It’s hard to find films with a similar energy to Jane Campion‘s In the Cut. If you type ‘films like In the Cut‘ into your preferred search engine, it’s likely to deliver the usual erotic/psychological suspects. Some texts are close. While not an erotic thriller in the typical sense, Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977) captures a similar energy. However, as with so much of the erotic thriller genre, the focus is often on “what men do”. It’s easy to find erotic thrillers full of “difficult” women. And yet few films tackle female desire as head-on as In the Cut.
In the book, The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema, author Linda Ruth Williams notes In the Cut is one of the only recent thrillers of its kind to show an erect male penis on screen. Meanwhile, it avoids displaying women within the typical male gaze. Such a moment is an important one. It eschews the typical male-orientated titillation of the genre and firmly places the text elsewhere. Centred around its female star, Williams considers it an anti-romantic romance. It’s a film that is happy to pull away from many erotic thrillers whose women weld their sexual exploits like a weapon. This post 9/11 noir gets far messier.
READ MORE: The Right Stuff – Throwback 40
Much like Goodbar, In the Cut focuses on an English teacher who’s not necessarily looking for love in all the wrong places but rather is more than happy to indulge in desires far removed from typical projections of romance. Frannie is looking for romantic solace yet lives within an environment of suspicion. Every potential suitor feels suspect. She has a reason to mistrust every man she encounters. Meg Ryan is cast as Frannie with an air of subversive jest.
Before the turn of the millennium, Ryan, by default, was known for the cute romantic lead. Films such as Proof of Life and In the Cut were considered a change in perception for the actress. Ryan’s Frannie finds herself having an affair with a brash, young police detective played by Mark Ruffalo, who just so happens to be investigating the murder of a young woman in the local area. The troubling aspect lies in the fact that Frannie is no stranger to men who have a sliver of danger about them. The film becomes less about a murderer who stalks the neighbourhood and more about a woman’s willingness to flirt with danger now that the world has changed.
READ MORE: Star Trek: Holo-Ween #3 – Comic Review
In the Cut left a nasty taste in many mouths upon its 2003 release. Scout Tafoya mentions in his 2018 video essay that male critics “didn’t get” the film. Tafoya remarks that the style, tone, and pace were not to their tastes. Scrolling through reviews, however, it feels like gender may not have been such a dividing line. Linda Cook’s full review for the Quad City Times seems like it has fallen through a memory hole. However, the quote that remains on Rotten Tomatoes sums up her thoughts on the film, considering it “a professionally wrapped package with a mound of garbage inside”. Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post labelled the film “Belaboured and muddled”.
Betty Jo Tucker (Reel Talk Movie Reviews) is wholly dismissive of the film, admitting to liking Ryan’s fuzzy romantic endeavours far more than anything within In the Cut. Tucker’s review is interesting. Her final paragraph highlights her disinterest in a female filmmaker taking on explicit sex scenes and graphic violence. The great Pauline Kael passed years before In the Cut was made, nevertheless, this quote on Campion’s 1993 critical darling, The Piano, feels startlingly relevant: “The Piano could be a silly erotic fantasy and still be fun if it didn’t have so much unexamined feminine smugness… This movie congratulates its heroine for any damn thing she does.” There’s a feeling a few people might feel similar about In the Cut.
Many of the negative reviews of In the Cut are pre-occupied with hitting bawdy zingers about Ryan’s presence in such explicit sex scenes, frustrated that the actress had traded in her girl next door persona for a text which seems to care little about its mystery, and more about sex. However, this dismisses the most absorbing aspect of the film. So much of what was considered art-house pretension feels like a filmmaker pushing back against the wishy-washy romantic slush directed at the female audience.
Looking for Mr. Goodbar becomes a provocative frame of reference. Both films serve as a reminder that an element of threat may never have left New York. The same dangers that infiltrated the shadows in the 1970s still linger. It only takes a nudge for ugliness to show its face once more. It’s a film that puts a woman’s sexual desires to the forefront but centres them within a city fought with peril. It’s fascinating to see how many film writers did not engage with this when considering how relatable it is to the film’s possible core audience.
READ MORE: Smallville 5×21 – ‘Oracle’ – TV Rewind
In the UK, In the Cut was released less than a year after Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002). This was another film with characters processing the desires and security in their lives while the concrete dust cloud of 9/11 still lingers over them. These are people inhabiting a New York City under the duress of mass trauma. Both films do well to visualise the stress. Lee’s 25th Hour brashly opens with stark shots of the Tribute in Light. An art installation placed next to where the Twin Towers stood, from 2002 onwards.
In contrast to Lee’s bolder delivery are Campion’s more fretful compositions which are dissimilar yet no less uncompromising. Dion Beebe’s cinematography is a creeping combination of shallow depth of field and wobbling handheld. The visuals seem designed to obscure and unnerve. Ensuring the viewer can never be fully sure of what is in focus. This lingering visual representation of doubt adds more weight to the character’s vulnerability. The clear-cut veneer and artifice that inhabits Ryan’s cute romantic comedies are dramatically stripped away.
READ MORE: IDW’s Star Trek – Comic Round-up Review
The subversive casting trick of Meg Ryan as the complicated protagonist is one of the conventions the film enjoys toying with. Susanna Moore, the author of the 1995 source novel, notes in a behind-the-scenes interview about the film how she watched a lot of porn while reading every noir she could find. In Moore’s words, she wanted to see how a woman would explore those worlds. This translation of the idea from Campion leads us into a fascinating realm. Frannie is a woman who absorbs danger, often tackling it head-on, sometimes being turned on by it.
More frighteningly, she is a survivor of an emotionally stunted father, whose past gestures towards the mothers of Frannie and her half-sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) have distorted the siblings’ emotional views on relationships. Pauline is very much a believer in fairytale romance. However, the restraining order she obtains from a married man she had a fling with only highlights her delusion of Prince Charming and happy ever after. There’s a cunning tactic at play. Ryan was then known as the button-nosed girl next door of romantic fodder. Now she flitters in between woman in distress and fierce sexual independence, giving off the complicated idea that the danger she faces in relationships isn’t just something unavoidable, but also at times tempting.
Meg Ryan took the edgy role of Frannie after Nicole Kidman bowed out after five years of pre-production. This turn to darker fare is not as abrupt as mentioned in 2003. Films such as Courage Under Fire (1996) and underrated Film Soliel entry Flesh and Bone (1993) were already in Ryan’s back pocket. As an actress, she had already shown a flair for the dramatic. Filming of In The Cut happens to occur in the aftermath of an extremely public divorce. Ryan had split with Dennis Quaid after an alleged affair with Russell Crowe on Proof of Life. Does her private life infer her showbiz work? It’s possible.
However, Ryan’s past roles highlighted an actress looking to spread herself into darker texts. Her insular performance as Frannie along with Campion’s command of form is a fascinating blend. Frannie witnessing a woman performing fellatio on a man in a dank backroom may have picked up all the column inches. However, smaller captured moments such as Frannie viewing a black bride waiting pensively on the other side of the subway, speak loudly about this woman’s feelings. An opening cutaway of a graffiti painting of a heart imprisoned by a wire fence is a simple metaphor that effectively captures ensnared romance.
Ryan’s scenes with Jennifer Jason Leigh are sweet-natured and honest. Leigh’s role as the promiscuous Pauline is a standout. Not only due to Leigh’s typical chameleon-like fearlessness but simply because the film does not judge Pauline’s transgressions. Campion is more than happy to capture this sibling relationship in candid detail. They dance, joke and gossip like true sisters, not film characters. Such scenes of female bonding could have easily ended up on the cutting room floor if this was a film trying to sit on the fence. The reviewers at the time seemed to construe much of the choices as arthouse pretension. Whereas watching the film from a substantial distance, In The Cut feels more like a director laying different textures on a well-worn subgenre. Taking things to avenues a modern noir wouldn’t wish to tread.
Revisionist reviews of In the Cut were quick to highlight the film’s mockery and concern about male entitlement. Frannie is surrounded by dangerous men vying for her attention. They don’t deserve it. And they spit and seethe when she doesn’t allow them to have their way. Her black student Cornelius (Sharrieff Pugh) tries to woo her with his deranged thoughts on John Wayne Gacy. Kevin Bacon shows up as a two-time fling who wants little more than constant attention from Frannie. Whining and bitching when he gets nothing.
Nick Damici plays Malloy’s detective partner who views exchanges with women as combat. Malloy is unapologetic in his willingness to engage with his partner’s coarseness. Frannie is similar to Theresa in Looking for Mr. Goodbar in that her scholarly pursuits conceal some of the rougher edges of her sexual desire. And the varying amount of attraction she holds to these men, despite their obnoxiousness and anger, is apparent. With the film being a murder mystery at its heart, many of the men Frannie encounters are ultimately red herrings. But what Campion’s film so vividly depicts is how close the danger is surrounding its protagonist. Almost suggesting that if the killer doesn’t get her, someone else will harm her.
READ MORE: Beyond: Two Souls – Throwback 10
It’s this that makes the central romance between Frannie and Ruffalo’s Detective Malloy so beguiling. Malloy seems to care for her well-being but can be equally as boorish and unapologetic as any other man in the narrative. Tension is often heavily in Malloy’s use of language. Critic Roger Ebert says it best in his otherwise middling review. Describing Malloy as “the kind of man who talks about sex in a way that would be offensive if he didn’t deliver so skilfully what he describes so crudely.”
Perhaps the most potent sex scene in the film is where the two engage in phone sex. Malloy instructs and informs Frannie in a vulgar manner. It’s no shock that Frannie, an English teacher who has shown her love of words throughout the film, is perhaps the most turned on at this stage. It’s a man who knows how she functions, even though she is wary of him. Ruffalo’s performance sits on the edge of both rough and smooth. It is one of his earlier performances that reminds audiences how interesting his choices are when not engulfed by Marvel’s Hulk.
Watching this view of romantic solace within the current film landscape feels like a gut punch. Jane Campion’s In The Cut envisions a world where trauma damages trust. There is a relevance the film holds today that many people can relate to. Yet the dismissive nature of critics upon its release seems to play into the hands of media viewership now. Current cinema’s non-committal blankness and obsessive nostalgic escapism now replace the murky, fearful visions of the early 00s. Despite being 20 years old, In the Cut’s brazenness feels invigorating in contrast to a large amount of whitewashed mainstream viewing. A feeling of shock remains in the venom put forth in those original reviews. The potshots at Meg Ryan still feel unjust. Were people really belittling a female actress taking a film that centres on female desire and sexuality? We cannot be surprised that what Ryan tried here has rarely been done since.
READ MORE: Delicatessen (1991) – Blu-ray Review
Behind the scenes, female representation is growing. More women are being given a voice and becoming directors. But a female director framing a film about the complicated nature of female desire is hardly the first choice for studios. In The Cut shows Jane Campion’s importance. She revamps the haunting complexities seen in Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Unsettling and intricate ideas of female sexuality are driven home with bold use of form. Be it the voyeuristic glimpses of oral intimacy to centring the camera on the pleasure of its female protagonist instead of any man.
From a murder mystery point of view, the killer is of no shock. Could it be anyone else? Also, the pace of the narrative is leisurely. It’s more than happy to wander at a deliberate pace. However, the film is not just interested in the typical. Despite its intentionally fuzzy tilt-shift camerawork, its point of view feels laser-focused. In 2003, mainstream movies felt more willing to gaze into collective trauma and pull out something constructive and exciting from what we may fear. We used to be better at all this. What happened?
In the Cut was released in the UK on 31st October 2003.