In the Cut

Jane Campion 118 mins, 18
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The Independent Culture

Cinema's most concise equation of sex and death remains the tagline for Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound: "Will he kiss me or kill me?" Jane Campion's In the Cut is the latest reworking of the theme: an intellectual woman conceives a sexual passion for a physical, somewhat brutish man, against a background of violent murder. At first viewing, In the Cut reminded me of something I couldn't quite place, until some fellow critics, connoisseurs of straight-to-video, pointed out how much it resembled those sweatily discreet erotic thrillers, usually starring Shannon Tweed, that Channel 5 used to show on Friday nights. If it weren't by the director of such blue-chip art fare as The Piano and The Portrait of a Lady, In the Cut could easily have been titled Lethal Obsession 4.

Is Campion slumming, then, or trying to reappraise a maligned bargain-basement genre? I think neither. Maybe I'm wrong, but I suspect Campion isn't that interested in the erotic thriller as a form; her film clearly takes itself very seriously, with no apparent genre-referencing irony, as a study of female sexuality and its dark outer edges. In the Cut manages to bring a compelling, leisurely intimacy to its sex scenes, which certainly widen American mainstream cinema's vocabulary of erotic practice, with the soles of the feet especially given new prominence. But Campion also make sex's attendant fantasies a painfully solemn matter, and that's where the film ends up looking ridiculous.

In the Cut is adapted from the mid-Nineties novel by Susanna Moore, who co-scripted the film with Campion. Frannie (Meg Ryan), a Manhattan writer and writing teacher, gets involved in a murder investigation conducted by Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), a brooding, boorish detective whose matter-of-fact attitude to both sex and death gets her juices flowing, physically and imaginatively. In a key scene, she masturbates while a dream image of Malloy looms in the background. This may not be the only imagined episode: at one point, Frannie walks into the scene of a gruesome murder but shortly after, seems to have forgotten about it entirely. When she and her neurotic stepsister Pauline (a wildly arch Jennifer Jason Leigh) dance to what she calls "my tune", what else is it but "Just My Imagination"?

That much of the film could be read as dream is the only thing that justifies its uneven tone. The story might be interpreted as an interior creative-writing exercise on the part of its highly-sexed cerebral heroine; otherwise the whodunit element makes little sense. Frannie encounters a number of variously alluring or menacing men, any one of whom might be linked to the murders of women around town. You'll probably guess the killer's identity long before Frannie does, but it's unlikely you'll care, because In the Cut never persuades us that it's truly invested in the thriller format, either for real or as a genre red herring to be filleted.

What really interests Campion and cinematographer Dion Beebe is stylistics, the mood of a hyper-eroticised city steeped in sexual promise and violent menace (and vice versa). Young women are forever glimpsed striding along at the edge of the frame, or running round corners, apparently in fear for their lives. New York is presented as a hot female city in which men are interlopers - a town of Amazons like the muscular denizens of the strip joint over which Pauline lives. The mood can be deeply evocative: there's a genuine sense of summer claustrophobia in the scene where the two women try to get some rest while music throbs up from the club below. Mostly, though, the style is overpowering: a lot of hand-held camera, a leitmotif of having different areas of the frame in and out of focus, a vivid palette of hot orange and red. It feels oppressive, over-spiced, at times dangerously close to the language of advertising. Some of the nuttier apparitions - wedding and funeral parties on the subway - suggest an Adrian Lyne version of art-house.

It doesn't help that the film's symbolism is pure pulp Freud, so on-the-nose that you only hope Campion is being tongue-in-cheek. Frannie, teaching a class on To the Lighthouse, actually has a lighthouse chalked on her blackboard, and it's big, red and phallic beyond all margin of error. (Later on, someone drives her to an actual lighthouse. "Where are we going?" she asks. "To the lighthouse," comes the reply. If only, like a proper hard-boiled heroine, she'd snap back, "Oh yeah? Who are we meeting - Mrs Dalloway?")

The film's big selling point is a sexually upfront role for the usually wholesome Meg Ryan. She's pretty credible, more in the sex scenes than when being a reserved, knowing highbrow (Frannie never convinces as a writer, not least since she seems mainly to generate lots of beautifully handwritten Post-It notes). But she certainly comes alive in her duets with Ruffalo, where her introverted gusto suggests an actress genuinely flexing parts of her system - and body - she's never previously had the chance to.

But she isn't half as impressive as Ruffalo, especially given that his role doesn't allow for much more than a hirsutely grumpy Brandoesque hunk. His abrasively garrulous, petulant Malloy is the macho cop as overgrown playground stud, trying to wow the girls with tough talk. In the bed scenes, Ruffalo suggests tenderness, generosity, humour; his post-coital reminiscences are the film's most convincingly human moments.

Otherwise, there's also a lot that's truly awkward about the film, not least the strand involving Frannie's student Cornelius (Sharrieff Pugh), which plays crudely on ideas about middle-class white women's fears and fantasies about young working-class black men. Then there's the insanely silly denouement. Moore ended her novel with a twist that was daring, extremely dark and true to her subject-matter, yet impossible to film; the generic ending she's written with Campion makes a nonsense of the whole exercise.

So, a bit of blood, a bit of oral, some play with handcuffs and - as they say on TV - strong language from the start. But there's nothing terribly shocking or even unsettling about In the Cut, which for all its intensity, feels only vicariously dangerous, like a coffee-table collection of images from the inferno. In The Piano, Campion subverted the stiffness of Victorian costume drama to disconcertingly erotic effect - remember the general outbreak of cold sweats over Harvey Keitel's stout middle-aged nakedness? In the Cut is a story of eroticism set in a world itself screamingly eroticised, which rather defeats the object. It's not very transgressive at all; in fact, it would probably work perfectly well as a loucher-than-average date movie.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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