Campionizing Manhattan

By Fernando F. Croce

The word around the block on Jane Campion's latest, In the Cut, has been dire. Even before its derisive premiere in Toronto, the buzz was centered squarely on star Meg Ryan's much-ballyhooed switcheroo from winsome America's Sweetheart to freaky-deaky troubled chick, going full frontal and miming ecstasy from a cunningulus session.

It's not surprising to see that the shrillest of negative reviews (calling the movie "tawdry," "an ugly mess," "dirty" and, oh the irony, "sexist") have been by male critics. Their tangible resentment derives undoubtedly from the fact that a woman director is taking a male genre (the urban thriller) and using it to explore a female character's psyche, without toning down the genre's "maleness" (its grim violence, its sense of paranoia). Campion's movie has, thus, been taken as a personal affront by a good deal of (male) critics, who use it as excuse to wonder whether she, a highly respected filmmaker (The Piano), isn't respected among the tastemakers just because... well, because she's a woman. Armond White, the NY Press' bellicosely "passionate" critic, epitomizes this foolishness by calling the film "the latest example of the way she uses sexual paranoia to appeal to the weak-minded sympathies of feminist critics and audiences." (The review, calling the director a "con-artist," comes all-too-obviously from the same sensibility that branded the great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami a "backward third-world esthete.")

What is Campion's sin? Basically, to refuse to be defined exclusively in terms of gentility and passivity, terms that our society wants viewers to adopt as signifiers of "femininity." The opening credits -- petals gently falling in the Manhattan skyline as "Que Sera, Sera" plays discordantly -- use clichés of femininity to contrast vividly with the reality of a world where their romanticism has become absurdly debased. Frannie (Ryan) is a glum teacher who divides her time between writing a book on urban slang, snatching bits of poetry off subway placards, and visiting her strung-out half-sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh). When a cop named Malloy (Mark Ruffalo, all insinuating menace and That '70s Porn mustache) enters the picture to investigate the gruesome killings of young women around her area, Frannie finds herself falling into an affair with him. However, her attraction is fused with the fear that he may be the murderer himself.

The plot sounds like your slick, garden-variety serial killer thriller, and that's how the movie is being sold in the trailers. Seen from that angle, In the Cut cannot help but be a failure -- Campion has very little affinity for the streamlined clarity necessary for a Hollywood whodunit, and in that area the film comes off as rhythmless and redundant. Yet I doubt that a better-made version of the same plot (the term "better" here meant to mean "efficiently," in the anonymous and impersonal contemporary Hollywood manner) would have necessarily resulted in a better film. The richness of the movie is tied to its messiness, itself an essential part of Campion's thematic dynamics.

Campion has been a singularly restless talent, blessedly hard to pin down. Crudity and delicacy leak continuously into each other, lush Victorian romances and tragedies (The Piano, Portrait of a Lady) mixed with raucously disrespectful comedies (Sweetie, Holy Smoke!). Her films follow female misfits, or, more precisely, women who are labeled misfits by strict patriarchal societies for their "aberrant" behavior -- consequently, they are waist-deep in "madness," the obvious male explanation of their rebelliousness. Frannie in In the Cut isn't mad, but she is likewise against being frozen into established roles (always bearing down on her, like the huge flower arrangement marked "Mom" early in the subway). Her discovery of sexual pleasure with Malloy (and this is one of the only American movies I can think of where the emphasis in the sex scenes is exclusively on the woman's enjoyment) is tempered with anxiety over the violence that seems to be always intertwined with sex in the urban jungle of Manhattan -- here made as ominously mysterious and narcotizing as the dark jungles of Campion's native New Zealand.

The linking of sex and violence has been seen by some as reactionary, as if the director were saying one leads to the other. Far from it -- sex in Campion's films is almost always seen as liberating and expansive, an extension of natural expression for her heroines. What the picture attacks is not sex but its degradation (strip clubs, dark alley blowjobs) in the dank, urban environment. Its movement is less toward the uncovering of the real killer than toward the timid heroine's taking control of her sexuality, from masturbating to enjoying oral sex to actively, aggressively initiating intercourse. This is an unblushing, even invasively provocative look at a sexual odyssey, which critics are trying to palm off as a failed woman-in-peril shocker. In Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Quentin Tarantino radically challenges the conventions of a masculine cinema by empowering his heroine without sacrificing her femininity; in In the Cut, working with a similarly male genre, Campion navigates her heroine through the waters of female-victim ideology. Both are open to a feminist reading, as well as to misunderstanding by lazy, jaded viewers.

Originally published in The Spartan Daily on October 31, 2003.

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