“Now, thinking back on the course of my passion, I was like one blind, unafraid of the dark…”
Jane Campion’s erotic thriller, entitled In the Cut, was largely ignored by audiences and ripped apart by critics when it was released on October 31, 2003. Most of the reviews focused on the adult content, rather than the intensely cerebral themes which Campion was attempting to address. It contains two powerful performances from Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo in the lead roles, both of which were sadly overlooked. Much like Campion’s critically acclaimed masterpiece, The Piano, this film concerns a middle aged woman and her sexuality. In the Cut is a bold film that tackles the subjects of death and desire in a way that is both frightening and provocative.
In the Cut focuses on a character by the name of Frannie Avery – a college English teacher who is writing a book on modern day slang. She seems to communicate well with her students, one of whom has agreed to help her with her project. She meets this student at a bar to have a discussion. After a few moments, she excuses herself. As she walks down the dimly lit hallway to the restroom, she watches as a man and a woman have sex. During this voyeuristic moment, Frannie notices a strange three of spades tattoo on his wrist. Visibly taken aback and aroused by what she is seeing, she continues to watch.
Later on, she returns home to find a cop named Giovanni Malloy outside her apartment. He informs her that he is investigating a homicide. A young woman has been murdered. Her body has been cut to pieces. Part of her body has been found in Frannie’s garden. Malloy is charming and vulgar – a homophobic, somewhat misogynistic alpha male. When he asks her to go on a date later on that evening, she almost refuses the offer. When she sees that Malloy has the very same tattoo as the mysterious man in the hallway, she is intrigued. As she lies in bed that night, she fantasizes about the sexual act that she witnessed.
The next morning, she visits her sister, a stripper named Pauline. The two discuss Pauline’s complicated affair with a married doctor. It is clear from their conversation that Pauline is far more promiscuous than her sister, and yet both women seem to display a certain naivete concerning sensuality. Pauline encourages Frannie to meet Malloy for the date, and so she does. Malloy seduces Frannie, who cannot resist his advances. The two enter in to a erotically charged relationship, as Malloy encourages Frannie to explore a carnal side of herself that she has largely ignored.
All the while, a serial killer continues to claim several other lives. Frannie may be closer to danger than she realizes, and yet she gives in to this new experience with complete and utter abandon.
In the Cut is an atmospheric film with a loose narrative that feels surreal and dreamlike at times. In fact, it opens with a dream sequence, featuring a trinkly, haunting cover of “Que Sera, Sera” that creeps on to the soundtrack. A woman stands in her front yard as petals fall from the trees, lightly falling to the ground like flakes of snow, surrounding her. This moment of beauty is juxtaposed with an eerie vision of a group of ice skaters chasing one another as they skim over a frozen lake. These first few minutes set up the tone for the rest of the film and foreshadow the terror to come.
While In the Cut is drenched in sexuality and violence, it is also a rich and complex character study.
Frannie Avery is one of the most intriguing individuals in cinema history. She is an especially stoic individual, yet there are times when she seems inexplicably frightened, on the verge of tears. There is a hidden pain inside of Frannie, some hint of darkness. She is a lover of the written word, constantly scribbling down quotes or phrases that peak her interest, namely the excerpts of poetry that are displayed on the car cards of the subway. We see how this passion acts as a guide for Frannie on this dark and grisly voyage, lending an element of the uncanny to the material.
The risky and uncertain nature of this journey is exactly what draws her in. With each new erotic encounter, the intensity rises. There are no escapes, not even within the aesthetics of the film. The color scheme is consistently green, yellow, and rusty brown so that even our surroundings are threatening.
In the world that Campion has created, sex and death are intrinsically linked. A palpable sense of dread hangs in the air. Frannie begins to lose herself. Could Malloy possibly be the killer? What about her mentally unhinged ex? She never stops to consider these questions. And neither do we. Much like Frannie, by the time the film reaches its conclusion, we have completely surrendered to the madness. And therein lies the danger, as well as the power of Campion’s vision.
Absolutely nothing about In the Cut is safe.