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17 February 2021updated 08 Sep 2021 8:43am

How In the Cut offers a disturbing look at the dark side of desire

Jane Campion’s 2003 film is an ugly, frightening exploration of the danger that comes with being a woman attracted to men.

By Philippa Snow

Lust, always unpredictable, becomes more so under confinement, which might help to explain why women who are in some way repressed, constricted or pinned down are often those we see exploding in the movies, chasing men who offer them a heady combination of sexual pleasure and freeing annihilation.

Think of Belle de Jour, Luis Buñuel’s 1967 exploration of the private life of Séverine, a supposedly frigid housewife who starts working in a brothel, or of Catherine Breillat’s 1999 film Romance, in which the agonised lover of a newly asexual man begins an odyssey of boundary-pushing, stimulating and unsimulated sex, culminating in the most shocking development of all: she becomes pregnant and gives birth. The film’s ambivalence about her motherhood is as radical as its depiction of her willing degradation at the hands of numerous men.

In the Cut, Jane Campion’s unclean and sexy 2003 neo-noir, follows in the bloodied footsteps of 1977’s cool, Catholic and sententious Looking for Mr Goodbar by exploring the erotic double life of an apparently mild mannered teacher, Frannie Avery. Unlike Goodbar, it does not outfit its heroine with a death wish, but with an evident, visceral desire to be stimulated back to life.

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Frannie’s cage is an extremely cramped apartment in Manhattan, which she papers with snatched phrases and cribbed slang as part of an ongoing project on etymology; words, and not deeds, are her escape, although one senses she would like to make a change in this department. Her half-sister Pauline lives above a topless bar, and has the tight red dresses, long blonde hair and insouciant, loose-limbed air of sexual promise we imagine Frannie might, in certain fantasies, like to have herself. (“You should do it,” Pauline tells her when Frannie’s trying to decide whether to sleep with an admirer. “If only for the exercise.”)

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One day, while meeting a student at a dive bar to discuss the finer points of New York slang, Frannie slips away downstairs in search of the bathroom and happens upon on a scene that switches something on deep in her body: a mysterious man, his wrist tattooed and his face hidden in the shadows, receiving a blowjob from a young woman with blue, diamond-studded nails. She stays and watches; the next day, she finds out the girl is dead, torn limb from limb. “She was disarticulated,” the investigating officer informs her, and though Frannie is afraid, she also takes the time to note that “disarticulated” is a thrilling and unusual word.

The cop, it turns out, is a tough-soft, brown-eyed boor who oozes sex. Because he is played by Mark Ruffalo and she’s played by Meg Ryan, we might fleetingly believe we’ve seen this kind of fateful assignation before in romcoms, although – since she later notices a tattoo on his wrist that matches that of the man being pleasured in that unpleasant basement – this erotic pas de deux is underscored by the frightening and intoxicating possibility that her voracious lover is, in fact, a serial killer.

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Then again: isn’t sex always underscored by such possibility? In the Cut is masterful in its suggestion of the ambient, omnipresent air of sexual threat that exists in traditional heterosexual dynamics, and is equally masterful in the way it manages to make an argument for its forthright, feminist heroine being turned on by that tension. Is it sensible to linger and make eye contact when stumbling across an unknown man engaging in sex acts in the shadows? Is it sane to clamber into strange men’s cars, and then be driven to the woods for what might turn out to be sex, but also might turn out to be dismemberment? No, but then desire is wild, not sane, and impervious to logic.

In the same week that I first saw In the Cut, I had been watching Netflix’s terrible and addictive reality show Bling Empire, in which a young woman named Kelly repeatedly went back to a man named Andrew, who switched smoothly, like a classic sociopath, between treating her with a conditional kind of tenderness, and emotionally attacking her as if she were a hostage. “People don’t see the parts of our relationship that work,” she would repeatedly insist, leaving the audience to imagine what she could be alluding to as images of the couple, half-nude, flashed up on screen.

In one scene, Andrew screams and screams at Kelly on the phone for some imagined, minor slight, and it is then that the other cast members begin to voice their concerns. “No dick,” one of them insists, “is that good.” And yet! Isn’t In the Cut, an ugly, frightening film about the danger that comes with being a woman who desires sexual intimacy with men, also so hot it almost burns? Isn’t “dick” sometimes as powerful and illicit a word as “disarticulated”?

“In the Cut” is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video and BFI Player

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This article appears in the 17 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, War against truth