Few announcements in the annals of film promotion are more portentous than the news that a well-known but temporarily disgraced director has staged a dazzling return to form.
In the Cut is being touted as a return to form for Jane Campion after the underwhelming exercises of The Portrait of a Lady (1996) and Holy Smoke (1999). She was in top form, presumably, ten years previously in her acclaimed second feature, The Piano (1993).
In the Cut is an intriguing film – and undoubtedly better than its two predecessors – but it is unlikely to cause the same kind of commotion as The Piano. More disquietingly, it raises serious, retrospective questions about how top form Campion ever was, even at her best. For all the flaws and limitations of her art are put into sharp relief by In the Cut.
But first, the good news. In the Cut is best appreciated as an erotic thriller in the vein of Sea of Love (1989) or a hundred similar sexy whodunits. It immerses itself in the murky swirl of neuroses that frequently accompany this popular genre which is so close to a modern form of Female Gothic.
Like Perfect Strangers (2003) by Campion's fellow New Zealander Gaylene Preston, In the Cut places a confused, modern woman among a range of shadowy male figures. Each of these shifty figures represents some incarnation – usually treacherous – of the heroine's manifold desires.
Frannie (Meg Ryan) is a writer and literature teacher in New York. The city is vividly rendered (both through images and sound design) as a kind of vast, Gothic castle, exuding menace from every dark corner. It is in one such corner, in the back room of a bar, that Frannie glimpses a woman giving a man a blow job – a graphic moment of art porn that fleetingly aligns In the Cut with the films of Catherine Breillat (such as Romance, 1999).
When that woman turns up dead – in fact, hideously cut up – a police investigation begins. This puts James (the remarkable Mark Ruffalo) into Frannie's orbit. He is an odd mixture of brutalism and sensitivity, with a few especially good tricks up his sleeve when it comes to pleasuring Frannie. So he's the classic figure of the demon lover, both repellent and seductive, who drives so many contemporary thrillers centred on women.
Just about every guy who walks into this film, James included, could be the killer. There's Nick (Richard Rodriguez), James's cop partner. There's John (Kevin Bacon), an extremely agitated and emaciated ex-boyfriend. There's a black student of Frannie's, who has an unseemly interest in famous sex murderers. And then there are all the hoons on the street, whistling and swaggering.
So Frannie plunges with abandon into her personal underworld of transgressive desire. She likes her men black, she likes them rough, she likes them streetwise – anything starkly other to her own, cultivated, middle class upbringing. She is mirrored by her sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a flighty nutcase whose own desire has taken her full steam into realms of delusion and harassment.
In the Cut is a moody piece which never fails to hold one's interest. It has been criticised by some for altering the rather bleaker ending of Susanna Moore's novel, but I admired its very final shot, which contains in a nutshell all the ambivalences felt by its heroine.
Here comes the bad news about Campion as a filmmaker. There are two big problems which have dogged her work right from its overpraised beginnings. Firstly, there is the matter of taking a central idea or theme and structuring it into an unfolding, satisfying drama. Secondly, there is the necessity to find a fitting, dynamic relationship between the content of the story and its cinematic style.
In the Cut is a washy mess on both of these levels. There is a sort of obsessive compulsiveness to her films that, in this case, mirrors (without ever escaping or critiquing) the neurotic spiral of its heroine. How different this is to the work of David Cronenberg: films such as Crash (1996) and Spider (2002), whose central characters may thrash around eternally within the vicious circle of their psychoses and perversions, but which allow us, by stages, to arrive at a profound understanding of and compassion for such problems.
Campion is too fond of symbolic inserts such as grabs of poetry or grandly Gothic dream-flashbacks to childhood traumas. These inserts merely reiterate or only lightly vary the central demon-lover theme without ever taking that idea to another plateau of complexity. As a result, the film seems to be constantly running on the spot.
Style-wise, despite the ingenuity of Dion Beebe's cinematographic skills, the film is migraine inducing. Campion has opted for a mix of hand-held camera movements and a special lens that seems to arbitrarily put two thirds of any image into a state of arty, TV-commercial blurriness.
There is nothing wrong per se with these stylistic decisions. But when such a look is laid on in the manner of Lars von Trier, used without development or modulation, the effect quickly becomes tiresome and its aesthetic returns diminishing.
Campion is a director whom moviegoers and critics along the Australia-New Zealand axis have trouble judging with any clarity or equanimity. The commendable aspects of her work have been systematically exaggerated by stoked commentators keen to enshrine her career as a shining beacon of Antipodean Women's Cinema.
This has given rise to a myth of Campion as all-time Great Artist which creates massive expectations that even the director herself must now surely find burdensome. In the Cut deserves to be enjoyed as a modest achievement – neither an enormous disappointment from Campion, nor her latest, instantly endangered masterpiece.
MORE Campion: Sweetie
© Adrian Martin November 2003