The cult erotic thriller not only provokes and unsettles, but also follows a genre truism: everyone is horny and no one can be trusted.
very few months, some pocket of the internet rediscovers the occluded or “lost” contributions of the erotic thriller at the same time as audiences debate the value of any sex depicted on-screen. But beyond questions concerning instrumentality (the dreaded “does sex advance the plot?”) and gratuitousness (do we really “need” to see this?) is the more profound puzzle of what, in the context of moving images, decisively constitutes “sex” in the first place. The best erotic films engage this provocation with aplomb, dispersing sensation so comprehensively that categorical distinctions between where sex begins and ends fail to account for the totality of style: tactility, temperature, rhythm, mood. Stemming from 1964’s obscenity case concerning Louis Malle’s Les Amants, the constitutional platitude I know it when I see it hovers uncertainly over many such films but is an especially apt foil for Jane Campion’s In the Cut (2003), where a witness to an encounter preceding a violent crime contemplates the significance of what she’s seen, i.e., an identificatory flash of tattoo. As with Blow-up (1966) and The Conversation (1974), In the Cut not only studies a world for clues and clues for meaning, but also fixates on what studiousness can nonetheless miss.
In the decades since its release, In the Cut has drawn tides of skepticism and admiration for its murky portrait of Frannie Avery (Meg Ryan), an English teacher navigating Manhattan’s morasses of single life and serial murder. Not only cyclic in its topicality, In the Cut is itself self-consciously seasonal, set in and suited for the spell before summer fogs the glass, when the damp confetti of airborne petals still brings snow to mind. It’s no wonder an early scene has Frannie—a vernacular magpie who gleans language for research—take note of a subway poem written by Pablo Neruda, whose closing line announces the film’s wish to see desire as vital, elemental: “I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.”
In other words, to ripen and destroy. Like many erotic thrillers (and in the tradition of film noir), In the Cut fuses sexual intrigue and malicious endangerment—everyone is horny and no one can be trusted. In a more meaningful sense, Campion’s film is anything but formulaic, and contains a strangeness consistent with Susanna Moore’s 1995 source novel. Impassive and startling, Moore’s book takes an immersive but vaguely elliptical approach to Frannie’s story so a reader may feel uncomfortably aligned with her perspective, the equivalent of trying on someone else’s glasses. Campion translates that fuzziness into an atmospheric sense of unease. You could ask plenty of questions about the film’s first real scene, where Frannie meets with a student, Cornelius (Sharrieff Pugh), at a downtown bar in the middle of the day. (What time is it? Why does a student conference resemble a kind of day date?) Frannie arrives hand-in-hand with half-sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who ambiguously kisses her lips briefly in parting. In the novel, Frannie justifies meeting with Cornelius because he, like all her students, is struggling with the concept of irony: “They do much better with realism.” You get a sense that, for all the ostensibly lurid mise-en-scène, Campion is trying to impart a lesson. Realism is getting a leg cramp while masturbating, or keeping an open container of baking soda in an otherwise spartan fridge. But there’s more to all of this (film, life) than continuity and naturalism. There’s mystery and coincidence. There’s feeling. The languorousness of being slow to adjust a fallen spaghetti strap. The illogical ease with which a promising date can sour in the span of one drink or a traumatic reenactment can curve into a scene of seduction.
Perhaps most “ironic” is Campion’s decision to embed backstory more formally within the film, via sepia-toned visions of Frannie’s parents’ meet-cute. In these scenes, her mother is spotted while ice skating, and the one that opens the film is coded as a nightmare where “swept off her feet” is a gruesomely literal punchline. These moments convey something like secondhand memories, and their wintry fairy tale iconography could feel at odds with In the Cut’s otherwise pervasive heat. But I’m reminded of how, in an interview with The White Review, Moore describes her book as enraged by the ubiquity of sexual menace toward women: “The message it conveys is that they’re going to get you either way. If you wear hot pants into a bar—they’re going to get you. If you sit at home with your cat, and you never go out—they’re going to get you.” In dreams as in waking life, In the Cut associates romantic fulfillment with female dismemberment, insisting that to risk intimacy entails a threat of loss and fragmentation, whether as extreme as the decapitation spree afflicting New York City, or as quotidian as Pauline’s lovably daffy confession that she’s stolen her lover’s wife’s dry cleaning. “I feel like such a freak,” she trails off; twice, thanks to a man, she loses her head.
Leigh’s affably unhinged Pauline is one in a treasury of eccentric performances, most notably (or controversially) Meg Ryan’s Frannie, a role originally earmarked for Nicole Kidman, who partook in the film’s development and ended up credited as a producer. This is probably why it sometimes looks like Ryan is “doing” Kidman—the low, wary glances and tense murmurs Nicole exhibits elsewhere—while imbuing Frannie with her own vein of awkward longing. Kevin Bacon is undersung as Frannie’s erratic stalker ex. Finally, playing mustachioed fuckboy detective Malloy, Mark Ruffalo manages to muffle his decency without muting it entirely. Campion admired his sense of interiority in Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me (2000); here, Ruffalo is coarse enough for the squad room yet smooth enough to sell a line like “I can be whatever you want me to be.” While the film’s ending diverges markedly from that of the novel, imagining for Frannie a way back from certain hell, you realize how much rooting for her resembles rooting for them, even if the incorporation of Malloy’s handcuffs makes coupling look like custody.
In the Cut is available to stream on the Criterion Channel and Hulu with a subscription.
Veronica Fitzpatrick is a critic and lecturer based in Providence, RI. She co-hosts The Bright Wall/Dark Room Podcast and teaches film studies at Brown University.