitimate” surgeons’ realm). Even down to her final moments, she is in control of her craft and identity.

I found myself oddly calling upon a seemingly unrelated text during my viewings of American Mary. With each scene, moments from English novelist Frances Burney’s agonizing epistolary non-fiction piece, “Letter to Esther Burney,” began to suture themselves, as it were, to the action of the film. Burney’s groundbreaking and painfully vivid description of her diagnosis with cancer, the complete deprivation of her voice and autonomy over her own body at the hands of countless male physicians both before and during the mastectomy, and gruesome accounts of the gore and pain of the surgery, are eerily connected to the work done in American Mary.
While both the film and text depict outlandish trauma acted on bodies — whether it be Mary’s rape or Burney’s invasive cancer and equally invasive and debasing procedure to remove it — both reinstate women’s voices and female autonomies in unconventional means. Burney is able to champion her suffering by authorially disseminating her trauma in text, and thus re-transcribes herself into the surgical act which initially strips her of her selfhood. Mary, an author in her own right through her magisterial surgical prowess that defies the parameters of her patriarchal field, literally carves out her own voice and her own sense of control (for better and for worse) through modifying the bodies of others (which in turn allows those individuals to inhabit empowered identities) and altering the man who violated her. Both women confront their trauma, the desecration their bodies endure, by refusing to relinquish the crafts which define them and allow them to reclaim their bodies.
The ethics in American Mary are often dubious at best, but as in Burney’s letter the empowerment of the text — as is often the case with what little room women are allowed to articulate themselves in — lies in ferocious audacity sutured in each line or each layer of flesh.

See also at Bitch Flicks:
American Mary: In Praise of the Amoral Final Girl
Talking with Horror’s Twisted Twins: An Interview with the Soska Sisters

Eva Phillips is a relatively recent import to Pittsburgh, PA. She relocated from the crust of Virginia after receiving her BA in English at the University of Virginia to complete her Masters at Carnegie Mellon University. Her interests include: representations of femininity and violence in film, refusing to quell her excitement over The Fast and the Furious franchise; having every cat; queer representations in horror and melodrama (both film and television); queer sexuality and religion; and finally getting to meet Sia and maybe wear her wig. In addition to Bitch Flicks, she writes for the good folks at Indie Film Minute, and has appeared in Another Gaze Journal. Her various disintegrations can be viewed at https://www.instagram.com/menzingers2/.