In the Cut
A 2003 NicksFlickPicks Honoree in Three Categories!
Director: Jane Campion. Cast: Meg Ryan, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nick Damici, Sharrieff Pugh, Kevin Bacon, Sunrise Coigney. Screenplay: Jane Campion and Susanna Moore (based on the novel by Jane Campion).

It has been fascinating to follow Jane Campion's career arc over the last decade, watching her transform from a director that almost everyone seemed to love, after 1993's The Piano, to a director that almost everyone seems to wish would just go away. Four years ago, I remember reading a review on MrShowbiz.com of Campion's last film, Holy Smoke!, in which the baffled and irritated critic named it (I'm paraphrasing, but not too much) "the worst and most disorganized film by any major director in recent memory—but, then again, just how major a director is Jane Campion?" Whew! It's hard to remember that, just ten years ago, both the New York Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics were wowed enough by Campion that, in the year of the great Schindler's List juggernaut, she scored the Best Director prize from both organizations over Spielberg. It isn't surprising that the fickle and swayable Academy, which showered eight nominations and three wins on The Piano, hasn't taken any notice of her since, but for the critical establishment to toss her to the winds was much less predictable and, I think, much more unfair.

It's arguable that Campion's films got precipitously worse after The Piano, though I don't think so. Holy Smoke!, admittedly a mess on some levels, was a spirited and intoxicating mess with gorgeous photography, clever use of music, and the same kicky eye for off-the-wall details that have characterized and distinguished Campion's work since her earliest short films. (If you're looking for a treat, search out the VHS/DVD collection Films of Jane Campion, and pay particular attention to her Cannes-winning one-reeler called Peel, in which a family unit is quite amusingly blown to bits by a fight over an orange rind.) Even more magisterial was The Portrait of a Lady, which took a lot of hits for its surrealist caprices—a plate of talking beans, a gauzy prologue of rhapsodizing beatnik grrlz—but which stands nonetheless with the very best adaptations of 19th-century literature that we've seen in the last two decades. Just one of Campion's widescreen, off-center, chiaroscuro close-ups on Nicole Kidman captures more of the texture of Isabel Archer's coltish arrogance and luminous confusion (and of Henry James' grand but elliptical sentences) than many adapters achieve with whole hours of story.

The irony here is that neither Campion's approach nor her interests have changed very much since her short-film period, or even since her feature debut with 1989's Sweetie. From where I'm standing, she hasn't reneged on her own promise so much as the audiences for her irreverent style and unabashedly aestheticized vision have simply gotten tired of them, or else dislike them when either high literature (as in Portrait) or high kitsch (as in Smoke) get added to the recipe—and of course, some audiences were never into Campion to begin with. The real shock, I suppose, isn't that her sensibility has fallen out of fashion but that it was ever an "in" thing to begin with. I myself am totally, exuberantly into Campion, but to be fair, it's easy to see why she isn't a universal taste. The directors of whom she most reminds me—Buñuel, Bertolucci, Godard, and Wertmüller, most of whom I don't really care for—seem like compatriots precisely in their shared penchants for saturated images, outrageous sexual politics, and truly eccentric notions of humor. I like her work, too, in the same way I love Jessica Lange's acting or Björk's music: consistently bold, sometimes embarrassingly frank and undisciplined, frequently hovering at the edge of ludicrousness, so that the consistent brilliance of all three artists is often made more gratifying through their extreme courting of failure.

All of which leads me to In the Cut, a typically abrasive Campion project in that, first off, it's a movie no one was exactly clamoring for: a sexual potboiler in which a grim, rather impersonal Manhattan schoolteacher discovers that women are being mutilated and murdered in her area, and finds herself improbably turned on by the whole sordid business. The teacher, Frannie (Meg Ryan), is rightly taken aback by the phallic crudeness and moral flippancy with which the principal police detective, Giovanni Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), treats both the case and its key witnesses; Frannie numbers among this group because she lives in a building where one body was found, and she recently patronized a local bar on the same night another victim was claimed there. Still, her righteous annoyance at his gruff advances ("I can be anything that you want, I can lick your pussy") is strongly flavored with a quickly and fervently consummated desire. The tense imbrication of terror and eroticism is the keynote of the whole film. Meanwhile, the question remains open—as it always is with Campion—whether she is describing a specific reality among a set of characters or whether, as is often assumed, she is saying something roundly metaphorical about Women, Men, and the nasty things that transpire between them.

Given these broad outlines—yet another lurid serial-killer thriller in which women are both the reckless initiators of dangerous, all-but-anonymous sex and the victims of elaborate, all-but-invited violence—Campion has certainly set herself up for a fall among the bourgeois critics and feminist film scholars on whom The Piano's success largely depended. And despite the seeming commercial trappings of the project, In the Cut aggressively alienates the would-be sympathizers in the mall audience, too. None of the characters is especially likable, the pace of the film feels choppy and arrhythmic, the graphic images of intercourse and its bloody aftermaths are harsh even by liberal standards, and the putative riddle of who is committing the murders is fairly easily solved. Both the popular media, where the film has been as badly flayed as one of its own victims, and the chagrined, muttering audience with whom I watched the film tended to dismiss it either as goody-girl Meg Ryan's bid for dramatic cachet and/or as Jane Campion screwing up yet another viable premise with an off-putting addiction to her own artsiness.

Whatever the other reasons for disliking In the Cut—and the film certainly has its flaws, from some uneven supporting performances to some badly misjudged scenes near the end—these two seem unfair and imperceptive. For one, Meg Ryan shouldn't have to keep proving that she isn't just Sally Albright. She's done plenty of good work beyond the romantic comedy genre, in films like Hurlyburly and Courage Under Fire, but more than that, the skills that make her such a good comedienne are just as suited to other tones and formats. Ryan has a terrific voice, a vivid gaze, and some of the most expressive hands and arms in the business. Some of Frannie's wilder emotions and dialogues are tough for Ryan, but she's aces at conveying the character's candor and her desire for the truth, turning simple but charged lines like "Did you kill her?" and "Do you ever tell the truth?" into forceful, focused moments. Other actors might have taken Frannie in other directions, and there is something about this performance (maybe it's the wig—why can't Hollywood make good wigs anymore?) that occasionally seems a little flat and smudgy. Much more often, though, her daring insistence on underplaying keeps both her excitable character and her highly agitated film from spinning totally off-balance.

In fact, it isn't enough just to say that Ryan's low tones and deliberately compressed emotional range stand in artful contrast to the movie's grandiose style. Truthfully, the expressionist angles, sounds, colors, and characterizations are a kind of completion of Ryan's performance, seeming more and more to reflect the desires and fetishizations that Frannie keeps repressed. Like Steven Soderbergh's Solaris or Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, bracing auteurist gambles that were sadly spurned even by the filmmakers' fans, In the Cut only seems to court a commercial, genre-bound narrative while it actually goes about the business of externalizing and landscaping the inner life of a notably repressive, overstimulated personality. In the Cut isn't a thriller that's been drowned in too much graphic excess and unmotivated style; it's an exercise in style as characterization that refuses to delineate subjective impressions from objective reality. As in the Kubrick film, the New York City of In the Cut may not conform to any vision of that city a resident or even a visitor might recognize, and yet the unlikely framings and shallow depth of field keep hinting that this isn't supposed to be "reality." Frannie's mind, not New York City, is the place where women are constantly ducking around corners, where every sexual act and violent confrontation is a geyser explosion of fluids and energy, where Edenic gardens, strip clubs, and soiled bedclothes exist in nervy, panting proximity.

Campion further encourages this non-realistic view of her film (though she refuses to outright demand it or specify it) by constantly highlighting the fablic and fairy-tale aspects of her story. The film begins and ends in a shimmering world of floating petals and wistful music ("Que Sera Sera," moviedom's most famous lullaby). Lighthouses, grotty basements, and charmbracelets play prominent, recurring roles in the narrative, as though the film itself has fetishistic drives. Frannie's sister Pauline, as in "The Perils of," meets exactly the kind of fate that Paulines have always met at the cinema, and she seems to wear the same red dress almost everywhere she goes, even in old photos—so colors, too, have strong allegorical codings. There is also a further embedded narrative in the movie, a legend about how Pauline's parents met on a frozen pond, which no one can quite prove as true or apocryphal. Campion evokes this episode (competing versions of it, actually) in sepia, zoetrope-ish scenes that spring from the same fanciful zone as the talking beans in The Portrait of a Lady and the flaming cartoon-man in The Piano. Only Campion would cut from a psychotic stalker to his distressed Chihuahua, or fill the soundtrack after the discovery of a beheaded body with a robotic toy mouse singing "I Think I Love You"—and perhaps because Campion includes these moments of obvious irreality and evident kitsch, it becomes too tempting to assume that the rest of her narratives are serious, "real."

I think at a certain level, all of In the Cut is unreal, which doesn't diminish its impact. As an exercise in conveying sensualized dread and ambivalent attraction—not just between Frannie and Malloy but between Frannie and sexuality, or Frannie and the city—the film is technically accomplished and devilishly unsettling. My clearest impression a week after In the Cut was of how often its shadowy scenes, awash in crimson, black, and gold, kept starting too abruptly for comfort and ending at tense, improbable moments. The whole movie is a kind of almanac of violence, slicing its own narrative into shreds, as though dismemberment or, in the detectives' lingo, disarticulation were not just the film's topic but its form. We shouldn't forget that "cuts" are a basic practice of film, tearing narratives apart even as they pull them together, and nor should we forget that Frannie is a writing teacher whom we hear, during a lecture about Virginia Woolf, urging her students toward a more fragmentary, more experimental style. In the Cut seemed better by its end than it did in its beginning, it seemed creepier the next morning than it did when I was watching it, and its power only increased on a second viewing. Of course, that audience hated it, too. Jane Campion could use another masterpiece like Piano or Portrait, and I'm starting to worry she's going to find herself without a distributor and without a job; I did, after all, have to go hours out of my way to find a theater showing In the Cut, which never even opened in Ithaca. Jane, if you're reading, you really are making me nervous—but I wouldn't want you any other way. B+


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