Welcome to "Reel Women," a new column highlighting important women in the world of cinema, from on-screen characters to real-life filmmakers.
Sometime in the mid-2000s, I watched Jane Campion’s In the Cut for the first time, fueled by my love for Meg Ryan rom-coms and an adolescent curiosity for on-screen eroticism. I remember very little about that viewing experience except that I was shocked to witness the adorably typecast Ryan play an overtly sexual woman (even though her claim to fame was arguably the iconic orgasm in When Harry Met Sally), while Mark Ruffalo—who, at that point I only knew from 13 Going on 30—played a sleazy cop. Yet there he was, going down on Meg Ryan both frontways and from behind. I also remember thinking that the movie was absolute garbage.
I was certain that rewatching the film nearly 15 years later would change my opinion. By now, I’ve seen way more of Campion’s films, and have recognized her as the rightful auteur she is. It is with surprise and mild disappointment that I report that I haven’t warmed up to In the Cut upon my recent rewatch. I’m not even sure if I like this movie—hell, I’m not even sure if I dislike it—but it is a fascinating entry to the well-loved, sorely missed genre of erotic thrillers that found its peak in the '80s and '90s. Love it or hate it, I think In the Cut is still one worth watching—and for me, discussing in this week’s column. From February 2 – 15, Quad Cinema will screen an impressive selection of erotic thrillers, from Basic Instinct to Single White Female, and those uninitiated (or curious for a rewatch themselves) will get to see In the Cut on 35mm.
Campion’s film is not only a relatively recent addition to the erotic thriller genre, but also a rare one directed by a woman. From the series, Katt Shea’s Poison Ivy and the Wachowski sisters’ directorial debut Bound are the only other two films directed by women; outside the series, I can think of very few others—perhaps Mary Harron’s American Psycho? Denise Di Novi’s frankly forgettable Unforgettable?
I must admit In the Cut is an aesthetically ugly film—drenched in a greenish hue, it looks like early-aughts James Wan trying to be David Fincher. But knowing the looks of Campion’s other films, I have to imagine the ugliness was an intentional attempt to give the film’s New York setting a seedy veneer. This is not the concrete jungle where dreams are made of—instead, it’s a New York where leering men lurk at every corner (including a stalker-ish Kevin Bacon) and women are murdered and dismembered. Perhaps Campion was making a statement about the ugliness of the genre itself, as erotic thrillers too often leer at women with lascivious cinematography and dismember them—if not literally as murder victims then figuratively, by filming women's body parts in a context-less vacuum.
In the film, there is a murderer literally dismembering women’s bodies, constantly reiterating the objectification of women by killing them and leaving their severed limbs strewn across the city. But Campion cleverly thwarts that concept by giving her film a distinctly female point of view. She does this through her protagonist Frannie (Meg Ryan), a schoolteacher and writer who becomes romantically involved with the lead detective (Mark Ruffalo) on the aforementioned murder case, which she may be able to help solve. Frannie is a smart, independent woman—Campion dresses Ryan down by giving her darker, flatter hair, as opposed to her famous blonde locks, and glasses. Frannie doesn’t always wear them, but glasses have become such a cinematic trope of the undesirable girl that it feels important to note that she is bespectacled—and yet she is pursued and pursues with sexual self-confidence.
Sure, a lot of women in erotic thrillers have a heaping dose of sexual confidence, but Frannie doesn’t fit the psychotic woman stereotype from so many of the films before In the Cut. And while the genre allows for the audience to experience voyeuristic enjoyment, sexual pleasure in the film exists solely for her. Early on, we see Frannie in a rare female masturbation scene, and in her first sexual encounter with Detective Malloy, the lens is angled to adopt Frannie’s point of view while he goes down on her. (It is a toe-curling moment.) Campion also flips the gaze by filming only male genitals—once, when Frannie plays voyeur to a basement blow-job, there is a close-up of an erect penis, and later, we get a very brief glimpse of flaccid Mark Ruffalo dick.
As Frannie begins to suspect Detective Malloy of the murders, she enters a dangerous playing field by continuing their sexual relations. But hey, so did Michael Douglas when he started to suspect Sharon Stone offed her last guy in Basic Instinct. By the end, though, just as Sharon Stone had the upper hand, gripping the ice pick that was used to slay her last lover, Meg Ryan also finds herself in physical control of the situation—she, too, with a phallic weapon of her own. (No spoilers on how the murder mystery unravels, though.) In the Cut may not be an erotic thriller classic, but it is laudable for eschewing conventions that male directors implemented for decades before Campion.