Even before Lucie arrives holding a shotgun, we know that the perfect family in this huge suburban house are not entirely what they seem. We know this because there is something quietly sinister about the rich, and in particular the rich, white nuclear family, whose protection of their mutual interests often calls to mind the way that words like ‘family’ are used in reference to the mob. We know it, too, because we first saw Lucie fifteen years ago escaping from the basement of a slaughterhouse, shaven-headed and emaciated and covered in blood, and we are well-versed enough in the rules of cinema to know that women who escape — provided they have escaped early in the run-time — tend to come back for revenge. She kills the father, then the mother — then the son, who hesitates when she asks whether he knew what his parents did to her a decade and a half ago, and then the daughter, who is fourteen or fifteen, and probably had not been born when Lucie ran, screaming and bleeding, from that basement. When the family is dead, it is the mother’s corpse she shakes and rages at, as if to prove that what is happening is not about the father’s sins, but about a specifically feminine model of transference.
These are the opening scenes of Pascal Laugier’s 2008 horror MARTYRS, a film usually classified as being part of the late-noughties genre known as the New French Extremity, written when Laugier was suffering from clinical depression. The film posits the existence of a matriarchal cult that kidnaps adolescent girls, subjecting them to prolonged torture as a means of making them into seers and interpreters of a presumed afterlife. What they hope for is undeniable proof of the existence of a God, whatever form that God might take. ‘You lock someone in a dark room,’ the cult’s leader, who goes by the name of Mademoiselle, later explains. ‘And they begin to suffer. You feed that suffering. Methodically, systematically and coldly. And make it last. Your subject goes through a number of states. After a while, their trauma, that small, easily opened crack, makes them see things that don’t exist…. A martyr is an exceptional being. They survive suffering, the lack of everything. We burden them with all the evil of the world, and they transcend themselves…. we’ve tried everything, even children, [but] it’s proven that young women are more sensitive for transformation.’
Under that bougie house, as with the basement Lucie fled from, Mademoiselle and her devoted followers have been ‘transforming’ teenage girls — shaving their heads, starving them until they hallucinate, blinding them, beating them, et cetera. They have not yet proven that anything close to God exists. What they have proven is that adolescent girls can handle pain beyond what ought to be physically bearable, and that enough people believe their suffering might benefit the wider world to form a cult. There may be no more typical stage-setting for the unhappiness of young girls than that of the suburb, a site of both suffocation and starvation, horrifying in its secretiveness and in the banality of its exterior. (In slasher films and Lifetime movies, both, suburban teen girls are either expendable, or forced to fight their way through bloody hell in order to assure redemption.) Often, when violence occurs in MARTYRS, if it does not play out in the house’s bunker-basement, it is focused in the bathroom: vomit, bodies slumped in showers, mysterious slashes rinsed with bathroom taps. Women who spend their time in bathrooms, and especially those who spend their time there immediately after eating, will not be shocked by the image of one as a site of menace, cool white tiles setting the stage for uncomfortable transformation — purging, plucking, preening, getting high, all private acts designed to result in some physical or psychic alteration of the self.
‘I was a little more talkative than other people,’ the memoirist and beauty writer Cat Marnell said to an interviewer in 2012. ‘I was a little skinnier and crazy-eyed. I got more attention than other people. It’s like the same term they use to describe narcissistic people, which is “conspicuous existence”…. You become a little more special than other people. I’ve always been an enhanced version of a human being. I’m addicted to that. [Afterwards], you know what happened? I became normal. I looked normal. My ideas were normal.’ If Marnell was technically referring to her speed addiction, she could also have been talking about her bulimia or anorexia, two things that make the sufferer conspicuous and ‘special’ as far as the modern, Western beauty ideal is concerned. Marnell might be said to be an ‘exceptional being,’ not only because she is a whip-smart and distinctive writer, but because she is, according to various profiles of her that were written between 2012 and 2019, ‘tiny, with gaunt limbs, perfect lips, and those giant cartoon eyes,’ ‘frighteningly thin,’ and ‘very petite… [a] snub-nosed, round-eyed bratty beauty.’
‘I have never been remotely interested in looking like or being in any way a real girl,’ she has said numerous times. The general consensus is that she looks unreal: model-hot, glassy and frangible, a big brain balancing atop a Bambi body. Her 2016 memoir HOW TO MURDER YOUR LIFE may be written in a style that is more sharply, humorously conversational than confrontational — ‘the WALL STREET JOURNAL writer describes my tone as “bleak and bubbly,”’ she mopes, ‘and I imagine a glass of sad champagne’ — but some of her earlier online drug and beauty writing is chill and unfeeling enough that almost no light escapes. The minute numbers on her scale are noted with the blank neutrality of temperatures in a weather report; she isolates herself, blacks out the windows of her bedroom, and treats her apartment like a mausoleum. Thus entombed, she makes herself into a thinner, sparkier Cat, as slight and speedy as a hummingbird. ‘I notice you watching me,’ she hisses in the premiere instalment of her onetime column at VICE, AMPHETAMINE LOGIC, ‘so I start to caress my own ribcage. I am fucking high…. Weight report from the previous afternoon: 102.’ In an extraordinary piece for the now-defunct women’s website XOJANE, she writes about Freud’s concept of the death drive in the context of the death of Whitney Houston, drawing on her own experiences to describe — coolly and immediately, from within rather than without — a numbing state that ‘deprives your body of natural cues [like] hunger… wears away at your edges until finally you’re all raw nerve … [causing the] weakening and waning of life instincts… to such an extent that the self-destructive death instincts [a]re allowed to take over.’
Like Lucie in MARTYRS or like Joan of Arc, she also lost her hair, a druggy accident with bleach resulting in ‘a combination of chemical burns and scar tissue,’ according to Emily Gould in NEW YORK MAGAZINE. ‘When she tried to unknot what hair had grown back, using a meat thermometer,’ Gould adds, not un-sensationally, ‘blood shot out of her head onto the kitchen counter.’ For years, Marnell had been insisting she would be like ‘the bald Britney of the literary world,’ referring to another pinup famous for her blonde hair and her looks who had, one fateful evening in 2007, unsexed herself in order to convince us that where she was once a girl, not yet a woman, she was now some new thing altogether. (‘I’m sick of people touching my head,’ Spears had insisted, all that time spent in the make-up artists’ and hairdressers’ chairs making her feel like some sentient relic being manhandled for luck and profit.) Marnell knew the horror of the suburbs, the impetus to self-harm, starve, and ascend: ‘I grew up in a swanky neighborhood that was about “twenty minutes from the White House,” as my parents always said.’ She does not say whether that huge house had a terrifying basement. Looming large over her history are her anorexic mother, an emotional ‘vacant lot’ who owned a bathroom scale emblazoned with a logo that read ‘THINNER—like the Stephen King movie,’ and her frightening, furious daddy, a rich psychotherapist who once informed her that if she threw up her dinner he would make her eat the vomit. ‘Marnell’s beauty, undiminished by years of disordered eating, cigarettes, and an erratic sleep schedule,’ Gould says, too, ‘is of a particular doll-like kind that somehow brings out the worst in men and women alike.’
This kind of doll-like, damaged beauty has historic precedent. In 1965’s REPULSION, the ur-mad-girl-horror-movie, Catherine Deneuve’s nervous, silent sex-bot of an aesthetician, Carol, is so blonde and so cute that nobody can tell until it’s too late that she is insane. She is a perfect baby-doll afraid of men, of sex, of meat, of the fate of the wife and girlfriend: ‘the anesthetised woman,’ Molly Haskell calls her, ‘the beautiful, inarticulate, and… murderous somnambulate.’ Sheets on which Carol’s sister has been fucking are a site of trauma; screams of pleasure, overheard, ring like the noises from a torture chamber, and a half-cooked meal of rabbit-meat looks practically satanic, like a sacrifice, when put out to decay. Dishes, soiled with ancient and uneaten food, appear to multiply. ‘Bloody men,’ one fellow manicurist spits in front of Carol, giving credence to her sexual fears, ‘Oh, I could cut my throat! I thought this one was different. He was a pig. Why are they so filthy?’ Meat and sex — pig and man — are intertwined, twin loci of excess and pleasure and uncleanliness that end in rot. What a mindfuck that the film was written and directed by Roman Polanski, an undeniably filthy pig himself.
‘I hate doing this to a beautiful woman,’ the film’s cinematographer Gilbert Taylor reportedly muttered on REPULSION’s set, as if beautiful women suffering did not make up about eighty percent of the movie industry, to say nothing of Roman Polanski’s filmography. There is a tendency to link self-harm, neuroticism and intentional starvation in pretty young girls with privilege, self-centeredness, and a lack of ‘real’ concerns, the result being a kind of simultaneous push-pull between believing that those kinds of women ought to do the work to make themselves desirable, and that they should not let those gazing at them see the strain exacted by the work unless they mean for it to be interpreted as something like a horror movie. In Rebecca Zlotowski’s 2019 film AN EASY GIRL, the ugly work of being a desirable woman is laid bare: a knockout blonde, Sofia, spends the summer prowling Cannes, secretly mourning her dead mother. She is twenty-two years old, and has had numerous plastic surgery procedures; she wears high heels and false lashes to the beach, and waxes her entire body, and believes that women should avoid eating or talking much in front of men. She is a doll-like beauty in the mode of Carol, as well as the ‘easy’ girl of the film’s title — ‘easy’ in the sense that she is sexually adventurous, but also ‘easy’ in the sense that men do not consider her to pose an intellectual challenge. When she takes her sixteen-year-old cousin to the cinema, they end up seeing MARTYRS, and Zlotowski has them watch a scene in which a young girl has quasi-surgical staples removed from her head and face. Sofia, busy texting back a wealthy suitor, barely registers the screams. ‘I think it’s crazy to have so much plastic surgery at this age,’ an older woman tells her later at a party, barely hiding her disgust. ‘It’s as if [you] were refusing death.’
Sofia is treated like an idiot and a traitor for embodying the very thing she is required to embody as a young and single woman: a slender and golden babe, sexual but not opinionated, private with her grief and suffering. Her cousin Naïma, a smart, nerdy brunette with a soft layer of baby fat, immediately idolises her, having been socialised to envy any woman who is irresistible to men. It is significant that Zlotowski, who has said that Sofia was partly inspired by the mystique that surrounds the model Kate Moss — whose two most famous mantras are ‘never complain, never explain,’ and ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ — selected Zahia Dehar, a famous former prostitute who was vilified in the press after being hired as a birthday gift for a renowned footballer when she was just seventeen, to fill the role. Like Sofia, Dehar was portrayed as a shallow, stupid slut, nicknamed La Scandaleuse as if it had not taken two to break the law. ‘Dehar looks like a doll, and is not much more communicative,’ THE TELEGRAPH sniffed in 2013, interviewing her about her lingerie line. If she did not manage to express herself through speech, the photograph accompanying that interview is practically an essay: she looks minute, as delicate as a child, and is made up to resemble a classic film star of the New Wave in a cat-eye and a black shift. One tiny hand circles her arm, as if to draw attention to its small circumference. Speaking to a journalist from PARIS-MATCH in 2010, she had already made it clear that she had no illusions in regards to how she was perceived, asking facetiously: ‘Don’t you think I’m a pretty present?’
On the cover of her anorexia memoir, WASTED, Marya Hornbacher is also seventeen and looking like a pretty present in blue jeans, a shot as hip, heroin-chic and instantly iconic as the image of the late Elizabeth Wurtzel on the front of PROZAC NATION. Never mind that Hornbacher professes to ‘a deep, abiding fear of jeans’ inside its pages, or the fact that by the time WASTED came out the photograph was six years old: her publishers demanded something that reflected her disordered eating, skinny in the manner of an anorexic and a model. (That one can be anorexic and not resemble a model, or even a particularly slender person — to say nothing of the fact that one can suffer anorexia and not, shock horror, be middle class or white — is an inconvenient truth for those committed to marketing memoirs, monographs and TV movies on the subject.) ‘I distinctly did not want to be seen as a bulimic,’ Hornbacher writes about her experiences at boarding school, where a commitment to the ‘art’ of self-starvation spread among the girls as if it were a virus, or a mass hysterical phenomenon in some mediaeval nunnery. ‘I wanted to be an anoretic. I was on a mission to be another sort of person: a person whose passions were ascetic rather than hedonistic.’ The pious, often poetic language used by those held in the grip of these disorders — language about cleanliness, purity, discipline and atonement — can appear as mystifying and maddening to those who exist on the outside it as religious terminology does to the atheist. Why commit to starvation when so many starve as an unfortunate condition of their birth? Why devote one’s life to the agonising and dangerous act of ‘improving’ one’s physical appearance at the risk of death? Hornbacher does not suggest that anorexia or bulimia have a single cause, a common motivation, but instead that they are brought on by innumerable factors: they can be about control, she writes, but they are also about ‘history, philosophy, society, personal strangeness, family fuck-ups, autoerotics, myth, mirrors, love and death and S&M, magazines and religion, the individual’s blindfolded stumble-walk through an ever-stranger world.’ ‘The eating-disordered quest for an audience,’ Katy Waldman wrote in SLATE in 2015, ‘speaks more to profound self-alienation than to any diva tendencies.’
In ALIENS AND ANOREXIA, a meta-fiction that is in part about the life of Simone Weil, Chris Kraus dismisses the image of anorexia in particular as self-indulgent — ‘Like all the female anorexics and the mystics, “the girl” can only be a brat,’ she writes, ‘starving for attention’ — in favour of imagining it as ‘a violent breaking of the chain of desire.’ For her it is politicised, maybe devotional. ‘Because it’s mostly girls who do it, anorexia is linked with narcissism,’ she suggests. ‘But girls don’t make good monsters.’ What they do make is good martyrs, good masochists, good ascetics. ‘Catherine Deneuve,’ the critic Sally Vincent wrote in 1999, ‘has majored in those kinds of Madonna/whore roles that have helped consign women’s sex lives to the tiresome exercise of being hauled on and off pedestals by gentlemen who, in any case, needed little encouragement with their emotional aberrations.’ The main thing that Vincent disagreed with when she saw Deneuve play girls like Carol — as she did again in Louis Bunel’s BELLE DE JOUR, as a frigid and sexless housewife brought back to sexual life by prostitution — was what she perceived as ‘the cinematic insistence that what we are looking at is… the archetypical woman’s authentic depiction of the sadomasochistic parameters of the [typical] female psyche.’ She believed that Deneuve helped to spread the popular idea, in other words, that we were sufferers inherently, self-motivated and perhaps even aroused by the experience: that women, as Picasso once said to his mistress Françoise Gilot, are machines for suffering. Such an idea is easier to swallow if that suffering is incentivised by the latent promise that the sufferer will end up benefitting from her pain — becoming, in effect, ‘a little more special than other people… an enhanced version of a human being.’ Her self-sacrifice is then an act of betterment, the choice to elevate herself. How convenient, given that such sacrifice is practically demanded of her to some degree or another, whether or not she consents.
Once Lucie finishes her killing, she calls Anna, who is waiting by a payphone. The two girls met at an orphanage, where Lucie first appeared with one eye bandaged shut as if in reference to Saint Lucy, the Roman Catholic martyr whose eyes were removed before her execution for the sin of refusing to enter into matrimony with a violent, vengeful man; they are friends, and mirror images, and Anna briefly hopes they will be lovers. Brunette, slender, and attractive in the same extremely Gallic, barefaced way, they also appear from some angles like literal doppelgängers, an effect enhanced by the way Lucie’s trauma tends to manifest in the hallucination of a third brunette, emaciated girl attacking her with sharpened nails. All three women exist on the same continuum, suspended in that purgatory between childhood and adulthood, on the cusp of breaking through. When Anna is eventually kidnapped by the cult, replacing Lucie and however many other Lucies they have since experimented on, it feels inevitable — when Anna tolerates the beatings and brutality for longer than her predecessors, it feels horribly inevitable, too, that she is deemed to be appropriately special to endure ‘the final stage.’
Suspended, Christ-like, from the ceiling, she is flayed alive, a scene that has immediately entered into lore as one of the most graphic in a very graphic cinematic genre, and which formally resembles a work by Bellini or by Raphael more closely than it does a horror still. The films of the New French Extremity tended to centre female suffering in more philosophical ways than conventional torture porn, despite their goriness and shock: almost as many notable New French Extremity films have been made by women as have been produced by men. In Mariana de Van’s 2002 film IN MY SKIN, a woman so numbed by her circumstances that she begins slicing, bit by bit, chunks from her flesh, horrifies and alienates her friends and boyfriend; in Claire Denis’ 2001 film TROUBLE EVERY DAY with Béatrice Dalle, cannibalism becomes an effective metaphor for sexual desire. Laugier, who often says that MARTYRS is as much a love story between Lucie and Anna as it is a horror film, presumably identified with its agonised heroines despite being male, the film having been written in a state of emotional ruin. ‘Torture,’ he informed an interviewer in the year of its release, ‘is not the point of MARTYRS. The film deals with human pain — the meaning of it — which is something completely different.’ The sheer magnitude of Anna’s pain, inflicted so that her torturers might eventually parse the meaning of all life and suffering itself, deprives her body of its natural cues, like hunger, until she is all raw nerve, no spare flesh. She has the distant and beatific gaze of Renée Jeanne Falconetti in THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, her face preserved in order to allow the cultists to observe her changing mood. ‘I never saw an expression like that,’ one of her torturers tells Mademoiselle. ‘She’s liberated. Completely liberated. Miss, her eyes — she doesn’t see what’s happening around her, [but] she’s still alive.’ Stripped of her primary and secondary sexual characteristics, she does not immediately appear to be female; the image might be less redolent of Raphael or Bellini if she was more obviously, more blasphemously a girl.
‘I’ve often thought of a female Christ,’ Eileen Myles writes, in the novel COOL FOR YOU. Myles concludes that such a thing could never happen, citing ‘people’s feelings about the delicacy of women,’ and the fact that they see female suffering as a ‘meaningless display.’ ‘If you belittle us in school,’ they add, ‘treat us like slaves at home… what would be the point in seeing [a woman] half nude and nailed up? Where’s the contradiction?’ In 1969, the Danish artist Lene Adler Peterson walked through The Stock Exchange in Copenhagen, naked, with a crucifix, for a piece most commonly referred to as THE FEMALE CHRIST. The title, a tautology for the same reasons Myles suggests, is itself a provocation. (Coverage of the event from the Danish paper POLITIKEN takes great pains to note that Peterson is ‘beautiful.’) Is femininity, with this supposedly ingrained and obvious capacity for suffering, incompatible with Godliness? If it is rare for us to see a female Christ, it is not rare for women to self-sacrifice in order to achieve what they perceive as greatness, and history has seen many female martyrs. Wilgefortis of Portugal, who prayed that God would make her ugly, starved herself until she grew hair all over her body, eventually — almost like a female Christ — ending up crucified. Catherine of Siena, who died at the age of thirty-three — again, like Christ — ate nothing but the Eucharist for the last few years of her life, and forced herself to vomit almost daily. Like a lot of their less pious sisters, they improved themselves through creeping self-annihilation.
‘Starvation,’ Hilary Mantel wrote in the LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS in 2004, reviewing several biographies about saints who did not eat in order to experience a dizzying closeness to the Lord, ‘was a constant in these women’s lives. It melted their flesh away, so that the beating of their hearts could be seen behind the racks of their ribs. It made them one with the poor and destitute, and united them with the image of Christ on the cross.’ She quotes a biography of the nineteenth-century martyr Gemma Galgani, who died in 1903 and was eventually canonised: ‘Ecstasies are unforgettable, and they are tyrannical. Those who experience them helplessly shape their lives in order to create the possibility of another encounter with the holy.’ Prolonged fasting, and particularly what the sufferer feels is disciplined, worshipful fasting, does cause ecstasy, a kind of lightheaded derangement. Because the effects are not just psychological, but physical, the sufferer manifests their suffering, leading what Marnell calls a ‘conspicuous existence.’ The distinction between anorexia mirabilis — defined as ‘an illness found primarily in devout women who forgo food to achieve purification of the soul’ — and anorexia nervosa — defined as ‘an emotional disorder characterized by an obsessive desire to lose weight by refusing to eat’ — is not always entirely clear, the two sicknesses usually seen as two points on one unhappy, contextually-driven continuum of self-harm. ‘From a historical perspective,’ the historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg writes, in FASTING GIRLS: A HISTORY OF ANOREXIA NERVOSA, ‘certain social and cultural systems, at different points in time, [have] encourage[d] or promote[d] control of appetite in women, but for different reasons and purposes… today’s anoretic is one of a long line of women and girls who have used control of appetite, food and the body as a focus of their symbolic language.’
In SAINT MAUD, a new film by the writer-director Rose Glass, a plain and soft-spoken young nurse with a past trauma aims to mould herself into the living image of devotion by renouncing her old name, adopting the abstemious lifestyle of a nun, and beginning what she believes is a direct, bodily conversation with the Christian God. His communications with her, moving her to the point of eye-rolling, stumbling rapture, often appear more sexual than spiritual, a kind of fucking of the soul. As their relationship progresses, he demands more and more pain, her body becoming a war zone as she tries to prove her love: she burns her hand, baptises herself using hydrogen peroxide, fills the insides of her beaten-up shoes with nails. It is important to her that her suffering is visible and undeniable, a marker of her status as a very special emissary with a divine purpose. Roaming Scarborough in the guise of a literal female Christ, wrapped toga-like in a pale bed-sheet and delighted by the nails pricking her soles, she could not be more conspicuous, or less like other girls. Certain moments of ecstatic union between herself and the Almighty — such as when she vomits violently, then levitates, suddenly weightless, in the kitchen of her studio flat — occur as she begins deranging herself further, her mind lost to agony.
The loose connection between what she is experiencing and the actual, sensory world is perfectly, albeit accidentally, illustrative of the logic of the far-gone anorexic, whether or not she has spiritual motivations: from within, her slow suicide and descent into complete depersonalisation feel woozily virtuous, as if she’s in on an invaluable secret. She exudes, as many of us who have suffered from such self-destructive impulses believe we have exuded, a curious electricity. Eventually, Maud is informed by God that it is time for her to begin her ascent to actual sainthood, an act that necessitates the final push — total eradication of, and thus emancipation from, the earthly confines of the body. She imagines herself with a pair of golden, shimmering wings. She makes her way down to the beach, and calmly, beatifically douses herself with an industrial-sized bottle of acetone, and flips the lighter in her hand; around her, onlookers drop to their knees as one. A vortex, bright and celestial, appears in the sky. Nacreous light surrounds her face. She is rapturous and peaceful, until suddenly, abruptly, and for only a few seconds, Glass cuts to a scene that shows what those around Maud who do not share her delusion must be seeing: a young girl, her flesh burned black, screaming in pain, engulfed in flames. The movie ends. If God did require such things of her in order to continue their relationship, there is no doubt that he’s a sadist.
In Chris Kraus’s ALIENS AND ANOREXIA, autobiography meets historical biography meets art theory meets, perhaps most interestingly, an unflinching view of sadomasochism. Kraus has Crohn’s disease, a sickness that makes eating not just difficult, but undesirable: frequently, she is sick, is struck down with abdominal pain, or generally loses her appetite. She does not lose her sexual appetite, pursuing a telephone sex affair that begins on a hotline for practitioners of S/m. ‘Playing S/m with strangers made me feel that there was someone I was talking to,’ she says, drawing a parallel between her experiences talking to strange men who want to beat her, and the relationship that a true believer has with God. S/m and anorexia emerge in Kraus’s writing as two similarly extreme, similarly theatrical forms of subjugation-as-empowerment and markers of devotion. What they share is a commitment to revelling in the darkest and most internecine corners of the self. ‘A single moment of true sadness,’ Kraus suggests, ‘connects you instantly to all the suffering in the world…. The idea that you are momentarily outside your body because something else is speaking to you.’ Kraus’s lover, who is distant and mysterious in the way one might expect a sex-line sadist to be distant and mysterious, ‘likes S/m because it returns us to a primal state of what it means to be a man or a woman.’ Because he and Kraus do not meet, their affair consists of her recording her imagined injuries — one of her fantasies centres around being bundled up in a cloth sack in a dark basement, waiting for her lover-master to appear and kick her senseless — and expressing them into the void, not always certain of receiving a reply. As with much of Kraus’s writing, there is a delicate balance between embarrassment and empowerment, her naked longing transmuted by its exposure into strength. She is trying to bring out the worst in men.
God, most often pictured as a man, created not just one or two lives, but all life, making the most generative force in written history de facto male. If the Bible is to be believed, he did so cleanly, swiftly, not in nine months but six fleeting days. Women do it with blood and suffering. Kraus is made angry by the party line ‘that starving girls stop menstruating [and therefore reproducing] because they’re scared of “femininity,”’ choosing to interpret the erasure of the soft, animal aspects of their bodies as a conscious kick, a redefining. Culturally, there is something shocking in the image of a woman choosing to destroy what is supposedly (which is to say, misogynistically) her most valuable asset: her own flesh, her capacity to make life. To return to Roman Polanski: to play Rosemary in 1968’s ROSEMARY’S BABY, he insisted Mia Farrow — already another of his minute, blonde-haired baby-dolls — shrink down to ninety pounds. Her extreme, alarming thinness, less fashionable than devotional, lends credence to the image of her as a hollow vessel waiting to be filled. Still, given the way starvation affects the reproductive system, it is difficult to look at a woman who is whittled down to nothing and believe the generation of a life inside her body to be anything less than miraculous. It is, in other words, as unexpected as the image of a female Christ.
‘Female acts,’ Kraus also writes, ‘are always subject to interpretation. We don’t say what we mean. It’s inconceivable that the female body subject might ever simply try to step outside her body.’ It is interesting that she says ‘step outside,’ as if the body were a basement, and to leave it was like walking into sunlight. MARTYRS, with its startling depiction of the deconstruction of the body of a young girl, its documentation of her endless capacity for endurance, does not ever tell us why theirs is the group that makes good martyrs — it allows us to infer it. ‘For me,’ Pascal Laugier said in an
interview in 2008, ‘the martyr represents the one who, having no other choice but to
suffer, manages to do something with this pain… since the world is increasingly
divided between winners and losers, what is left to the losers but to do something
with their pain?’ Are women, historically, losers, those with ‘no choice other than to suffer’? Perhaps so. Perhaps, too, women might find newer metrics for success when more traditional routes are closed-off, unavailable, however dangerous this might be. What Kraus proposes by reframing anorexia and sadomasochism as radical acts of theatre is a means by which the underdog — ‘the loser’ — does something not just constructive but creative with her pain, making what might have been mere trauma into mystical transcendence. She encourages the sufferer to look for portents, to be guided by a thing other than reason or good sense. ‘Signs are miracles, appearing when we least expect them,’ she concludes, ‘at moments when the conscious mind has given up, turned off.’
Once Anna is transformed, she has a message to deliver; duly summoned, Mademoiselle leans close to hear it, waiting for the fleshless girl to turn her head and, haltingly, deliver what she hopes will be a vision of the afterlife. ‘Have you seen it, then?’ asks Mademoiselle. ‘The other world?’ What Anna tells her is a mystery, a fade-out of the audio obscuring whatever dazzling revelations might have led to a neat ending for the story. Obviously, stories like these have no neat or clear-cut endings besides death, making it less surprising than it might have been when having called her followers together, Mademoiselle says only that they should ‘keep doubting,’ and then shoots herself clean in the mouth and dies. Viewers have argued for twelve years about the meaning of this ending, with theories that range from the nihilistic — that there is no afterlife — to the empowering — that Anna either lies, or tells her jailer truthfully that there’s a heaven, but that heaven is not open to women like Mademoiselle — to the wrong-headed and absurd. As with all acts that grasp at ecstasy and end in death, there is no definitive answer for those left behind on earth.
Except there is, or there may be, a single clue. A little earlier, when the mysterious expression on the flayed girl’s bone-white face sends Mademoiselle’s dutiful torturers scrambling to inform her that The Moment has arrived, Laugier permits us a brief glimpse into Anna’s unseeing eyes. The camera moves into her pupils, blind and bright, and through into a cerulean mist, a deep and unknowable rabbit-hole, a final point of light that grows, and grows. The conscious mind has given up, turned off; what we are witnessing is either the last dying of the light, or the abstract visualisation of a miracle. The shot lasts roughly sixty seconds, and the pull back out of Anna’s eye ends at 1:26:28, a number that in Genesis refers to the three passages about God’s fashioning of man and woman. Whether or not this is coincidence depends on how much you believe in the significance of signs. ‘Belief is a technology,’ Kraus says in ALIENS AND ANOREXIA, ‘a mental trick for softening the landscape. The world becomes more sensuous and beautiful when God is in it.’