The erotic thriller IN THE CUT, by director JANE CAMPION, is notorious for being the film that ended the career of America’s Sweetheart Meg Ryan. Maybe it wasn’t this particular film, as suggested by Ryan in this interview on Parkinson, but fans around the globe didn’t want to have it any other way. She was firmly established as a rom-com queen, and by stepping outside that imposed ‘prison’, she got to feel the wrath of the audience. She had to be
‘aware that erotic thrillers occupied a shadow-zone between legitimate cinema and pornography in the public imagination,‘ (Penta, 2021)
but all she really wanted is to take on a challenge in her career. A more mature part. She told that
‘mostly, normally, almost all the time, I play exterior people, this was almost like a silent movie for me, she doesn’t talk, she doesn’t dance, it’s a very interior character.’ (Ryan, 2003)
The critics weren’t favorable of the film at that time, although Ryan delivered something new and unpredictable, as well as Campion. Roger Ebert generally liked the movie, but when he stated that
‘the story has fun playing against certain conventions of the slasher genre, and the dialogue has a nice way of sidestepping cliches,‘ (Ebert, 2003)
it seems, he too, didn’t fully understand what he’d seen on the screen. It is very hard to classify this film, many put it under the label Neo-noir, some even wonder if
‘instead of In the Cut, Campion had titled her film The Disarticulation of Frannie Avery, it mightn’t have been recognized for what it actually is: an American Giallo.’ (Vasquez, 2021)
The closest someone got to articulate what this film might be, is Linda Ruth Williams by explaining that it’s
‘part-female sexual quest film, part-contemporary urban melodrama, it plays out a number of contradictions textually and cinematically: a theatrically released art-house film, a star vehicle for romance-branded Ryan, a woman’s film with a (simulated) hardcore sequence, a censorship scandal and an auteur helmed exploitation story. (Williams, 2005; 418)
LOSING A SENSE OF ORIENTATION
The famous saying ‘Show, don’t tell‘ provides guidance for most established film directors. Not everything will be explained, not every mystery resolved. It is up to the viewer to connect the dots, especially in a film where the audience has to solve a murder mystery. This film may seem superficial, or easy to understand, even predicable of who the killer may be. If that’s the case, then finding out who the killer is, maybe isn’t the point why this film was created. Picking out the killer may be one part of the equation, for sure, but to understand what this film is about, one needs to unveil every character, layer by layer.
First things first. The shaky camera, the disoriented camera movements in combination with the blurred edges of the frame and the specific editing style are there for a reason. It is there because
‘Campion revises the codes and the conventions of the erotic thriller by foregrounding female agency – and, in the process, inverts the gender politics of scopophilia – to affectively express the erotic imagination and tactile sensitivity of In the Cut’s heroine.’ (Richard, 2017)
The film is portrayed from Frannie’s (MEG RYAN) point-of-view. Campion took her emotions and her interior life and put them on film, because Frannie, is the enigma of this story. She is a woman who doesn’t talk much about herself, she’s
‘so far back inside herself, so walled up and almost shrinking into a little dot that’s about to disappear.[…] She’s a heartbroken person.’ (Ryan, 2003)
Why is she like that? Because of the flashbacks that haunt her. They are not really flashbacks since she couldn’t have been present at that moment in time, but it is her fantasy image she created from her mother’s story. Her mother told her how she got engaged to Frannie’s father. Frannie explained to the audience that
‘when he (the father) was very young, he was very handsome and an excellent skater. She (her mother) was very innocent, very beautiful. And he was already engaged, but he couldn’t stop watching my mother. And finally, his fiancée got very jealous and threw that engagement ring right back at him. And that very same day he took my mother by the hand, he danced her out to the middle of the forest-fringed lake, he got down on one knee and offered her the very same engagement ring. And that precise moment, which is the thing my mother always added, it started to snow.‘ (Campion, 2003)
This story would have been perfect if it weren’t for the backstabbing father, who, after a while, left her mother. Afterwards, he re-married three more times and today he is planning the fifth wedding. Frannie’s mother was devastated and she, therefore, concluded that her father
‘killed her. When he left, she just went crazy with grief. You know, she didn’t understand it. She just couldn’t believe it.‘ (Campion, 2003)
That, of course, took a toile on young Frannie, who dreamed of her own prince charming. It seems her mother told her the engagement story so many times because she created this perfect image in her head, that is meant to be a guideline in her life for relationship goals that never happened.
‘Because of the back-story, the viewer is able to infer that Frannie has been traumatized by events in her childhood that haunt her in the present through the lingering existence of traumatic memories that condition her attitude toward men and romance.‘ (Fox, 2011; 182)
Hurt and alone, she looked out for anything where she can fit in, or at least continue her life in some way. She became an English teacher, who doesn’t earn much. No travel, no luxury, makes Frannie a dull woman. Until the day she finally found something to lock on to.
‘She’s located her passions into language and into her relationship with her sister.’ (Ryan, 2003)
Her sister Pauline (JENNIFER JASON LEIGH) is much more communicative, quirky, and has a bright appearance. Her character is
‘very much in love with life and really hopeful. Even though she lives above a Strip joint, she can’t go a day without like begging her sister to come sleepover. She thinks her Sister is the greatest person on the planet and wants her to embrace life. She’s kind of ‘in’ life, but hitting a brick wall.‘ (Leigh, 2003)
But it is painfully obvious that she is traumatized by the father as well as her sister.
‘Both sisters feel a sense of abandonment from him. Pauline uses these feelings to throw herself into love like her father. Frannie chooses to withdraw, repressing her desires until they recklessly bubble to the surface.‘ (Searles, 2019)
Without guidance whatsoever, they just exist from day to day. The only sanctuary both have is their relationship.
It was a little different for the unapologetic Det. Malloy (MARK RUFFALO). He was married, had children and was living the dream. Until he got a divorce. Right then and there he lost any ambition, any kind of goals in life, he just drifted through space. That may be the reason why he took on the job of a Homicide detective because he
‘took the desk no one else wanted.’ (Campion, 2003)
He wanted to have an occupation that will drag him away from his painful thoughts. On his meagre salary as a Homicide detective, he couldn’t even afford an apartment for himself, so he had to move in with his mother. He was disappointed in love and life. The beginning of the relationship with his ex-wife must have been a great romance. He seems like the romantic type, but since his marriage fantasy shattered, he quit the romance for good, until he stumbled
‘across this creature (Frannie), who is completely alien to him and his world. There is a longing. I think he sees Frannie as a part of another class. Educated, obviously higher social status. He knows he wants to be part of that, but he doesn’t know how to access it in any other way than maybe sex.’ (Ruffalo, 2003)
His partner Rodriguez (NICK DIMICI), made mistakes in his life as well. He was married up until the day his then-wife caught him cheating. Although he obviously didn’t love his wife when he was able to cheat on her, he was broken after the divorce. Completely lost. It was so painful that he went crazy just as Frannie’s mother did. The only difference is, Rodriguez became a sociopath and a serial killer. His modus operandi reads as follows:
- Woo the victim through romance, serenade her (he plays the guitar), drink wine, recite poetry, have sex with her and after a while ask her for marriage (with a cheap-looking ring, nonetheless).
- When she agrees, let all your anger out and cut her up into pieces.
Although Malloy and Rodriguez have made their matching tattoos following their first big bust, as Rodriguez explained it to Frannie, the meaning of the tattoo hints at something else.
The 3 OF SPADES usually means ‘change of plans’ which ‘result in emotional pain and broken heart’ (break-up, divorce). The change of plans happened when Malloy’s marriage went south and he was left alone. Rodriguez was chased away from his ‘home’. Neither of them is looking like a weak man, but both experienced enormous emotional pain and broken heart that changed them forever. So, where to go on from here? All characters are somehow damaged and no one sees any change happening soon.
THE SYMBOLIC TURN
According to Georg Seeβlen, a German film critic, one of the most important aspects in the thriller film is that
‘The way to pleasure leads through fear‘ (Seeβlen, 1980; 17), ‘and the pleasure in fear is a consequence of the longing for something new’ (Seeβlen, 1980; 19).
The disappointed Frannie is damaged, yes, but she still can turn her life around. And that happens precisely when she enters the basement of the Red Turtle bar, in search of a toilet. Symbolically, the basement represents her unconscious, her deepest, hidden thoughts, which were repressed and hidden all these years. The fellatio incident finally set her free. She watched it happen, frightened, but also strangely attracted to the scene, because
‘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. That’s Frannie’s journey.‘ (Ryan, 2003)
Afterwards, an avalanche started to roll. She arrived at her apartment and her Prince in shining armour awaited her on her doorstep. Since she handled that voyeuristic incident very well, she takes every opportunity that comes her way, for the lack of better judgment. Det. Malloy asks her out, she doesn’t decline, she accuses him of being the murderer, still, she goes wherever he asks her to go. Why would she do that? Because she fell in love and can’t make a rational judgment. There is even a scene that is making fun of it but explains the situation very well. In front of her class, she makes the notion that
‘stream of consciousness, I’d like to point out, is not the same thing as stream of conscience. For which some of you have mistaken it. A logical error in some ways.‘ (Campion, 2003)
Consciousness is a state of being aware and responsive to one’s surroundings, which, in her case is true for her. She reacts normally to her everyday life. She doesn’t about Malloy all the time, like a teenager, no, she functions as usual throughout the day. Also, she is well aware of the danger the killer represents, but conscience represents a person’s moral sense of right and wrong, a guide to one’s behavior. Well, that she, unfortunately, fails in the long run. Although she understands her surroundings, her being in love clouds her judgment. False accusations, car rides with strangers and attacking Malloy for saying the truth about his kids follow. Finally, when she managed to clear her thoughts, she was already in the hands of the real killer. It is also a mistake of the spectator, assuming by the way Frannie is guarding her personality, that she also has a fantastic sense of judgment. A logical error in a way.
THE POINT OF IT ALL
‘There’s two storylines.
1. A serial killing storyline, which is a serial killing that is done through romance and through this idea of a woman gives herself to a man, you know, through a ring and that’s how all these killings come about and it’s done completely through wooing and romance.
2. Then you have this love story that is just really a kind of straightforward, it’s lacking of ‘romance’ and they are both kind of developing alongside each other through the course of the film.
And at the point, she becomes the Apex of these two kinds of ideas and it’s gonna go one way or the other. And she kills romance for truth. For her honesty in a relationship.‘ (Ruffalo, 2003)
A film about ROMANCE vs LOVE? Yes, and in such a subtle way, it’s like poetry. Malloy and Frannie are both traumatized, each in a different way but both understand that romance won’t do any good for either of them. It is a false representation, a heightened sensation that will fade away as quickly as it arrived. What both need is lasting love, the one that accepts the other just as they are, without illusions. Using the format of a serial killer murder mystery, Jane Campion tried to convey an original kind of
By pushing the lead female to the forefront of the story, presenting the film through her point-of-view, and making her a heroine, instead of a victim, Campion managed to bring a fresh perspective into an already dying genre. Any other genre wouldn’t be as suitable, because
‘the biggest thrill imaginable is losing one’s identity. It combines the greatest fear of complete dissolution and the greatest joy of experiencing a rebirth.‘ (Seeβlen, 1980; 28)
Speaking of rebirth, maybe now is the time to finally find the right appreciation for this incredibly poetic piece of work.
There’s more on In the Cut, head over to:
Ebert, Roger, In the Cut, rogerebert.com, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/in-the-cut-2003, 2003
Fox, Alistair, ‘That which terrifies and attracts simultaneously’: Killing Daddy in In the Cut, Jane Campion – Authorship and Personal Cinema, Indiana University Press, 2011
Jane Campion, In the Cut, Pathe Productions, 2003
Penta, Anthony, Sex & Death on the cheap, pt.2, diaboliquemagazine.com, https://diaboliquemagazine.com/sex-death-on-the-cheap-pt-2/, 2021
Richard, David Evan, In the Cut (Jane Campion, 2003), sensesofcinema.com, https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2017/cteq/in-the-cut/, 2017
Rose, Charlie, ‘In the Cut’, 2003, https://charlierose.com/videos/12016
Behind the scenes, ‘In the Cut’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d4-bfOjrAMA&t=2s, 2003
Ruffalo, Mark, In The Cut Exclusive Interview, ScreenSlam, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1nqU3dYYkjM, 2003
Searles, Jourdain, ‘Meg Ryan’s ‘In the Cut’ Is the Most Underrated Erotic Thriller of the 21st Century, thrillist.com, https://www.thrillist.com/entertainment/nation/in-the-cut-movie-review-meg-ryan, 2019
Seeβlen, Georg, Kino der Angst, Geschichte und Mythologie des Film-Thrillers, Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH, 1980
Vasquez, Zach, IN THE CUT: A Secret American Giallo Masterpiece, fangoria.com, 2021, https://www.fangoria.com/original/in-the-cut-a-secret-american-giallo-masterpiece/
Williams, Linda Ruth, Afterword on In the Cut, The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema, Edinburgh University Press, 2005