Roger Ebert wrote in 1993 that Jane Campion had not yet made an uninteresting film, and I think that’s still true nineteen years and four films later. She’s such a smart and daring filmmaker that even her failures and her missteps are fascinating to watch. In the Cut (2003) is a case in point: a long and intricately layered suspense thriller about misogyny and sadomasochism (with Meg Ryan, of all people, playing the bottom to Mark Ruffalo’s top), it’s a film that’s not afraid to go feverishly off the rails. Little wonder that it tanked critically and commercially. There’s no way a film this dark, this strange, and this densely theoretical could have been successful in the U.S. (nor could its shocking close-ups of fellatio have gotten past the MPAA; it was released unrated). For one thing, the film assumes that its audience is at least smart enough to engage with its ideas about female passivity, victimization, the allure of sexually aggressive or dangerous men, the relationship of sexual arousal to fear, the cultural power of marriage plots and the semiotics of murder mysteries. (Campion is an example of the literary-minded female director I described in a previous post; In the Cut, like nearly all of her other work, is deeply informed by, though not always a mouthpiece for, feminist literary theory.)
It’s a brilliantly subversive move on Campion’s part, then, to cast Meg Ryan, she of so many cute Nora Ephron rom-coms, as her masochistic heroine Frannie Avery. Just as Campion’s cinematic sensibility could be said to be the diametric opposite of Ephron’s, Frannie is the twisted sister to the sunny, freshly-scrubbed romantic types for whom Ryan’s name has become a kind of shorthand. Cynical, intellectual, voyeuristic, and deeply attracted to sexually dangerous situations, Frannie openly rejects the kinds of dewy, sentimental fantasies about love and men that drive ninety-five-percent of Hollywood films aimed at women. Because as a character Frannie is so much at odds with dominant cultural images of women on screen, and because Campion puts Ryan in such vulnerable positions here, audiences were bound to react with discomfort, if not outrage. Additionally, Frannie’s submissive streak presents challenges to those feminist viewers who insist on “positive representations” of women. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of these factors, I would argue that In the Cut explores female desire more complexly and more intelligently than just about any other film of this millennium. With any luck, we can look forward to another two decades of Campion films. I predict that there won’t be an uninteresting one among them.