2016 Film Essays

Of Love and Other Demons: ‘In the Cut’ (Jane Campion, 2003)


Desire without danger has very little appeal. At the root of desire, more than just a want, lies the need to transgress. Desire, often unarticulable and sometimes shameful, has to be kept in a little box, hidden away from the world and even ourselves. The tagline of Jane Campion’s In The Cut, “Everything you know about desire is dead wrong”, promises to peel back the curtain and let the audience into that stowed away box. Frannie (Meg Ryan), an English teacher, becomes sexually involved with a police officer, Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), who is investigating the murder of a beautiful, young woman who lived in her neighborhood.

Focused more on Frannie’s quiet internal world than the murder mystery, Campion creates a bizarrely idiosyncratic sexual thriller. Ostensibly an investigative drama, In The Cut defies conventions, as it focuses more overtly on Frannie’s psychology and willfully destructive tendencies. Not a particularly reliable narrator, Frannie remains stuck in her head. From the beginning, as she witnesses a future murder victim giving a blowjob to a mysterious man (who happens to have a distinctive tattoo on his penis), the film conveys the surrealistic nature of viewing the world through Frannie’s eyes. Cerebral, quiet and observing, her gaze pulls out words and phrases from her environment, and Campion’s filmmaking style powerfully shuts off outside influences, zeroing in on Frannie’s focused and obsessive collection of ideas.


Frannie becomes defined not by what she does, but how she thinks. The vision of a confident sexual woman she puts before the world fades under any pressure. Though Frannie seems to throw herself into danger, whether professionally by flirting with a student or by engaging with unstable men, this smokescreen conceals how she seems alienated from her body and its desires. After meeting Malloy, a handsome cop, the conception of her sexual persona crumbles. The frankness in which he discusses sex, with calm control, is transgressive in itself. “I can be anything you want,” he tells her, “the only thing I won’t do is hit you.” From this moment on, Malloy has a malleable quality, bleeding into the consciousness of the film and controlling the momentum of tension. The danger of his presence lies in his desire to incarnate Frannie’s fantasy, real or unreal: women embody fantasies for men, not the other way around. Ruffalo’s performance, fueled by subtle gestures and an unapologetic forcefulness, makes him an appealing object of desire. In stark comparison, the other men in the film are infantilized and unstable, not only unable to articulate what they want but unable to ingrain themselves in Frannie’s life in any meaningful way.

In The Cut doesn’t quite bring together all its disparate threads. The film thrives as it tackles the cerebral and contradictory desires of Frannie, but can’t quite wrap up the murder mystery in the story. The different paths the film brings together work conceptually (and likely felt more cohesive in the novel it’s based on) but don’t quite fit together on the screen. In the Cut falls into the category of films that lean too heavily on the unreliability of the lead, like Stage Fright (1950) and High Tension (2003), which rely on (and maybe abuse) the audience’s trust in the audiovisual image. While audiences have become accustomed to not necessarily taking a character’s version of reality as truth, a director can easily inspire alienation by pushing too far left rather than engaging viewers with the film.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.