The Deepest Division: In the Cut, by Jane Campion

The Suez Canal crosses the Suez isthmus

The Suez Canal crosses the Isthmus (Image via Wikipedia)

Initially I was infuriated to find ‘In the Cut’ an absurd narrative constantly hinting at depths it did not possess.  Despite some quality filmmaking, including a strong performance by Mark Ruffalo and effectively murky cinematography, the premise is the tired stuff of recycled thrillers and the story so riddled with improbabilities it doesn’t mesh with the naturalistic style of the acting.

At first appearances, In the Cut is trying to be two films: a who-dunnit thriller about a serial killer, and an erotic drama founded in realism.  As a drama there is great potential, but the parts are greater than the whole, as evidenced by many memorable scenes which do little more than tease us with how good this film might have been.  Alas, the killer-thriller element keeps rearing its head, undermining the drama by killing its credibility.  In this clash of genres, it seemed to me the indisputably talented Jane Campion, who co-wrote the script with the author Susanna Moore, did not respect the reality of the world she went to such lengths to create.  To my surprise, on a second viewing, I encountered the ghostly presence of a different film altogether.


Meg Ryan plays Frannie, a cynical teacher of English, still sexy but beginning to approach the end of her prime as an object of desire.  No longer an inexperienced young woman, she has evolved into an apparently confident and attractive woman in her forties.  Frannie is single and appears to be highly-sexed, though for reasons unexplored she has been bottling this up and has not had enough satisfying experiences in some time, if ever.  She comes across as both sexually voracious and curiously naïve, and consequently seems ripe for some form of erotic awakening.

The plot is kickstarted when Frannie, looking for the ladies room in the basement of a bar, witnesses a man enjoying a blowjob from a woman apparently possessed of (to borrow a phrase from Detective Malloy) a good ‘sense of cock’.  While both participants remain faceless, the scene is portrayed in surprisingly graphic detail usually reserved for hardcore porn.   I think the intent is to provide the visceral shock Frannie experiences stumbling on the vignette, and in this respect it is very effective, placing the viewer with her in the role of voyeur.

Frannie watches, apparently turned on by the woman’s enthusiasm and the man’s sexual confidence.  Her face gives nothing away, but we can draw this conclusion from the fact she stays to watch, and the details picked out by the subjective camerawork.  The uncertainty played up here is the identity of the man, and on a more subtle, implied level, whether he is aware of Frannie watching.  His face is obscured in shadow, whereas Frannie’s is not, and she notices a tattoo of a three of clubs on his inner wrist.

Overnight, this consensual act of pleasure is transformed into something monstrously sinister: the faceless woman becomes the headless woman, murdered and dismembered, some small part of her turning up in Frannie’s garden.  This provides her second link to the killer, and also brings the inappropriate and rude detective Malloy to her door – probably the sanest character we encounter in Frannie’s New York.

Frannie is suspicious of his unexpected arrival and makes Malloy wait outside while she verifies his identity.  This is the one time she acts in the interests of her own safety – for the rest of the movie it seems she will allow any man access to her apartment – and while she places the phonecall, it is unclear if she actually waits for verification before letting him in.  Malloy tells her of the murder and ‘disarticulation’, and she notices the tattoo on his inner wrist: a three of clubs.

While she makes no acknowledgement of the implications of Malloy’s tattoo, ‘disarticulation’ is a word Frannie, who lives in a world of language, considers important enough to write down.  It describes pulling apart at the joints, and linguistically suggests other meanings, standing in opposition to the root, ‘articulate’: the notion of clear communication.  Malloy proceeds to hit on Frannie, eventually asking her to a bar on the pretext of looking for clues.

Frannie is clearly intrigued by Malloy, in part because she identifies him with the man in the basement.  We are privy to a masturbation scene where she fantasizes about Malloy as the faceless man, suggesting she projects herself into the role of his female counterpart.  But when she learns Angela Sands has been murdered and decapitated, does Frannie begin a more dangerous fantasy, projecting herself into the role of murder victim?  She never gives us a clue.


I had to wonder, could the victims possibly be as disjointed as Frannie?  She repeatedly fails to deal with stalker “ex-boyfriend” (they had sex twice), John Graham, who waits outside her window, approaches her in the street, lets himself into her apartment and awaits her in bed.   She allows suspect men to drive her around the city, and when John seems to be the likely killer she doesn’t mention this to anyone.

He approaches her outside her apartment, agitated and talking about asking her sister Pauline out on a date, whereon she leaves him to find Pauline brutally murdered.  The murderer brought two knives because he knew the texture of human bone.  John is training to be a doctor.  If it strikes Frannie there might be a connection she says nothing about it, instead continuing to work her way through a series of encounters with virtually all the murder suspects.

On the level of realism, Frannie is frustratingly illogical, a poor judge of situations who apparently can’t tell a good man from a homicidal maniac and has no regard for her own safety.  It is left for the viewer to try to construct some explanation for her behavior.  One possibility is that the danger of being murdered is some kind of turn-on, but the rest of her reactions are so inconsistent it seems more likely she is just wandering around in something approaching a stupor.  Perhaps she is on tranquillizers, perhaps she is so jaded that she has to turn sex into a near-death experience to feel anything, perhaps both.  We are entirely left to guess.

I can’t help but wonder, how did Meg Ryan feel, faced with the challenge of approaching this character?  I imagine given the screenplay, she may also have struggled to grasp Frannie’s motivations.  My guess is, she went for the only safe interpretation: to make her as opaque as possible.  That is not to say Frannie is entirely flat, just inaccessible: Ryan manages to flesh her out a little with intelligence, tough-talk and a tangible vulnerability.

The frequently crude Malloy is a more touchable character.  He is highly sexed and thinks he recognizes a familiar in Frannie, hence his attraction.  His approach to her in the bar is direct and unpatronizing, so it is certainly articulate and in its way respectful, if suggesting to a woman the kind of things you’d like to do to her can be respectful.  Malloy’s seduction technique consists of putting himself at her service, for whatever sex, romance or even platonic intimacy she desires.  He suggests he is experienced and knows things, eventually living up to that promise, but it transpires that his attraction, while initially sexual, is based in a longing for something deeper.

When Frannie asks Malloy about his tattoo, he says it means he belongs to a club.  But when he denies being in the basement with murdered girl, seemingly implicating himself further, it either does not occur to Frannie, or for unknown reasons seems to be irrelevant, to ask who else might belong to this club.  Malloy later says caring for Frannie is making him a bad cop, and too right.  Whoever the killer is, there is some unquestionable link with Frannie, yet there is never any attempt at a methodical exploration of potential suspects.

Malloy’s partner comes crashing in on their ‘date’ and commences some male-bonding followed by gross sexist banter, leaving Frannie trying to negotiate her position in high heels and a flirty dress.  This throws us headlong into what I now believe is the true subject of In the Cut: prevailing undercurrent of the ‘gender-wars’.  Between Rodriguez’s rudeness and Malloy’s intuitive alliance with him – closing off his attention, which was trained exclusively on Frannie only moments ago, to join in demeaning banter casting women as literal sex objects – Frannie is driven out.  Malloy in this scene is a product of a culture which sets men against women in a stratified battle of the sexes where the love is the hallmark of a victim not a winner.


Rodriguez at one point asks Frannie if she knows what an Isthmus is.  She doesn’t answer, but it is a narrow strip of land dividing two bodies of water.  Frequently, to connect the two, a canal has to be made.  In this movie, it is as though men and women are two bodies of water divided by an Isthmus.  They are always trying to cross the divide with sex, but ill-equipped to do so with friendship or love.  Consequently sex and gender is consistently placed before humanity in every interaction.

Take Frannie’s sister Pauline, certainly the warmest character in the film.  Working in and living over a tittie bar called the Baby Doll, she is half-mad for love, besotted with a married doctor who has taken out a restraining order, yet still optimistically giving Frannie relationship advice.  Jennifer Jason Leigh is excellent and fittingly tragic in the role.  Pauline makes 11 appointments with her doctor, and steals his tan suit from the dry cleaner, commenting ‘this is what I do to get a dick inside me’.  Yet that is an aim easily achieved by any half-presentable woman, and Pauline’s desperation is for a less temporary connection.  Her mistake, in keeping with the rest of the film, is to confuse sex with the intimacy and loyalty she really craves.

The half-sisters are tied together by a father who always mistreated women.  Frannie is half-obsessed with a story her mother told about the day she met him.  It is supposed to be a great romance, with her dashing father proposing to her beautiful mother middle of a skating pond.  But we sense Frannie has been polluted from the start, as this charming vignette also involves him ditching his disposable fiancé and using the same engagement ring to propose to her mother.  Only to dispose of her further down the road.  It is not until the end of the film Frannie’s fantasy is destroyed perhaps offering her greater hope.

Pauline merely wishes he’d married her mother, wondering if a husband is too much to ask for in life.  She gives Frannie a charm bracelet – a ‘courtship fantasy’, with a little wedding bell, a house, and a baby carriage.  Fantasy is right word, because both women view these things as something unattainable.  The tender and loving scenes between the two women are among the most affecting in the film, illustrating how intimacy is more easily achieved once sex is removed from the equation.

When Frannie says to Pauline, ‘I admire you, you live out your unconscious’, to me this became a key to unlocking the movie, the idea that many of the ‘events’ are a depiction more of Frannie’s inner world than anything else.  While there is little in the tone or presentation of the film to suggest this, it suddenly begins to works if we accept that rather than being a thriller or a realistic drama, most elements are symbolic, the murders particularly so.  Viewing ‘In The Cut’ as a psychological fantasy loaded with symbolism, each element of mis-en-scene and each line of dialogue seems a meticulously placed exploration of male and female insecurity leading to inevitable isolation and loneliness.  Even Frannie’s character begins to make sense.

Love is a battleground.  When Frannie is driven past women in the streets, they are running, or dressed in combat gear.  Student Cornelius (the name means ‘horned’), claims to have ‘bitch vision’ and describes Frannie as an Amazon.  When he holds up the money he owes her from the bar tab, she flinches as if she’s being taken for a prostitute.  Later, he describes serial killer John-Wayne Gacy as a victim, of desire.

Visually the film offers a floaty world of ambers and blacks, often in shallow focus.  It is lush and obscure, with the woozy feel of insobriety.  Amidst this confusion, symbolism abounds, a strange wedding party on the subway, a comically phallic image of a lighthouse, and a funeral wreath the size of a person reading ‘MOM’.  When Frannie’s father eventually left her mother, according to Frannie, he ‘killed’ her.  He has the same modus operandi as our serial killer: he offers women engagement rings and then disposes of them.  In the case of the murderer, it is as if the unfulfilled need for love has driven him insane.  He is the embodiment of women’s fear of being disposable.

In the danger of crossing Isthmus, fear of emasculation is a major obstacle: we learn Rodriguez tried to kill his wife, so they took away his ‘gun’ turning him into a ‘house mouse’.  What triggered his violent outburst?  She messed with his San Juan Man of the Year Award.  Malloy describes his initial panic in a sexual encounter with an older woman, realizing “she’s a real woman… she’s got pubic hair… I want to get the hell out of there”.  Homophobia is another divisive byproduct of this fear, Malloy commenting he “had to park on C Street, with 100 fucking faggots looking to suck my dick”, and becoming self-conscious about his soft, “faggot hands”.

Tenderness is considered at odds with masculinity, but Malloy is braver and perhaps more ‘feminine’ than Frannie in this respect, daring to tell her a little thing like “I missed you.”  When he takes her to a park and tries to kiss her, she goes for his belt-buckle, prompting his response, “you’re here for the sex, right?  You wouldn’t go nowhere with me I didn’t fuck you”.  His crude come-on line casts some light on the choice that is on offer: “you want me to romance you, take you to a classy restaurant, no problem.  You want me to be your best friend and fuck you, treat you good, lick your pussy, no problem.”


The elements are all in place for a searing jndictment of the tragic cultural disarticulation that exists between men and women in present day America.  We are shown a world in which the basic human need for love has been relegated to the extent that all attempts at connection have become corrupted, with most of the characters resorting to out-in-the cold positions of stalking, voyeurism or assault, where courtship or even the seemingly impossible, friendship, should be.  Because there is an important choice, where gender is concerned, from which flows everything that follows.  Either men and women are first and foremost people, and gender comes second, or it is the division, the cut, which comes first.

There are certainly enough clues to make a complex reading of the movie on this level.  But I can’t help feeling the film is more rewarding to analyze than it is to watch, and we are ultimately left to extrapolate the film Campion might have put on the screen.  Somehow, In the Cut never quite made it into the can.