The second, and later film from Jane Campion, In The Cut is not quite as “critically acclaimed,” as they say, but it should be. At least, it should be given more credit cinematically, since Campion perfects her already solid technique and creates a really impressive narrative, rich and cohesive, with elements swirling around in remarkable unity despite the appearance of chaos. Not wholly unlike The Piano, In The Cut delights – perhaps even finds its chief meaning – in turning conventionally accepted notions/expectations/commonplaces/pleasures on their heads. The first shot of the film from within Frannie’s (Meg Ryan) apartment shows the ambiguous image of small, lightweight, white objects falling from the sky. The immediate instinct is to assume it’s snow, although they seem too big to be snow. Soon thereafter we come to understand that it couldn’t be snow, considering the time of year and the weather. Later still, Frannie’s sister reveals to Frannie that they’re petal-like leaves falling from trees. Do not believe your eyes; this is largely the message of In The Cut. Appearances are deceiving, things aren’t what they seem, and so on.
The strong identification, or character engagement, with Frannie attaches the viewer to her at the outset and almost never strays from her. Exceptions are momentary and wrought by narrative necessity. The suturing is stronger here with Frannie than it was with Ada in The Piano. Since this film adds the component of a whodunit? to its narrative, the film progresses better with the audience basically knowing only what Frannie knows. The dark aura that pervades the film affects the feel significantly, contributing to a post-idealistic urban setting, a dystopic microcosm, bound to highlight the sinister in society. The cops add to this vibe at least as much as anyone else, and rightly so, considering the course of the story. They’re fundamentally no different from any other members of society, as much potential suspects as anyone else, as much scumbags, as much sleep-buddies.
Frannie and her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) stand as possible opposites, the independent woman and the dependent woman, respectively. Pauline’s pathetic stalking of a married man, her shameless fatal attraction to him leading to a restraining order, contrasts extremely with Frannie, who rarely ever dates and is constituted by a lack of desire for another. Her regular meetings with a handsome and hungry student lead to him punishing her for being a “bitch” – that is, being a woman who will not let herself be desired, will not return the gaze that caters to the desiring man. When Frannie finally does couple with a man, that coupling is defined by a reversal of traditional roles. Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) tells Frannie that he will be “anything you want me to be,” and so on. The relationship exists on her terms, for her pleasure. He willingly submits to her control, and her desire is not a desire for him, but rather for naked fulfillment. In a word, she uses him, and he knows it. All the while, she suspects him of committing the crime that is the catalyst for the film’s central mystery.
Having firsthand knowledge of the key piece of evidence needed to solve the crime, she withholds it. She seems to do this in order (1) to draw out the satisfaction she can experience through Malloy and (2) to solve the crime herself. Regarding the second, her day job as a high school teacher makes her an authority figure, a woman with knowledge and power. The meetings with her student are for the purpose of learning street vernacular from him so that she can give a more accurate portrait of urban life in the book she is writing. This is another instance in which Frannie uses a male for her own ends rather than letting herself be used, rebelling against gender norms. Regarding (1), it is important to note that the pleasure she experiences from Malloy is directly related to her suspicion that he is the murderer. Their romance is marked by sadism. After being mugged in an alley, Malloy has Frannnie re-stage the mugging in her apartment, with him posing as the mugger. They do not get very far into the reenactment before arousing one another through the suggestion of violence. Toward the film’s finale, Frannie handcuffs Malloy to the wall in her apartment and proceeds to discover what appears to be incriminating evidence in his jacket pocket. The ensuing events leave Malloy stranded, cuffed to the wall like an animal as he becomes angrier and angrier. Once again, there is no question here concerning with whom the power lies. The climax in the following sequence has Frannie seizing the instrument of violence and overcoming the male villain.
That climax is the second scene in which Frannie interacts with blood to a rather heavy degree. In the first, she enters a space that is extremely bloody, a space that happens to be the most intimate space of her sister’s, the bathroom where she has been murdered. This room is a sort of primal cave, penetrated through a violation of the worst kind, perhaps even on par with a violation into the womb. The bathroom already figures as the most personal, intimate space in a domicile. When Frannie enters it, not only is the evidence of the murder spread everywhere for her to see, but her sister is literally spread everywhere for her to see. This is an intrusion of the most violent sort, and Frannie walks straight into it, voluntarily surrounding herself with the bloody evidence. She is distraught, but also fearless and angry. In this way, the scene is somewhat reminiscent of the “castration” scene in The Piano.
It’s also reminiscent of that scene in another way, however. Right off, perhaps the main difference between the two scenes is that in The Piano, the act of violence is being done to Ada herself, whereas in In The Cut the act of violence has been done to Frannie’s sister. Returning, however, to the earlier point about Frannie and Pauline acting as opposites on the feminine spectrum (in terms of established archetypes or stereotypes), could they not essentially “be” the same person? There is, after all, a blurry line separating an opposite from a double. Consider not only the idea of two warring sides of a person embodies in two separate persons (something that wouldn’t be original to this film), but also the otherwise strange plot element of Pauline’s murder. Why, exactly, is she murdered? She and the murderer have never met and have no reason to meet. Their encounter only takes place as a direct result of Frannie getting a lift to her sister’s apartment. Pauline’s murder is an act supremely premeditated not only in terms of the murder itself but also in terms of the murdered person’s identity. Unless Frannie and Pauline essentially constitute two sides of the same person (from a thematic point of view), Pauline’s murder is a hole in the plot; it makes little or no sense.
If she – Frannie/Pauline – is the same person, however, then Malloy and Rodriguez (his partner) are also the same person. The two cops are partners. They work together and even hang out at the bar together. Frannie and Pauline are sisters – stepsisters, to be exact. They share the same father and spend a good deal of time together. Within the film, they’re defined in terms of one another; their identities are only clear in relation to one another. The same applies to the two cops. It’s in the bar that the difference between the two cops becomes most apparent. It’s there in the bar where Malloy tells Frannie how he’s willing to be whatever she wants him to be. Moments later Rodriguez makes some shockingly misogynistic comments (to say the least) about women that stand in polar opposition to Malloy’s words. Perhaps most importantly, it is their shared tattoo that creates the main misunderstanding fueling the film’s mystery.
Further still, recount the sadistic relationship that Frannie and Malloy share, and how that sadism plays out in their desires. Perhaps in this case, seeing Frannie-Malloy as “polar opposites” of Pauline-Rodriguez isn’t appropriate. Rather, significant overlap between the different couples makes them in some ways more similar than different. Another one of these overlaps concerns the guns of the two officers. We learn earlier in the film that Rodriguez carries a bright yellow squirt gun on his belt in place of a real firearm on account of losing his gun privilege due to – NB! – his wife taking the gun and using it. After cuffing Malloy to the wall, Frannie takes his gun with her (a second theft of a police gun by a woman) and rides off in Rodriguez’s car, though he is unaware that she is carrying. Her victory over him by means of a gun not only concludes the cycle for Rodriguez’s character of losing his gun to a woman (yes, folks, that’s castration), but Frannie’s theft of the gun from Malloy solidifies his status, already strongly hinted at, of being a male without an instrument of power.
This is the kind of frustrating yet gratifying film that feeds on its own interpretation. The more that one sees in it, exponentially more will spring up before one’s eyes. Precious few films can submit to – what a terrible word; how about, “permit” – this kind of a reading without having violence done to them. In The Cut is a deceptively simple film, one that appears disturbing and complex but that is in fact very tight and coherent. It’s as much a Western as anything else, except in reverse. There are a hero and a villain, but instead of knowing who they are at the beginning, we aren’t fully sure until the end. Someone saves the day, but instead of fortifying established norms, the film challenges them and turns them over. At this point I’m struck with the realization that I’ve said nothing here about Frannie’s very interesting and imagined “flashbacks” to her father’s proposal to her mother and how violence fits into those. We could point to the identification between the primal, blood, and the woman that was already explored in the bathroom scene. Certainly issues of parenthood are of importance to this film, not only via the proposal flashbacks and constant talking about their father but also through the bracelet Pauline gives Frannie, suggesting Frannie as a mother. That the baby carriage breaks off of her bracelet while Frannie overcomes her mugger seems to solidify the possibility that Frannie is abandoning the maternal notion of Woman for something more powerful and independent. While there’s plenty more to discuss about this, time and space presently forbid it.