The Curmudgeon


Sunday, February 24, 2013

American Mary

Jen and Sylvia Soska 2012

A struggling medical student, Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle), tries to make some extra money by answering an ad for "sensual massage" workers, "no sex required". She takes her résumé along to the interview, and when a medical emergency arises her surgical skills net her more than the massage would have. Word of her abilities gets out, and Mary is approached by a strange, plasticised creature whose voice and demeanour are reminiscent of Betty Boop, though Beatress (Tristan Risk) is somewhat less weirdly repulsive than the cartoon character. Beatress has an acquaintance who wants to resemble a doll even more than she already does, and Mary is gradually drawn into an underground career catering for the extreme body modification crowd.

There is plenty of room for facile comparisons - with Audition, Ms .45 and the inevitable Cronenberg - but American Mary steers clear of the nods and winks that plague modern cinema and emerges as a superbly surgical black comedy. Mary is first seen in what looks like a cosily domestic pre-date scene, revealingly clad and touching up a turkey in her kitchen; as it turns out, she is practising her sutures. After she is raped by one of her teachers (David Lovgren), she finds something better to practise on. In one of the film's best scenes, another teacher, discussing how to break bad news, orders Mary to inform a family that their father has had a heart attack, and when she returns orders her straight back out again to tell them he has died. This lesson clearly gets home: even in the most extreme of circumstances, Mary's bedside manner never falters.

The film's title is unusually incisive. Mary's family are apparently comparative latecomers to the melting pot: the grandmother with whom she talks on her mobile has a foreign accent and Mary herself is bilingual. Mary lives the American dream in both its entrepreneurial and its vigilante aspects, growing wealthy through private enterprise and revenging herself on her enemy with stylish insouciance. The connotations of her name - virginity and godlike fecundity - are also explored, and emphasised by the presence of various Ave Marias on the soundtrack. Among her specialties is the addition of devil horns to foreheads, and her elderly assistant in one major operation (on a pair of German twins played by the film's co-directors) comments that he feels like Dr Mengele, whose first name was Joseph.

This barbed wit extends to the storyline, which often seems about to turn predictable but never quite does so. Mary does not become a serial killer, a vigilante or a femme fatale, although one feels at various points that any or all of these occupations might one day grace that résumé of hers. She remains the harrassed young doctor throughout, pestered by trivial cases ("Does it look like I do piercings?"), dealing with ignorant or dim-witted patients like the Penis Guy who doesn't realise masturbation counts as a sexual activity, and coping with her own jealousy and grief. The ending looks conventional at first glance, but it fits in with the film's themes: another forcible penetration, this time by the aggrieved boyfriend of Mary's unsexed first patient, means that the physician is finally forced to attend to her own wounds.


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