Meg Ryan's 'In the Cut' Is the Most Underrated Erotic Thriller of the 21st Century
Male directors, and their limited understanding of female sexuality, have been the ones to codify our expectations of contemporary erotic thrillers. With 1987's Fatal Attraction and 1992's Basic Instinct, directors Adrian Lyne and Paul Verhoeven established many of the tropes we tend to associate with the genre: A woman -- often young, white, and skinny -- driven by her appetite for sex, violence, or both, becomes a source of desire, confusion, and ultimately torment for the film's traditionally masculine hero.
Erotic thrillers tend to function as fearful reactions to the cultural aversion of expressive female sexuality, to the point of overrepresentation within these narratives. The sheer amount of films about dangerous, sex-crazed women has led to satirical horror movies, such as Ginger Snaps, Jennifer's Body, and Teeth (the latter two of which were poorly reviewed at their time of release), that actively mock male fear of sexually aggressive women. These films were made with an acute awareness that, in real life, men hold the power, even if they like to pretend they don't, and present a world where women actually can weaponize their bodies. These narratives are often cathartic; in real life, male desire (and the violence that may occur if it isn't satiated) is much more terrifying.
In the twilight of the erotic thriller, Jane Campion made a film that grappled with that threat. In the Cut, based on the 1995 novel of the same name by Susanna Moore, is a dark fable about the risks women take trying to navigate sex and relationships with men's latent darkness just out of frame. Throughout the film, protagonist Frannie (Meg Ryan) is always being watched, often by men she actually knows. As she and her half-sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), walk the streets of New York, a sense of unease hangs in the air, heightened by Dion Beebe's cinematography that captures the dreariness, chaos, and unpredictability of the city. The frame is always busy with trash and graffiti, and burdened with shadows, which loom larger as Frannie progresses further on her sexual journey.
Upon its Halloween release 15 years ago, In the Cut was tepidly received, both by critics and audiences. Nell Minow's 2003 review from Common Sense Media seems to have identified the culprit: In assessing Ryan's performance, Minow remarks that she "sheds her twinkle." Known primarily for romantic comedies, Ryan began shifting to more serious roles in the 2000s. In films like Proof of Life and Against the Ropes, she was trying to prove that she could do more than fall in love with an affable, often older male co-star again and again. But In the Cut was, by far, her most interesting role from that time, and critics' failure to acknowledge this seems to be, in part, rooted in fear of change.
Ryan throws everything into her role as Frannie, giving a gripping performance that most would associate with the work of Nicole Kidman. This isn't surprising -- Frannie was originally written for Kidman, and she has a producing credit on the film. As it turns out, Ryan was an inspired replacement. She crafts a sexually complex performance nearly on par with Kidman's in Eyes Wide Shut.
Ryan plays Frannie as a woman in conflict with herself. She wants to be outgoing with men, but she knows she has to protect herself. Pauline is her opposite -- she's open to the possibility of sex and romance with any man who's willing. She doggedly pursues a married doctor, with the false hope that he'll leave his wife and they'll live happily ever after. Frannie and Pauline's father was also a romantic, falling in love with women quickly and leaving them just as fast. Both sisters feel a sense of abandonment from him. Pauline uses these feelings to throw herself into love like her father. Frannie chooses to withdraw, repressing her desires until they recklessly bubble to the surface.
Every man Frannie encounters is trying to break down her defenses. Her student Cornelius (Sharrieff Pugh) flirts with her. John (Kevin Bacon), a man she was casually seeing, openly stalks her when she loses interest. Giovanni Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), an NYPD homicide detective investigating the brutal murder of a young woman, quickly becomes infatuated with her. His partner Detective Rodriguez (Nick Damici) also seems to be attracted to her, but his approach is roundabout. He picks on Frannie like a kid with a grade school crush.
In the Cut pushes the viewer to see the ridiculousness of male entitlement. Every man in the film is teetering on the edge of madness, getting increasingly more belligerent as their needs aren't met. They want Frannie's immediate attention, answers to questions, sexual gratification and dutiful companionship, and she is treated as being unreasonable for not bending to their every individual whim. When she spends time with one man, she is immediately questioned by another, always wanting to know why she didn't choose his company instead.
As the film hides the killer's identity, Frannie is pushed to frantically choose the man who is least likely to hurt her. John wants her to commit, despite the fact that she clearly doesn't like him. Cornelius wants her to listen to his bizarre defense of John Wayne Gacy and gets angry when she punches holes in his logic. His yarn eerily sounds like society's default attitude toward male violence. In one scene, he talks about how Gacy "couldn't help it" and asserts that "it wasn't his fault." Cornelius frames male sexual desire as a compulsion and pushes Frannie toward accepting it as the way things are. If Gacy is innocent, Cornelius implores, all men are. They are just little boys at the mercy of their own wants, unable to control themselves when their "love" turns to violence.
Frannie spends the entire film being yanked around by men who all seem to want her body but show little interest in treating her like a human being. Her most attractive option is the detective, who, despite his overbearing courtship, physically excites Frannie in a way that awakens her erotic spirit. Every time they have sex, she climaxes. If the detective gets off, we don't see it; the camera has no interest in his pleasure.
Despite the heavy male presence in the film, In the Cut reserves the majority of its empathy for women. The film's opening sequence, depicting Pauline in an almost supernatural petal storm, firmly establishes Campion's point of view as cosmetically feminine. The camera explores the female body lovingly, with a gently curious eye. This fascinating approach begs for more imitation.
In the Cut is a story about women being hunted, from their vantage point for once. Shots depicting Frannie being watched mainly serve to highlight how women have to navigate the world under the gaze of men. Frannie is always looking over her shoulder, constantly assessing her surroundings. She knows she is being watched, yet continues to pursue pleasure on her own terms. In the end, once Frannie has faced her worst fears, In the Cut rewards that bravery.