In the Cut is not a new film, but many of you won’t have seen it, and some who saw it when it opened in 2003, amid critical abuse, should think of seeing it again. Then it may become new, beautiful and very disturbing. So, in the wake of the annual hysteria over our current movies, let me recall an “old” masterpiece, all the more resonant in that it was largely missed by the people whose business it is to guide us in what to see.
Frannie lives in New York where she teaches English at a run-down college. She is good-looking, but she is forty-two; or whatever age Meg Ryan was when she played the part. Going to the bathroom in a bar she discovers a woman giving head to a man. Frannie cannot see his face, but the man knows she is watching and he might guess that Frannie has noticed the tattoo on his arm. Later a woman is found dead, murdered and cut up; the head is in Frannie’s garden. It seems to be the woman she saw in the bathroom. A police detective (Mark Ruffalo) comes to call, and an instant combative attraction forms between him and Frannie, though he has a tattoo as well.
Frannie is a woman alone (save for her half-sister who lives nearby), experienced yet vulnerable. She reads the poems put up in subway cars and she is lonely. But she is brave and a gambler, like her sister who lives in an apartment above a striptease joint. Sometimes Frannie masturbates, and as she develops an affair with the detective she is treading on dangerous ground: The sexual satisfaction—seen and felt in authentically erotic sequences—does not soften the detective or make him less of a suspect in Frannie’s mind.
It’s important to know that this is a film made by women. Jane Campion directed it, from a novel by Susannah Moore, and the film was produced by Nicole Kidman, who was originally set to play Frannie. For some time, Campion, Moore, and Kidman worked on the script together, but then late in the day Kidman dropped out and Meg Ryan was hired in her place. I have no doubt that Kidman would have been very good in the part, but it belongs to Ryan now, and you feel she has a sadder, more battered, less wide-eyed or confident gaze than Kidman. You believe the sex matters to Ryan, in ways she can’t articulate, and you attribute her nakedness to a kind of unguarded or candid sensuality, a fatalism, and a lack of ego or any pretense at glamour. It is a power that does not frighten her, and she is not afraid to show it to the detective. Her body is exceptional, but Ryan looks her age, and Kidman has sometimes resisted that implacable pressure.
This personal commentary is valid because Meg Ryan is not simply an actress playing a part, she is a fundamental, authorial presence and sensibility for the movie. More than that, it’s as if Jane Campion has found ways of filming that emanate from that sensibility. It’s a film of endangered intimacy, close-ups shot from a distance, with a good deal of the frame out of focus. Soft focus sometimes equals vanity and sentimentality, but in this case it represents Frannie’s awareness and her feelings. It has an emotional quality that blooms in the love-making scenes, the frankness of which never seems ostentatious or titillating.
The film does depart from the novel in its ending, and I can live with that because Moore’s stunning conclusion could not be handled on the screen without a distracting sensationalism. The ending that Campion uses is more merciful and it may offer comfort or hope, if that’s how you want to read it. But the film is true to the core of the novel and its rare grasp of a woman who is afraid and reckless at the same time. What adds to the novel is Campion’s persistent use of red and green in the movie. The red is blood, of course, as well as the clothes people wear—Frannie and her half sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh) have red dresses. The green is the garden mentioned earlier, and it is a pervasive interior light that can fall on hair and skin as well as walls painted green. The design scheme may sound studied, but the coloration and the light of the film—its absinthe noir look—is married with the out-of-focus elements and the weary neediness in Ryan’s face.
As I said, Meg Ryan was forty-two when the film opened, and that is a delicate age for a movie actress. Whatever you think about In the Cut, you cannot miss the courage and resolution the actress showed in going for this un-Meg-Ryan-like material. And she was lambasted for that, just as she got little honor and no honors. Her career began to deteriorate: She has not worked much; a couple of projects went straight to video, another released movie did no business. The remake of The Women received dire reviews. So Meg Ryan is now fifty, and widely regarded as that nice girl next door (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail) who lost her sweetness.
Of course, she did well enough for over ten years, and there are many other good and deserving actresses who had far less opportunity. Still, it’s hard to look at In the Cut again and not feel badly for her and for our movies. She deserved better, just as you need to see this exceptional film. The final wounding irony is that if you look “Meg Ryan” up on the internet, you can watch the erotic scenes from In the Cut isolated and “FREE,” with this nudging caption on one website: “See Meg’s pegs and impressively pert forty-something caboose as she gets undressed and slides into bed with Mark Ruffalo. And look close in the middle of the scene—Sally shows Hairy.” There are other ways of looking closely.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.