The erotic thriller of the late 80s and early 90s was a response to the growing fear and anxiety over women’s sexuality. Women in these films were usually insatiable and dangerous, seducing unsuspecting men and causing chaos. In the end, they were almost always punished. Released in 2003, In the Cut, Jane Campion’s adaptation of Susanna Moore’s 1995 novel of the same name, subverted these well established genre tropes. Women are not to blame for the turmoil and disarray in In the Cut, nor is their sexual expression. Rather, the true evil lies at the heart of society itself, and the patriarchal structures within it.
In the Cut follows Frannie (Meg Ryan), a college English teacher who, after witnessing a salacious act in the basement of a bar, gets caught up in a murder investigation. As she delves further into sexual exploration and the bodies pile up, Frannie begins to fear the killer is someone she knows. Despite her success and independence, Frannie still feels like life has disappointed her in some way. She’s unfulfilled. After all, Frannie is pushing forty, unmarried, and without children. But she doesn’t want any of those things, things every woman is taught and expected to want. What Frannie wants is sex, not intimacy. She wants a connection that is purely physical. But her desire for sex is never seen as a bad thing. Unlike most erotic thrillers, Frannie’s appetite for sex is normalized. She’s just a woman with needs.
Instead, In the Cut presents the men as antagonistic and violent, even bordering on the edge of insanity. Frannie’s student, Cornelius, constantly demands her attention, insisting she listen to his disturbing defence of John Wayne Gacy. Towards the end of the film, Cornelius nearly rapes a clearly wasted and emotionally distressed Frannie, and when she says no, Cornelius insists that she threw herself at him. John, a man Frannie was casually seeing, played by a scene stealing Kevin Bacon, harasses and stalks her for most of the movie. In a particularly disturbing scene, John lashes out at Frannie on a busy New York street, in broad daylight, and soon after, begs her to house sit his dog.
During these verbal and physical attacks, Frannie is calm and passive. She doesn’t fight back. She tiptoes around these men and their fragile egos, reluctantly stepping into the role of their therapist, girlfriend, and confidant. Men’s selfishness and entitlement is so normal to Frannie, and Campion highlights this by making it seem as mundane as possible.
Despite how dangerous it is to merely interact with a man in In the Cut, Frannie’s half-sister Pauline insists that Frannie needs one. To fuck, yes, but Pauline also wants Frannie to settle down and have a family. To her, that’s the ultimate goal – the fairytale ending. One night, Pauline gifts Frannie a charm bracelet. It’s a courtship fantasy, each charm representing the traditional steps in a woman’s life. Marriage, home ownership, children, etc. Using the bracelet, the film frames these things as material gains – trophies to hang on your wrist. In In the Cut, marriage isn’t an act of love. It’s a box to check off.
Though marriage is seen as the ultimate goal, the reality of being married is an entirely different story. In fact, all of the marriages in In the Cut have either been damaged or broken beyond repair. Giovanni Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), a homicide detective who takes a sexual interest in Frannie, is divorced and still sleeping on his wife’s couch. Richard Rodriguez (Nick Damici), Malloy’s racist, womanizing partner, nearly kills his wife after getting into an argument. Even Frannie’s parents’ marriage ended in heartbreak. In a black and white dream sequence, Frannie describes her parent’s love story. They are seen skating on a pond, in the middle of the woods, as snow falls around them. It’s beautiful and romantic until we learn that Frannie’s father left her mother soon after they were married. Worse still, he didn’t even bother marrying Pauline’s mother. Their father is clearly in the wrong, but Frannie chooses to focus on her mother’s reaction to their father’s departure rather than his behavior. It wasn’t his fault, Frannie muses, she just didn’t understand. Somehow, even Frannie finds a way to blame a woman – her own mother – for the actions of a man.
Pauline would like to get married. Just once, she says. To try it out. Pauline is Frannie’s foil in the film. Where Frannie is cautious and pessimistic, Pauline is outgoing and hopeful. She believes that love will save her. Every time the audience sees Pauline, she talks about the men she’s fucked and loved and lost. Her desire to find companionship always, without question, results in heartbreak. Recently, Pauline had an affair with a married doctor. When he broke off the affair, she stalked him and stole his wife’s dry cleaning, resulting in a summons to court. In a fantastic monologue delivered by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Pauline tells Frannie that she fantasises that when he sees her in the courtroom, he’ll realize his love for her. Unlike erotic thrillers of the past, the film is firmly on Pauline’s side. Yes, she sounds absolutely unhinged, but we also feel an immense amount of sympathy for her. Pauline is not psychotic. She’s not the villain. She’s just an ordinary woman who has spent her entire life defining herself by men. Once again, Campion expertly subverts genre tropes, showing her audience how damaging it can be when women are taught to think that even when men abuse them, they are their only shot at happily ever after.
It’s fitting that Pauline falls victim to a serial killer who gifts his victims wedding rings. Campion takes something that is supposed to be a symbol of commitment and love and turns it into a death sentence. When Frannie discovers her sister’s butchered body, her illusions about love finally shatter. In a drunken stupor, she dreams of her mother and father’s courtship again, only this time it’s a nightmare. It ends in a bloody mess, with her mother losing her head just as Pauline did. This forces Frannie to stop idealizing their marriage and when it finally comes time for Frannie to face the killer, she’s ready for him. Instead of taking the wedding ring, Frannie chooses her own life over the promise of love and marriage, and shoots him dead. The metaphor is obvious, even a little on the nose. By rejecting the very thing that has escaped her all these years, by having the courage to say she doesn’t need it, Frannie is set free. You see, Frannie isn’t a femme fatale, she’s a final girl. And just like Sydney in Scream and so many others that came before her, she’s breaking all the rules. Instead of adhering to genre conventions or submitting to society’s expectations, Frannie forges her own path. She isn’t punished and most importantly, she gets to live.
In the Cut is an erotic thriller that forces its audience to confront sexist tropes of the genre and take a long, hard look at the society that created them. Nearly 20 years after its initial release, the film is more relevant than ever. It is a piece of cinema that dared to say things no one wanted to hear at the time. That women were more than just wives and mothers. More than objects to possess. It is not being loved by someone else that sets you free, but rather, the love you have for yourself. In fact, it just might save your life.
Written by Margaret Roarty
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