Glossing Jane Campion’s narrative, thematic, and aesthetic interests, Kathleen McHugh writes that in “crafting visual stories drawn from genres that are especially attentive to women’s bodies, to their agency, their vulnerability, and to their dispossessing passions, Campion generates crises where ethics… sexuality, and violence (or its threat) coalesce.”1 In the Cut, adapted from Susanna Moore’s “unfilmable” 1995 novel, is perhaps the sharpest example of Campion’s impulse as it excavates the lived experience of erotic desire and – at times bloodily – disarticulates fantasies of romance.

In the Cut is, at its heart, an erotic thriller, a genre that is not just “attentive” to women’s bodies but is one that scrutinises them. Indeed, the erotic thriller typically makes a spectacle of the (female) body in close-up as they are caught in the grip of sexual pleasure and, when caught in the grip of a killer’s fist, pain. But In the Cut should be distinguished from the pre-millennial cycle of erotic thrillers like Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992) or Body Double (Brian De Palma, 1984).2 Campion revises the codes and the conventions of the erotic thriller by foregrounding female agency – and, in the process, inverts the gender politics of scopophilia – to affectively express the erotic imagination and tactile sensitivity of In the Cut’s heroine.

In the Cut follows Frannie (Meg Ryan), an English teacher living in New York City. Frannie is reclusive and rather repressed: although she loves words and poetry she is not good at verbally expressing her desires and seems distant from the world and other people. This changes when she watches a woman give a blowjob to a man in the shadows of a basement in a seedy bar. While she cannot see his face (although he can see hers) she does notice a distinctive tattoo on his wrist. The women soon ends up dead – “disarticulated,” cut into pieces – and Frannie finds herself attracted to Detective Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) who is investigating the murder, a desire that is heightened as she becomes increasingly convinced that he is the killer.

This brief synopsis admittedly sounds generic, and the critical reception to the film’s initial release was mixed. A. O. Scott described the narrative as a “stale pretzel bowl of twists” and that “the psychology of the characters [is] frustratingly obscure,”3 while Roger Ebert complained that Frannie droops around “as if on hog tranquilizers.”4 But while her character does not say much, Ryan gives a commanding physical performance, using her body to get under the skin of Frannie and communicate her social and romantic isolation. Take, for instance, the first time Frannie meets Malloy. Ryan’s performance is taut – a bristling splinter – using micro-expressions like a slightly raised eyebrow, a shift in eye direction, or turning her head to shake the hair over her face to show her thought as Malloy invades her space and casually saunters around her apartment, touching her photographs and reading the scraps of poems that litter her walls. Frannie’s micro-expressions take on greater significance as her attitude begins to change after she spies Malloy’s tattoo. When Malloy leaves his business card we see it in close-up as Frannie holds it. But it is more appropriate to say that she caresses it: flicking, scratching, and pressing on it as she pins the card to her wall. In an unusual gesture, Frannie traces Malloy’s name with her fingertip, before leaning back, her hand still pressed against the card’s surface. Although Frannie is rather monosyllabic the gesture speaks volumes, revealing her uneasy attraction to Malloy despite trying to keep him at arm’s length.

Sean Smith claims that Ryan “probably says more in a single scene of When Harry Met Sally than she does in this entire film.”5 Smith raises an important point, as the ghosts of Ryan’s previous performances haunt her character. Nicole Kidman, anaemic in Campion’s earlier The Portrait of a Lady (1996), was originally slated to play Frannie (she maintains a producer’s credit). However, Campion was shrewd by casting Ryan in her film that “disarticulates” romantic fantasy. Known for her leading roles in a string of romantic comedies – such as Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail (1998) – Ryan is associated with an extroverted exuberance. Chirpy and blonde, these characters embodied an indefatigable optimism of love and romance as they marched through Manhattan’s polished and gleaming streets.

But there is no such optimism here. In this film, fantasies of romance literally become nightmares, love songs are perverted, and marriage proposals are offered on the blade of a knife. Indeed, each frame seems to exude pessimism: this is not a scrubbed-clean tourist’s vision of New York. The film was shot in the first summer post-9/11 and the anxiety and fracture is palpably felt. The film opens with a series of vignettes of garbage, graffiti, and grit, while American flags limply hang from pockmarked walls, and on the streets women are chased by invisible pursuers. The stifling atmosphere is enhanced through Dion Beebe’s lush cinematography that evokes the heady fug of a glasshouse with hues of orange, red, and green woozily blooming against shadow. So too is the camera’s focus kept bleary-eyed, lending a soft and fuzzy texture that at times seems to teeter into drunkenness.

Thus although Scott baulked at In the Cut’s featherweight plot, he nonetheless praised the film for offering a “fascinating mélange of moods, associations and effects… [with] images and ideas that stick like splinters under your skin.”6 As Frannie becomes caught up in her affair with Malloy – and increasingly flirts with danger – the film ensures that the spectator too is entangled in a sensual experience. Titillation is, of course, the hallmark the erotic thriller’s success, a genre that wears its desire to excite on its sleeve. And in its disarticulation of erotic desire and the body, In the Cut evocatively plays on that porous membrane between pleasure and pain, one that is articulated in the cut of the film.

 

In the Cut (2003 UK/Australia/US 119 mins)

Prod. Co: Pathé Prod: François Ivernel, Effie T. Brown, Laurie Parker, and Nicole Kidman Dir: Jane Campion Scr: Jane Campion and Susanna Moore, based on the novel by Moore Phot: Dion Beebe Ed: Alexandre de Franceschi Prod Des: David Brisbin

Cast: Meg Ryan, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nick Damici

 

Endnotes

  1. Kathleen McHugh, Jane Campion (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2007), p. 2.
  2. That is not to say that erotic thrillers of the 1980s and 1990s are strictly regressive in making erotic spectacles of women, in the process erasing their autonomy, subjectivity, and desire. The femme fatales of these films are often celebrated as complex embodiments of female empowerment. See: Linda Ruth Williams, The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2005).
  3. A. O. Scott, “A Mystery of Language, a Mystery of Murder,” New York Times, 22 October 2003, http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9E05EED71E3EF931A15753C1A9659C8B63
  4. Roger Ebert, “In the Cut,” RogerEbert.com, 31 October 2003, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/in-the-cut-2003
  5. Smith, Sean. “Love is Dangerous,” Newsweek, 22 September 2003, p. 82-4.
  6. Scott.