The past 15 years have seen an interesting evolution for Jane Campion, who has gone from being a director of intelligent, challenging good films (Sweetie, An Angel at My Table) to being a director of intelligent, challenging really bad films (Portrait of a Lady, Holy Smoke). Despite this shift, Campion remains a filmmaker whose work demands study and attention, but darned if I remember the last time I enjoyed one of her movies.
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For Campion, the obvious turning point was The Piano, for which she won a screenwriting Oscar. That film transformed her from an underground Australian feminist director into the position of being the closest thing mainstream filmmaking has to a defiant and unique voice from the distaff side. Her role as auteur is difficult to question, as even her worst films couldn't have been made by any other director and yet often that voice is a stamp that suggests how desperately she's trying to be heard above and beyond the material.
Holy Smoke, for example, was meant as a comedy, but with Campion working so hard to make it a "Jane Campion Comedy," I've seen the film twice with crowds and finding any trace of laugher is difficult.
Similarly, Campion's latest film, In The Cut, is ostensibly a murder mystery or an erotic thriller, but Campion seems to have such contempt for the structure of the genre that it's impossible to get involved with the story, while caring about the characters is a decided challenge. My response walking out of In The Cut was that if I watched it three or four times, I could probably write a really complicated scholarly essay on the topic. Then I took a step back and decided that I hadn't the slightest interest in ever watching it again.
Are you sick of all of those Spike Lee or Woody Allen movies where New York City is romanticized and made to look like a diverse city full of art, culture, romance and community? Do those representations not jibe with your own personal experiences of the Big Apple? Do you wish more filmmakers approached the city like Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver or John Schlesinger in Midnight Cowboy and instead approached every person with distrust and every street corner with fear? Do you view New York not so much as a melting pot, but as a petri dish breeding criminals and sexual deviants?
Welcome to the world of In The Cut, adapted from Susanna Moore's novel.
The movie opens with the opening credits rolling over images of dark alleys and trash heaps throughout New York City. The soundtrack is a version of "Que Sera Sera" that you could either call "haunting" or "really awful" depending on your degree of generosity. The Livingston and Evans song is a fantastic introduction for a variety of reasons, most particularly on a metacinematic level.
"Whatever Will Be (Que Sera Sera)" made its film debut (and won an Oscar) in Alfred Hitchcock's remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much. In that film, the song was sung (several times, if memory serves) by America's Sweetheart Doris Day. She sang it with her trademark chipper voice and wide smile. In The Cut stars Meg Ryan, who was probably the 1990s equivalent of Doris Day (minute, of course, the skills in musical theatre), but mirroring the dissonant rendition of the song, this is not your basic French Kiss Meg Ryan.
In effect, Ryan is playing a woman who knows too much, or who, at the very least, thinks too much.
She plays Frannie Avery a teacher of some sort (I'm a little unclear if she's a college professor of some really young looking students or a high school teacher with a lot of free time). She's also a writer assembling a book on slang. We don't hear many of the words in her book, but everything we do here is sexual and most of it is violent (the film's title is sexual slang and if you can't figure out the meaning, well, I'm sure not gonna explain it to you and In The Cut probably isn't the right movie for you). Frannie is fascinated by the quotes on the insides of the New York City subways and she likes to write down interesting things she hears. She's constantly reading the world around her and, in all likelihood, over-reading it.
To call Frannie sexually repressed might be an understatement except that the character is so conflicted that it's tough to know at all where her heart lies on carnal matters. Certainly she views most fellow women with distrust. The major exception is her libertine half-sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh at her most ripe and most bruised). I don't have a clue what Pauline does, but she lives upstairs from noisy strip club. Pauline is stalking a doctor, but in an endearing way. Frannie, though, has her own somewhat endearing (but mostly scary) stalker, an actor-turned-med student played by an uncredited Kevin Bacon.
Frannie may be introverted and mousy, but she thinks nothing of holding extra credit sessions with a towering, muscular student (Sharrieff Pugh) in a mysterious dive bar. Then she thinks nothing of searching out the bathroom in the dark basement of this dingy bar, where she sees a woman with long finger nails performing oral sex on a mysterious man whose face is covered in shadows. She does, however, see a tattoo on his wrist -- the three of clubs.
Then, a woman is found chopped up in Frannie's neighborhood. A piece of her body is found in Frannie's garden, which doesn't really surprise her all that much. She's also very casual about the fact that the woman happened to be in the same dive bar with her. She's even surprisingly casual when the homicide detective on the case, Mark Ruffalo's Detective Malloy, begins hitting on her and expressing fairly graphic sexual urges towards her.
Several more bodies turn up, each getting closer to Frannie. Is Malloy the killer? How about her John Wayne Gacy-obsessed student? Or her psycho ex-boyfriend? Or any of the thousands of really predatory men throughout the city?
Frannie is meek and mild, but she actively seeks danger. She takes the subway by herself late and night and wanders alone in neighborhoods of questionable quality. She's constantly getting into cars with near-strangers and only seems sexually interested in men with an undercurrent of danger. She's curious about the murders around her, but she never makes an attempt to be a detective, she just wants to be around when things are happening. She's in it for the buzz.
Campion fans will recognize this as a running trait for the heroines of Campion's films. As a rule, Campion's women look for feeling in two realms, the intellectual and the sexual. Whether looking at Holly Hunter's Ada in The Piano (seeking the sensory pleasures of either her music or Harvey Keitel) or Kate Winslet's Ruth in Holy Smoke (seeking the sensor pleasures of either an Indian cult or, again, Harvey Keitel) or Frannie here (balancing literature and Ruffalo) you see women looking for a beauty of the mind, but also looking for raunchy sex. It's rare, though, that you see a Campion heroine truly satisfied.
Oh, don't get me wrong, the Campion heroines are always capable of orgasms, but at heart, her women may be looking for something more. There's always a desperate romanticism straight out of a harlequin romance, the search for both the sensitive nobleman and the stronger moments that verge on rape (and there's often ambiguity as to whether the male or female is the perpetrator of these near-rapes).
The trademarks of Campion's body of work are all here, but the result is so cold and detached that the more pompous parts of this review might as well be the film itself. Certainly there's no suspense built in the entire movie. When the heroine does one stupid thing after another, eventually you stop talking to the screen and saying, "Go back, you idiot." Frannie is such an obviously masochistic character that we aren't invested in her making any single right choice, because the next thing she does will be equally inevitable and equally stupid. By the end, the entire thing is so comically over-determined that you wonder how Frannie has been able to stay alive this long anyway.
Campion treats this succession of logical idiosyncrasies as a nearly stream-of-consciousness journey into hell, a trip into the Inferno without a guiding Virgil or Dante's nifty sense of symmetry. If the hero of The Inferno were Chance the Gardner of Being There the random descent might be akin to what Frannie goes through in In The Cut. She reads every emotion, clue and sign the wrong way.
Fittingly, it's the dominant trait of Dion Bebe's cinematography that the film's focus always seems to be just off. Shooting generally in tight close-ups, the background space is generally busy, but rarely in focus. There always seems to be action going on in the background, but it's never explained and only occasionally relevant. It's often just Campion keeping the frame active. Bebe, who shot Holy Smoke and recently earned an Oscar nomination for Chicago, does a superlative job of rendering Campion's skeptical vision of New York.
It's actually up in the air as to where Frannie's urban terror ends and Campion's own feelings on the city begin. This may just be a fascinated piece of entirely subjective filmmaking, wherein the viewer sees New York City as disturbed woman sees it, even when no obvious point-of-view is suggested in the cinematic grammar. In that light, the entire movie could be filtered through Frannie's consciousness. Certainly this can be corroborated by the film's black-and-white dream sequences which flash back to the way Frannies father proposed to her mother. The increasingly violent nature of these dreams suggest Frannie's personal distrust of romantic love.
If that is the case, it's hard to accuse Campion of misogyny, although every male character is lit and framed as a potential rapist. It's also hard to accuse Campion of racism, although every African-American character (even the non-speaking ones) is presented as at once hyper-sexual and potentially violent. May these charges actually be apt? It's quite possible.
I'm also uncertain about the film's link to either a post-Giuliani or a post-9/11 New York. Campion makes a an obvious effort to insert a number of shots featuring the city's now-ubiquitous American flags, but in the context of the editing, she seems almost distrustful of the idea that New York has become a more unified city since the September 11 tragedy. She also is skeptical of the myth that Giuliani clean up the city. Through Bebe's gritty, dark, malignant photography, this is certainly not a Disneyfied city. An amusing comparison might be made to Nora Ephron's equally delusional dreamscape of a city in another Meg Ryan movie, You've Got Mail.
On to Meg Ryan, then, I guess. I'd first like to issue a big ol' yawn to the endless critics who have dubbed this a revelatory performance by Ryan or who have discussed how she's overhauling her image. Good Lord, folks, haven't you seen The Doors or Hurly Burly or Courage Under Fire or Restoration or Steven Kloves' sadly underrated Flesh and Bone? With each and every one of those movies critics declared that Meg Ryan was trying to be a serious actress and, honestly, she's at least decent in all of those films and she's often quite strong. Meg Ryan is not to be blamed for the fact that when she tries to stretch, audiences don't follow her. Let me assure you, though, In The Cut is not about to buck the trend of Ryan dramatic bombs.
And, once again, she's totally respectable in this movie, though the hair and wardrobe department should be shot. Ryan has one of those comically disingenuous "Look at me, I'm dowdy!" haircuts that actresses often use when they want to garner critical notice. Her bangs are so awful it's like they're constantly trying to devour her face. What's more problematic, sticking to the subject of coiffure is how neat her hair remains for the entire movie. This isn't just the casual "I don't care how I look" haircut of a disinterested woman. No, it still never looks like anything other than a hundred-dollar salon job, which is both out of character and hilarious. Ryan's obviously surgically altered lips also take away from her believability. There's nothing wrong with what Meg Ryan is doing as an actress here, her mere presence is somewhat of a distraction. Even Campion herself seems to be distracted.
As you've probably heard, Ryan gets very naked and very sexual. What you've heard is true. Campion is so pleased that Ryan waived her no-nudity clause that she makes frequent use of the actress's breasts and regularly features her bottom as well. The sex scenes are actually more vocally graphic than physically, but if you haven't already figure out that this isn't a movie for children of any age, there's not a darned thing I can do to help you.
Lest one worry that Campion is objectifying her female star, she's at least an equal opportunity offender as Mark Ruffalo shows all there is to see, physically at least. To some degree, Campion neuters Ruffalo in the same way she has neutered Keitel, Sam Neill and Martin Donovan in past films. Basically, she specializes in men who need to be dominated, men who must suffer at the expense of her strong women. So be it, but Ruffalo can do better here. When he repeatedly tells Frannie that he can be anything she wants him to be, he may as well be talking to Campion. However, Campion has directed this remarkable actor to such an internalized performance that there's little justification for Frannie's fears.
Jennifer Jason Leigh is quite fine, even if her story arc is sadly predictable. Bacon is over-the-top and appearing in a totally different movie. He's comic relief, but only of the most uncertain kind imaginable.
Check out this film's reviews and you'll see that the majority of the positive reviews are from female critics. Additionally, the extremely intelligent woman with whom I saw the film also left full of praise. Are there things that I just didn't get because I'm a man? Or because I haven't read my share of Virgina Woolf (who has an important thematic role in the movie)? Dunno. I can only write on my own particular gut response, which is that In The Cut represents yet another two stars out of five noble failure for Campion.
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