Flesh and Fantasy
Kristi Mitsuda on In the Cut

After establishing herself internationally with 1989’s Sweetie and then breaking out big in America with The Piano in 1993, New Zealander Jane Campion directed a string of arrestingly conceived if ill-received projects, including an adaptation of Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady and the Kate Winslet–starring whatsit Holy Smoke. But neither of these was as seemingly reviled as In the Cut, an impression supported, however unscientifically, by its critical and audience ratings on Rotten Tomatoes of 33% and 36%, respectively. When I saw the film upon its release, I fell in line with the consensus, yet also found the movie entrancing and affecting at moments, enough so that I later felt compelled to purchase it on DVD, not something I do lightly. Redeeming the film in full isn’t part of the plan—In the Cut remains upon repeated viewings something of a mess—but it’s still a fascinating work to examine.

One factor that perhaps played into the movie’s cold reception was its positioning, along with the truly terrible boxing drama Against the Ropes, as part of a one-two comeback punch for Meg Ryan; taken together the movies signaled the actor’s striving to move away from the romantic comedies with which she’d become so closely associated (and was considered aging out of by Hollywood standards) to showcase a wider range of ability in sexier, more mature roles than her previous sweetheart parts had demonstrated. But this convergence of mainstream star vehicle with auteurist vision—for certainly In the Cut reflects Campion’s ongoing interest in explicating female agency, desire, sexuality—unsurprisingly met with resistance. One wonders rhetorically whether the outsized derision that greeted the film’s release wasn’t partly kneejerk, subconscious punishment of an actor for daring to move out of her typecast place.

Although Ryan, as protagonist Frannie, has a number of lovely moments, for the most part, she seems determined to play her thoroughly interior character by draining all the charm from her personality—to the point that it’s impossible at times to buy into key aspects of the plot, which has not just one, but three men fixated upon her. Ryan’s basic physical attractiveness is a given, but this is played down; she sports mousy brown hair, doesn’t attempt to cover up the shadows under her eyes, is outfitted mostly in conservative shift dresses—which is to say, the film isn’t directing us to locate her sexual appeal via physical attributes. While characterized as guarded, she needs to convey enough charisma to allow us to understand why she’s being so hotly pursued by, tangentially, near-stalkerish ex-lover John Graham (Kevin Bacon) and overly invested student Cornelius (Sharrieff Pugh), as well as, primarily, Detective Malloy (Mark Ruffalo, somehow still sexy even whilst sporting an ugly and unironic mustache). The latter comes into her life after a woman’s murder takes place in Frannie’s Lower Manhattan neighborhood. She’d seen the victim that same day in the basement of a bar giving a blow job to a man, hidden in the shadows, with a three-of-spades tattoo on his wrist.

Based on a novel by Susanna Moore, who also cowrote the screenplay with Campion, the story is full of promise, taking as it does an inward-looking, feminine perspective rather than the usual action-oriented, masculinized one associated with the detective thriller. A whodunit unravels alongside a developing sexual relationship between Frannie and Malloy, which would seem a perfect set-up for Campion’s concerns, especially given the filmmaker’s proclivity for protagonists who find themselves awakened by unexpected objects of desire (for instance, Harvey Keitel in both The Piano and Holy Smoke). A large part of the appeal Malloy holds for Frannie has to do with the fact of their class difference—he’s a cop and she’s an English teacher and writer—and her surprise at the attraction. Her schoolgirlish habits (she scribbles Poetry in Motion excerpts read softly on the subway into a tiny notebook, arranges magnetic poetry on the back of her apartment door, tacks scrawled-down words and phrases she likes to the wall) rub up curiously against his gruffness. But she’s turned on by his physical confidence, lack of artifice, blatant sexual come-ons; she’s attracted to him not despite the fact that she might’ve seen him getting a blow job in a bar basement (he sports the tattoo she spotted on the man in question), but because he’s the kind of man who would. Later, when she starts to suspect that he might actually be connected to the serial killings of women around the city, she continues to see him anyway. We’re made to understand this perverse continuation of the relationship because the sex is set up as profound, so much so that it forces Frannie to reckon with needs she’d secreted away.

But Campion is also sentimental. She believes deeply in the redemptive power of love. The Piano and Holy Smoke, which both begin with the women using sexual acts as a means to other ends, ultimately conclude in an abiding love forming between the two main characters. Although in Moore’s novel Frannie’s relationship with Malloy reads simply as sexual infatuation, the filmmaker attempts to transform it into a love story. The shift in emphasis from lust to love is perhaps most expressively emblematized in the choice of souvenir the serial killer leaves to mark his victims; while in the book, he removes a nipple from each woman, in the movie he leaves an engagement ring on her hand. More energy is devoted to delineating Frannie’s feelings, and Malloy is made more responsive to her repressed romantic desires. Stray lines and scenes are introduced into the filmed version, including one where boy takes girl for a drive out of the city and jokes about getting engaged though they still barely know one other. Such moments fall flat because the heightened level of attachment comes off as unearned.

Despite the fact that Campion seems eager here to express something deeper or darker about what women want, her description strangely rests on conventional notions that need little establishing: love, marriage, and children. One scene sets this out clearly, as half-sister Pauline (a heartbreaking Jennifer Jason Leigh) gifts Frannie a gold charm bracelet she describes as a “courtship fantasy”; it features a wedding bell, house, and baby carriage, complete with a baby inside. Frannie jokes that the charm might be as close as she gets to having a child. (By contrast, the book incorporates more grimly intriguing details, identifying the charm bracelet as a gift given previously to Pauline’s aunt by a lover, presenting instead an abortion narrative via charms including a baster, toilet, and cocktail shaker holding the gold baby.) But these longings aren’t fleshed out or investigated in intricate enough fashion to take them out of the realm of the clichéd—or to come across as ironic. In another scene, Campion captures one of those subway moments when a second train passes in the opposite direction and pauses for a few seconds, allowing passengers to gaze at one another across the divide. It’s a gorgeous interlude—one of those minor but vaguely magical New York City moments—but its primary purpose is to serve as a kind of omen to Frannie, who attentively watches a woman in a wedding gown drift by her.

Campion’s eliding and embellishing of certain aspects of the story to suit her preoccupations—including changing the ending into a happy one in which Frannie survives her encounter with the killer to return to Malloy’s warm embrace, whereas the novel concludes with her dying consciousness communicated to us via first-person narration, a fitting end to a thriller preoccupied with language and in which the protagonist seems to exhibit a death wish—ultimately unbalances the film. In focusing on the romance and Frannie’s personal growth trajectory, she renders silly the plot-heavy mechanics necessitated by the noir genre; they seem oddly elaborate distractions since they’re not mobilized in service of the film’s expression of female desire. And generic trappings hold Campion hostage in other ways as well; almost every character other than Frannie is treated as a red herring—someone who might be a possible murderer—rather than fully fleshed-out person (of the men, only Malloy is saved due to Ruffalo’s, as usual, subdued brilliance). A world cast with cardboard cutout characters can’t house the emotional realism the director seeks. And plot developments such as sexually available Pauline falling victim to the serial killer (is this a Campion film or a slasher flick?) seem overdetermined, while cheap psychologizing such as attributing Frannie’s withholding nature to daddy issues serves to simplify the main character rather than add nuance.

Campion fills the spaces in between these failures with some beautifully rendered and deeply felt moments. She and her DP, Dion Beebe, frequently utilize a lens that allows focus to move around within a single shot in mesmerizing fashion; frames look sometimes like impressionist paintings. In an opening sequence, for instance, the camera captures Pauline as she drinks tea in the garden of Frannie’s apartment complex, focus shifting from her hair to her teacup to the man doing tai chi in the background before a cut to an aerial view captures a storm of petals from a flowering tree raining down on her. The deliberately blurred visuals lend a feeling of subjectivity, a generalized dreaminess and sense of tactility befitting a tale of self/sensual discovery.

And there’s true tenderness conveyed in some of the sequences, especially those between Frannie and Pauline. These moments mostly take place in Pauline’s apartment, situated over a strip club, and go the longest way toward eloquently voicing the female loneliness and longing Campion’s after. In these shared scenes, Ryan plays Frannie as relaxed and quick to smile (something she rarely does otherwise in her defensive daily life). In one such scene, Pauline relates her embarrassment over making eleven appointments over the course of a week to see a doctor she slept with, only to have his receptionist provide her a referral, to which Frannie asks, “You ever think about just imagining sex . . . just thinking about the doctor, not making appointments, just not really trying to have sex with him in reality?” Pauline’s response, “That’s kind of boring,” highlights the differences between the two. Frannie’s reaction to Pauline’s statement makes it’s clear that this is what she habitually does—fantasizes rather than realizes. Her words cast light on a previous sequence in which she masturbates to thoughts of Malloy; it’s less messy, less disappointing, we can easily infer, just to imagine a relationship with him. Frannie hides behind a tidy protocol, whereas Pauline lets her desperation hang out in the open, unabashed in her craving for love. As Frannie comforts Pauline in this scene, Annie Lennox’s cover of “Waiting in Vain” comes on the radio, and the sisters sing the words softly together. On paper, this reads as hopelessly obvious. But it plays with such a current of affection running between the two women, and each emanates such an ancient yearning, that it works.

Campion intends In the Cut as a meditation on female desire but, as refreshing as it always is to view a female-centered story directed by a sensitive female filmmaker, the often tepid observations leave one wanting, wishing she had more narrative space to riff off of the established themes. And yet I still find the director’s miss more compelling than some of her hits. I’d take In the Cut over Bright Star any day; celebrated as a kind of comeback, the latter seems sometimes too smoothly beautiful and crafted a product, without as many tantalizingly rough edges. In the Cut isn’t an overlooked masterpiece, but it deserves a place on the shelf as much as any other Jane Campion film.