Headless in Manhattan
In the Cut
Poor sexually repressed Frannie. In Jane Campion’s ludicrous, erotically reckless thriller In the Cut, Frannie is a creative-writing schoolteacher who looks exactly like Meg Ryan with dishwater brown hair but still apparently can’t even buy a decent date in the urban jungle called Lower Manhattan. Her passion is poetry—we watch as she digests the Poetry in Transit quotes installed on the subways—but she is writing a book on slang with the aid of African-American student Cornelius Webb. Cornelius himself is writing a book on the innocence of convicted serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
A former lover, who looks exactly like Kevin Bacon in hospital greens but acts like a derelict intern hopped up on an entire ward shift’s worth of medication, is stalking Frannie. He claims they “slept together” three times, if you count an incident of intimacy in the shower. He is too tightly wrapped for this world, has trouble accepting the fact that some people can drive around in filthy cars and has even more trouble accepting that Frannie does not want to see him—much less swap bodily fluids with him—ever again.
Frannie lives in an apartment next to a psychic reader. She should have asked the soothsayer for advice when Detective James Malloy, who looks exactly like Mark Ruffalo with a mustache, turns up on her stairwell with news that a body part of a murder victim has been found in the neighborhood garden. Instead, she consults with her half-sister Pauline, a promiscuous woman who looks exactly like Jennifer Jason Leigh in messy mascara. Pauline is having an obsessive affair with a married doctor, lives in a shabby lair above a strip joint called the Baby Doll Lounge and complains about the noise.
Pauline urges Frannie to have a fling with the physically attractive but socially repulsive Malloy, who has solicited information on the grisly crime and asked for a date all in the same narcotic, profanity-laced breath. The date is a disaster. Frannie is mugged while walking home on a grimy street that even Mickey Rourke, who reportedly politicked for a role in the film, would have skirted. And all three men currently in Frannie’s life are now suspected as the assailant, the serial killer or both.
Campion is no stranger to erotic needs. She wallows here in the same dormant passion; raw, tempestuous lust; and conflicted female sexuality that propelled The Piano. Harvey Keitel raised eyebrows for exposing his manhood in that film. This time, it’s the lady’s turn at bat, with Ryan forgoing another funny, faked When Harry Met Sally coffee-shop orgasm to earnestly fake orgasms in various stages of dress and undress while simulating both self-engineered and heterosexual acts of carnality. Sex here is very serious graphic business, even over the phone or in the company of a handcuffed human.
With The Piano, Campion also had a fascinating story to share. Here, the story about compulsive but hard-to-define emotions, oddly juxtaposed man-woman relationships and the difference between passion and compassion are wrapped around the axle of a slow, nonsensical crime story. The script, adapted by Campion and Susanna Moore from Moore’s lurid 1995 novel, has a different ending than the book does and plays mostly to sensationalism. Frannie has no supporting background on which to hang her character, other than a recurring dream (shot like a monochromatic hallucination) involving the courtship of her parents, and her situations and immediate reactions to the madness around her range from preposterous to laughable.
In the Cut is a narrative disaster, but Campion exhibits her celebrated technical and artistic talent. The film is a kaleidoscope of hypnotic hues; saturated moods; lush cinematography (by Dion Beebe); and exotic pulses of a dangerous, graffiti-smothered city. It emanates the visual magnetism of Seven, the gnawing corruption of Bad Lieutenant and the duplicity of Sea of Love. Its opening and closing credit crawls make spooky use of the classic song “Que Sera Sera,” and the cast, with the exception of the anemic Ryan, is competent. But the film is overtly salted with ambiguous clues and strained cross-references that are best left unlisted here, to avoid spoiling the film for anyone who still chooses to see it.
I am an ardent fan of Campion’s The Piano, An Angel at My Table and Sweetie. But I now borrow Malloy’s rumination about blow jobs: Not every Jane Campion movie is necessarily a good Jane Campion movie.