Film Reviews: Wednesday, October 29, 2003
In the Cut\r\nStarring Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo. Directed by Jane Campion. Written by Jane Campion and Susanna Moore, based on Moore’s novel. Rated R.
Hate Males

It’s all too easy to be \r\nparanoid about men \r\nwhen you’re In the Cut.


The Piano came out 10 years ago and introduced the cinema world to Jane Campion. Now in 2003, the artistic and financial success of that Oscar-winner is looking more and more like a one-off thing. Since The Piano, she’s done the insightful but frigid The Portrait of a Lady (1996) and the arid and talky Holy Smoke (1999). Like her earlier Henry James adaptation, her latest film In the Cut tries to apply her distinctive gender studies-based spin to a genre piece. The result, unfortunately, is much the same. It’s interesting as failures go, but it’s still a failure.

Frannie Avery (Meg Ryan) is an English instructor at a New York City college who accidentally sees a woman blowing a guy in the back room of a bar. Later on, the woman’s severed head turns up in the garden outside her apartment building. Investigating the case is an NYPD homicide detective with the unlikely name of Giovanni Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), who interrogates Frannie and soon afterwards begins a torrid affair with her, but some stray bits of evidence lead her to think that he might be the killer.

Campion adapts the movie from Susanna Moore’s 1995 novel, and she manages to remove much of its stilted dialogue and prose, even though Moore co-wrote the script. (She also changes the ending, which is a mistake.) The story’s pretty similar to the one for The Piano — sexually repressed woman meets a guy who rocks her world, but her intoxicating liberation leads her into dangerous places. Actually, it’s pretty similar to the plot of any number of erotic thrillers, from Looking for Mr. Goodbar to the cheapest direct-to-video potboiler. If you’re expecting the sort of taut construction and relentless pacing that tends to be the hallmark of these movies, you won’t get it here. Campion favors pregnant silences and dreamy longueurs that slow the narrative down, while cinematographer Dion Beebe favors an overexposed look, drenching daytime scenes in harsh, cold light and frequently leaving the edge of the frame blurry while the center of the picture is in focus. That’d all be well and good if it were intended to create slowly building tension or a menacing atmosphere or at least do something that resonates with the themes or the subject matter. Because it doesn’t do those things, the film’s visual style comes across as a pointless affectation.

The film’s main selling point is Ryan, taking on the kind of role often reserved for Hollywood’s sexpots. She doesn’t crack her trademark smile once, she delivers most of her lines at the low end of her vocal register, she gets fully naked at several points in this movie, and the director makes no particular attempt to make her look prettier or younger than she is. All this is admirable, but Ryan’s so intent on capturing the character’s jadedness that she forgets to bring much of an erotic charge to her scenes with Ruffalo. Perversely, there’s much more of a sexual frisson between Frannie and her half-sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who flirts with her pretty openly and avails herself of every opportunity to touch her or hold her hand. The movie might have had some real kinkiness had it followed the incestuous vibe going on here. Sadly, it does not.

Ryan gets upstaged by her less famous co-star. Ruffalo’s best performances have come playing weak characters in You Can Count on Me and XX/XY, so you wouldn’t think of him to portray a guy who has a ton of testosterone and knows what to do with it. Here, decked out in a cheap suit and a porn-star mustache, he radiates so much sexual energy and machismo that he’s vaguely threatening even when he’s sitting still. Against heavy odds, he manages to give a performance that’s real.

Something else in this movie is real, but it’s not good. It’s Campion’s fear of male sexuality, which permeates this film. The characters are the product of a deep-seated paranoia about men. Besides Malloy, Frannie has to deal with his angry, casually homophobic partner (Nick Damici), her mentally unstable ex-boyfriend (Kevin Bacon) who’s stalking her, and a muscle-bound writing student (Sharrieff Pugh) who defends the innocence of John Wayne Gacy in his papers. Even Frannie’s dad (Michael Nuccio), who’s only seen in flashback, is depicted as a habitual jilter of women who cuts off her mom’s legs with a pair of ice skates. (What’s with those flashbacks, anyway? The sepia tones? The outdated costumes? Did Frannie’s parents grow up in the 1890s?) A space alien watching this film would conclude that men are monsters and that only screwed-up women would ever want to get involved with them. Is that an attitude for a talented, successful 49-year-old filmmaker to have? In the Cut fails to generate anything in the way of entertainment value, but its sexist undertones are what are fascinating and disappointing.

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