In The Cut

dir: Jane Campion
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In the Cut is a perfect example of a cinematic bait-and-switch. It pretends to be a conventional murder mystery / thriller, but is something somewhat more complex. It’s a pretty fucking bleak film, with oddles and oddles of subtext, overt text and enough tricks in the cinematography department for fifteen other films. It deliberately and with malice aforethought subverts the generally misogynist slasher genre, dulling it down, taking the scares and the suspense out of it, for the purpose of representing something darker and uglier than just shocking and gruesome death.

The attraction for this film was supposed to be the fact that a newly renovated Meg Ryan gets to take her kit off and display her dubious acting talents in the buff. I can’t think of a less-likely drawcard than that. Her new lips alone cause me to wonder what the hell she was thinking. Surely a film starring a nude Ryan is not marketable on that alone, though perhaps, despite the fact that they’re subverting the genre that includes such masterpieces as Basic Instinct and Body of Evidence, they were hoping for similar audiences. More fool them. I could understand audiences hating this film with an angry mob type passion, especially the ones that thought Basic Instinct made any sense apart from showing Sharon Stone’s talent for playing peekaboo, I see you, with her vagina.

Jane Campion is certainly no Paul Verhoeven, and the difference between them as directors is as pronounced as that between a truck driver and a pretty ballerina. Where Verhoeven can sometimes cripple his films with his own misogyny, Campion’s intentions to reveal those same dynamics that constitute the war between the sexes is for an entirely different purpose, obviously. What’s also obvious is that intellectual consideration is given far more emphasis than entertainment value. Which isn’t a fatal flaw for me, because different films can be enjoyed or appreciated for different reasons. I just can’t imagine what the audience for this one was supposed to be.

On a purely simple level, this is not an enjoyable film. It’s not enjoyable in the sense of being solely entertaining on an emotional or visceral level. On a story level alone, it’s about a guy that’s running around New York dismembering women. From a police procedural point of view, or from a mystery – thriller point of view, the film is deliberately flat. The standard genre elements are deliberately represented in what to me felt like a perfunctory manner. Sure, all other things being equal, we expect the story to amble along until our heroine finds out at the end who the real killer is and hopefully is spared, or even catches / kills him / her herself. They have higher pretensions over at Campion and Co., fortunately.

That’s to be expected, and predictable. And if that’s all the story had to offer, it would be no different from tens of thousands of flicks released straight to video or made for television over the last three decades. In her own canny way, I guess coming from the source material itself, Campion is inspired to go far deeper than that into the crux of the matter. The fact that it is surrounded by the trappings of a genre thriller allows it to be marketable, and also allows for the central theme’s deepest and most brutal irony to come to the fore.

Because the film isn’t about murder, ultimately. It’s about a woman fearing the loss of self through commitment to another person, specifically a man.

Our protagonist is Fran, though to call her a protagonist seems to overstate Meg Ryan’s contribution. As distracting as her newly inflated lips are, we watch her stumble around New York in a desultory fashion, in something of a poetic daze. She seems flat, dour and disconnected, and from my point of view only seemed alive during the sex scenes, which I suspect was deliberate. She a complex but unappealing character. She is under assault, both literally and figuratively by the sexual intentions of practically every man that appears in the story. Each scene where she shares screen time with a male character (bar one, the gay spruiker out the front of a strip club) has a certain uncomfortable menace, it’s almost palpable.

This doesn’t concern her of course, nor us ultimately in the audience. In fact she bemoans the idea to her sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that she can’t get no action. Both of them, in a nod to the stereotypical idiocy with which women are generally represented in movies and sitcoms, mouth platitudes to wanting exactly that which television tells us women want above anything and everything else: men, marriage, babies. They do so in such a way that at least for me shows that they are subverting the ‘accepted’ common sense notion of the sum and total of the idea of what it is to be a woman in contemporary Western society.

Specifically the two (half) sisters speak of marriage, and of their father. Frannie most importantly not only relates the number and ways in which he abandoned her, also relates the story by which her father proposed to her mother, on an iced over lake as people indulged in ice skating. The father, upon spying her future mother, after pissing off his current fiance, proposes to her on the spot, with a ring at the ready, which she accepts. Later on we see a scene where the same sepia-toned fantasy is related, except instead of merely proposing to her, he inadvertently cuts off her legs and then her head with his ice skates.

You see, the current serial killer in New York that the film has as its villain du jour is doing the same thing: proposing to women, giving them an engagement ring, and then killing and dismembering them. More specifically put, in the words of Detective Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), the victims have been ‘disarticulated’. This is crucial to the real deal that’s going on in the story: Frannie swans about perilous New York not afraid of being hurt or killed, but of being ‘disarticulated’. Although it may seem to be a malapropism, it’s used for a very telling reason. Frannie, being an English teacher, lives for words. She is seduced by the poetry around her, she covers the walls of her apartment with non-sequiturs and individual words, and she keeps seeing lines of poetry on the train, which seem to be aimed at her. Being disarticulated in this context has more to do with losing her ‘voice’ than losing her limbs.

Apart from the fairly obvious symbolism with the constant references to Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, both intertextually and with the overt, perhaps overly obvious symbolism of the image of a red lighthouse itself, it all comes down to Frannie’s fear of men. She fears losing herself through commitment or intimacy with a man, though she does not fear sex itself, in fact actively seeks it out. Although it is used initially as a plot point for the perfunctory mystery elements of the story, at the movie’s beginning, Frannie spies two people having sex in the basement area of a bar. Instead of being shocked or horrified, she continues to watch them.

To call it ‘sex’ perhaps overstates it: she sees a seated man, but not his face, receiving a blowjob from a woman on her knees. The scene is faked well enough to probably freak some people out who have not been privy to that kind of sight before. Though it looks entirely explicit, to me at least it was fairly obvious that the woman was fellating a prosthetic. If it means anything to anyone, she does a pretty good job.

There are a number of reasons for the scene and why it works: it gives us a clue about the eventual ‘killer’ (the man has a tattoo of the 3 of spades on his wrist), it shows Frannie’s fascination with the idea of transgressive sex, it represents certain dynamics in the sex act (the male sits regally on the chair smoking, the woman, subservient, is kneeling and servicing him, his hand has a firm grip on her hair, controlling her head as she works; he is not a ‘passive’ object but active subject) and it clues us in to the fact that sex in this film is not for the purpose of turning people on or for humour, but for some version of ugly, commonplace ‘reality’. Such an assertion would make fools of the audience members who turned up expecting an ‘erotic thriller’, and the shameless clods in the marketing department who pandered to them.

The woman who did so well on her knees ends up disarticulated all over the place, including parts of her in a garden near where Frannie lives. A homicide detective canvassing the area, Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), catches her eye, and his constant boorish and sexually menacing behaviour turn her on instead of repelling her. The problem for her is that including Malloy, every man in her life is a complete fruitloop, and she has no reason to trust any of them, and thus any of them could be the killer, not that it matters. Killers or not, she has little motivation to trust men in general, considering her abandonment issues, and the only intimacy she desires is sex with a detective she suspects is probably the killer at the same time.

More women die, there aren’t more clues so much as more examples of this killer’s all consuming desire to rip women into pieces, but in such a romantic way. We feel that we aren’t so much moving towards the mystery being solved, but to a wedding –night consummation.

As befits something that parodies such a genre, we are led to the story’s culmination as Frannie and the killer are caught in a bizarre courtship ritual, as the killer takes the victim to a romantic spot, has a glass of wine, whispers words of love, and offers her a ring. When whatever happens right at the end happens, our protagonist / antagonist are in what could be seen as a post-coital embrace, the man exhausted and replete, the woman unsatisfied and glad that it is over. There is primacy given to the ‘husband’s’ dick (the obvious phallic imagery of the knife and the lighthouse itself) penetration (of sorts), spots of blood representing the ‘taking’ of virginity, terror and dissatisfaction. What more could a young girl want?

If there is a more scathing and ironic representation of marriage and the notions of chivalric romantic ‘love’, I haven’t seen it recently. The film is as genuinely a feminist extrapolation of the exploitation genre as one is ever likely to see, and par for the course in terms of the films Campion has been responsible for. This makes the film doubly remarkable in this day and age, where the word ‘feminist’ is enough to send people into paroxysms of rage alone. Think of what it might have meant in the past, and how now it seems to be used solely as a negative adjective to attack any aspect of the struggle for women’s rights that someone, mainly conservative nutjobs, don’t agree with.

The film is wonderfully shot by Dion Beebe, both from a set design point of view and the cinematography itself. The restless camera makes us uneasy, increasing the discomfort arising from the situations and the subject matter. The musical score is surprisingly affecting, giving certain moments an added beauty you would not have necessarily expected. The moments where the camera seems to be following an unimportant element of the mise en scene, or highlighting a superfluous image or person are amongst the film’s highlights for me. Fran reading the poetry on the train also appealed to me greatly, as her downward spiral and growing feeling of being lost are mirrored therein.

So whilst it is obvious that it’s a very dense and literate film, you’d be right in suspecting that the characters in some ways become complete ciphers, puppets to a story that needs them only to occupy space and to say things at the right moment. None of the acting is bad, nor even mediocre. But there isn’t anything superlative in the acting stakes. Mark Ruffalo, as the detective, despite being an actor I am coming to admire more and more, didn’t seem entirely convincing to me. For much of the film’s duration I kept suspecting it would be revealed that he wasn’t a cop at all, because nothing he seemed to do during the film’s length and breadth indicated to me that the character really was a cop. The performance is menacing, but contradictory and muddled. He does get the funniest line in the film, which I won’t repeat here for fear of any of my female friends ever coming across this review and deciding that I could do with a good stabbing in the trouser area.

Jennifer Jason Leigh as Fran’s sister Pauline, an actress I admire greatly, does very little apart from act quite pathetic, significantly, over men. Her conversations with Fran are okay, but not wonderful. I have to wonder what could have been had the roles been reversed. I suspect it wouldn’t have mattered much. The actors take the adage that ‘less is more’ to heart, are really deliver. Less, that is.

In the acting stakes, this probably won’t be a performance that Meg Ryan will want to remember fondly. She has done some excellent work in the past (Courage Under Fire, Flesh and Bone, and Hurly Burly, a film I loathe with a white hot passion) and a lot of mediocre work. This falls somewhere in the middle. I admit that it takes balls or ovaries to play a role like this at her age, but there’s just not enough for the character to do. She sleepwalks through much of the film, the acted upon rather than the ‘actor’, events happen to her rather than her doing stuff, and her character is so dour that it’s hard to care what happens to her. Still, it’s admirable for her to do such a ‘risky’ role on the way to probably doing another awful diabetes-inducing romantic comedy with Tom Hanks.

Overall I can’t recommend this difficult film to anyone, except for people that derive intellectual enjoyment from watching difficult films. If taken solely on the surface, it’s just another dull thriller. When examined further, it’s a menacing deconstruction of sexual relationships and a genre that is rarely redeemed other than in examples such as this, and it’s a competent film put together by people who clearly love the idea of what film is capable of. However, you have to wonder what the hell they expected your general audience was going to think and feel while watching it.

Romance is dead, and I don’t think Jane Campion is done hammering nails into the coffin.

7 times I'm never going to get to use the term "sense of cock" in a conversation in my life, which is a damn shame, out of 10