In the Cut (2003)

[Jane Campion is] just like an atomic bomb going on in my life and also in my creative life. She just completely rearranged my molecules and my whole idea what to expect from the filmmaking experience.
— Meg Ryan, “In the Cut: Behind the Scenes”

For me, almost all human knowing is so faulty and most of the time, wrong.
— Jane Campion, commentary track, In the Cut

Describing the opening scene of her film, In the Cut, Jane Campion calls it a “transcendent moment.” As Frannie (Meg Ryan) wakes in the morning, she appears to exist in between — dream and consciousness, fear and curiosity, hope and sadness. Campion tells her co-commentator, producer Laurie Parker, “In her mind, when she looks out the window, she mistakes these blossoms for snow. And this is so emblematic of the whole way that this film moves. It’s all a series of mistaken identities, and how our thinking is like that, that we think we’ve seen something, but we actually haven’t quite seen it all, we haven’t seen enough of it. But we think, ‘Oh, I know what that is and off we go on the wrong course.'”

Frannie’s sleeping over at her half-sister Pauline’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh). They don’t look much alike, but they’re increasingly alike in their defiant, sad desires. Having found one another years after their father abandoned their mothers, they share everything, from dresses to beds to secrets. Today, Pauline is vexed over her current crush, a doctor whose wife she follows to the dry cleaners; afterwards, she confesses to Frannie, she picks up the tan suit that the wife has left off, to keep in her closet, an effort to keep the man close to her, an effort she recognizes as feeble and miserable.

At the same time, Frannie is trying to avoid the man she’s slept with most recently, an intern named John (Kevin Bacon, looking as scraggly and damaged as he’s ever looked, carrying a teeny trembly dog wherever he goes). Stalking her, he calls her from his cell phone, standing beneath her apartment window so he can watch cross the room to her answer, or stands outside the coffee shop where she’s talking with Pauline. Even as neither Frannie nor Pauline has control of her romantic or emotional life, the film shows the strength and sustenance of their mutual affection.

Their assured intimacy is surely unusual in a film about women in danger. Based on Susanna Moore’s novel, Campion and Moore’s script repeatedly sets itself against the grain of noir. Opening with a cover of “Que Será, Será,” it counters fate with grit, determinism with accident. That the film doesn’t quite cohere (and worse, that it comes to a contrived-seeming finale, granting Frannie a violently won semblance of “independence”) is too bad, because it grapples with such compelling and challenging ideas concerning women’s experiences.

Frannie is an English professor (Campion notes during a classroom scene, when Frannie is teaching To The Lighthouse, that a lighthouse drawn on the blackboard is difficult to see: “It’s the one scene I regret. It’s so pathetically, obviously phallic I can’t bear it”). Her current project is a slang dictionary. “Broccoli,” Frannie explains to Pauline as they head out the door one morning, “It means pubic hair.” While the initial shock of Ryan saying “pubic hair” will soon be undone by the extremely sexy scenes she shares with tough-posing homicide detective Malloy (Mark Ruffalo). (Campion nobserves of these scenes, “I actually think the sex scenes in this film are like a textbook for young men… When you get to those days when you do these scenes… You wonder why you have them in the film. It makes everyone feel vulnerable. They are hard to do for that reason.”)

The film is all about journeys, for Frannie, Ryan, and her expectant audience. Frannie’s project takes her to a “seedy” part of town, in particular a bar with pool tables and dark corners. Here she meets with her student, Cornelius (Sharrieff Pugh), described by Pauline, not incidentally, as looking “like he wants to eat you!” Frannie takes out her notepad, Cornelius delivers a word — “meow.” Oh, she mutters, “This is valuable shit.” He pauses, then presses her: “It’s people like you who think the brothers are guinea pigs, the way we talk and shit.”

Before she can show that she’s embarrassed, Frannie spots an out, namely, a guy in a suit headed into the basement with a hooker-looking girl. She excuses herself and follows them downstairs, where, even with her glasses, she doesn’t see well, no faces, only the blowjob, his three of clubs tattoo, and her blue fingernails. (Campion recalls the problems of “casting the prosthesis,” not wanting it to be too large.)

This scene follows on the first, as Campion said, building on mistaken identities and incomplete knowledge. It provides a point of paranoid departure, as everything from this moment seems partly material reality and partly framed by Frannie’s fearful mind’s eye. That’s not to say that earlier events might not also be functions of Frannie’s self-doubts, as when she encourages Cornelius’ peculiar interest in John Wayne Gacy, subject of his term paper (which will be turned in with blood drizzled over the pages). “I got a radar for the truth,” says Cornelius, “You know I got vision, I got African vision. You know, I got bitch vision.” Frannie nods, appearing to believe him, as if the truth she seeks has to do with urban underbellies and aggression, the dreary clichés that trail black men in the movies.

Indeed. As Pugh notes in the DVD’s behind the scenes featurette, “As far as Cornelius and his emotions: I’m a black man, I got emotions.” Indeed, the film probes and pokes at faith in clichés, in characters and in challenges to the audience. The brief documentary is organized around the collision of fear and expectation. Campion says, “I felt intimidated by the material, and excited as well, because it’s good to feel fear, and to go out to find your way to meet it.” Similarly, Ruffalo admits, “I read Malloy and I really didn’t feel like I could do it. You know, it scared the hell out of me.” And Ryan says, “There’s this great thing it says in the book… about how one of the requirements of being a human being is to surrender to the evolution of your soul, no matter how terrifying it might be. [Frannie]’s just going to go about her life, living as authentically as possible.”

If Pauline’s options are limited from jump (Campion calls her “such a war veteran of romance and love”), Frannie’s efforts to “live authentically” are disrupted but also expanded when a murder is committed near that very bar where she met with Cornelius, and “part of her body” is dumped near her apartment window. Malloy comes by canvassing, asking go-nowhere questions and taking note of mundane details, the quotations she has tacked up to her wall (“You a writer?”), the literature on her shelves. And then he gives her a word, a frankly incredible word: “The body was disarticulated.” And with that, Frannie, so vulnerable, is smitten.

Malloy is characterized by any number of cop movie clichés — his butchy partner, Rodriguez (Nick Damici), macho inflections (“I got faggot hands, they’re soft”), circa-’70s mustache, and not-exactly-muscular frame make Malloy seem something of a throwback, a character from another era, perhaps another effect of Frannie’s limited experience, or perhaps his own. And this is the film’s most absorbing aspect, its attention to how desire shapes narrative and experience, the viewers’ no less than the characters’.

Her interest in him, indicated by her brief fingertip caress of Malloy’s business card, leads to risk-taking and more paranoid camerawork by the inventive Dion Beebe, skittery and unfocused, but also riveting. To this point of facing fears and exploring limits, Campion underlines the improvisation on the set, the ways that the digital camera operators had to keep up with the actors; “All work in film,” she says, “is working with and against traditions.” Parker adds, “We were looking for a kind of poetic realism, and, I think, a kind of cinema vérité approach to shooting the film, not wanting the shots to be constructed but rather, to have them be quite loose and let the acting dictate the camera.”

Such “looseness” and edge complicate the narrative, as it is increasingly immersed in Frannie’s uncertainty, her liminal state between dream and daily experience. Haunted by a dream of her father and mother’s first meeting, skating in winter (which Campion calls a “dream that she’s inherited from her mother, the romantic mythology of her father”), she resists emotional commitments but is drawn to Malloy even beyond the adventurous sex.

Her simultaneous resistance and desire become thematic. Or, as Parker observes on the commentary track, “The romance and the murder stories are intertwined.” As if to underline the ways that desire is overdetermined, to demonstrate Malloy’s (or Cornelius’ or Frannie’s father’s) constructedness, the film raises questions concerning her point of view. Is Malloy the serial killer? Is he the hero? He shows his object of affection some photos of bloody body parts; then, when she’s assaulted outside a bar, he invites her to the station to “look at some pictures,” even though she’s said upfront that she didn’t see her attacker (he comes up from behind her, leaving her bruised enough that Malloy has to nurse her broken face).

This repeated act of looking and identifying, of reading accurately, might seem the film’s interest — the act, in some permutations, frames the sex scenes as well as the murder investigation scenes. Frannie doesn’t appear to learn from what she sees, however; rather, she descends into a difficult, incoherent intrigue, repeatedly getting into cars with men she doesn’t know, as if she hasn’t been living in New York City for years.

But if this notion is complex, In the Cut also works overtime to reduce the mystery and ambiguity, to haul you out of Frannie’s constriction, to let you see through and out and so feel assured, that you do have vision, that what you see is the truth. The fact that Cornelius’ own gift doesn’t help him much when he feels duped by the white lady and judged guilty by the cops might not feel relevant for you, as you look on from a distance. But next to Frannie’s increasingly annoying girl-in-a-slasher-film antics, his case provides the film’s most pressing object lesson.

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