A sleek woman with low-slung pigtails and a tailored skirt passes me in the hotel corridor. If she weren’t encircled by a chorus of assistants, I wouldn’t have recognized Jane Campion. This is the woman who conjured up such extreme portraits of femininity as Holly Hunter’s gothic mute in The Piano and Kate Winslet’s sari-clad seeker in Holy Smoke!; I guess I’d envisioned someone a bit more ostentatious. After all, Campion embroiders her movies with eerie motifs of abduction, entrapment, and rapture, and peoples them with willful heroines who face dire circumstances—the threat of lobotomy in An Angel at My Table, and in her latest, In the Cut (opening this week), possible dismemberment. “Yes, I know,” Campion says with a chuckle as I list her favorite themes, “and yet my own persona is so sunny. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it?”
There’s something truly messy and indigestible about a Jane Campion film—she ravishes your visual cortex while flooding the rest of your brain with ambiguous ideas and unresolved emotions. Never was this more true than in Holy Smoke!, her 1999 movie about a young woman (Winslet) who believes she’s found enlightenment with an Indian guru, and the cult deprogrammer (Harvey Keitel) who falls under her sexual sway. Campion has called it an “essay about love, about belief systems,” but Holy Smoke! feels more like a cataclysm than a term paper.
In the Cut (see review) is even more of a mindfuck, if that’s possible—a noir fairy tale set in the East Village that wrangles with big themes like sex, death, language, and love. Adapted from the creepy erotic thriller by Susanna Moore, In the Cut is likely to stir some controversy thanks to Meg Ryan’s graphically sexual portrayal of Frannie, a Manhattan English teacher who inadvertently witnesses a sex act that precedes a murder. She then plunges into a volatile affair with Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), the police detective sent to investigate the case. As her attachment to Malloy deepens, she starts to suspect that he’s the killer.
Moore’s novel haunted Campion, but she didn’t consider translating this explicit story into film for a while. “It was like—duh, do I want to be hated?” She laughs. “And I kept thinking, could I be Frannie? I don’t know if I could, really. But as an artist I’m attracted to subjects I feel I have to grow into. I had a reluctance and a willingness—which I guess is Frannie.”
The filmmaker identified strongly with this character who studies violent and sexual slang, yet uses her intellect as a shield. “Frannie had got into a position where she had made herself very safe,” Campion says, sipping a room-service cappuccino. “She had been disappointed by romance and by the hopes she’d had as a younger woman, but her safeness now was crippling, a kind of deadening. I’ve had big chapters in my life where I’ve felt like that—you just wake up and you go, ‘Why?’ ” Campion lets her face go slack. “Frannie doesn’t know how to get back into life, and it’s just an accident really that she sees something extreme”—the blowjob in the bar. “The sexual drive is a reality, and it’s something she ends up taking as a way back into her vitality. That’s not a judgment—maybe it’s the right thing to do, maybe it’s the wrong thing to do, maybe Malloy’s not good husband material!”
Desire yanks Frannie back into the real world—in this case, a disorienting and intensified version of downtown Manhattan. Although Campion filmed In the Cut in my neighborhood, I found it barely recognizable. She’s transformed the East Village into a landscape that exudes malevolence and magic. “The book was written back in ’95, when it was a different city, a more dangerous city,” Campion explains. “So it’s a mythical New York and a real New York at the same time.” She switched the novel’s setting from the West Village to the Lower East Side because “the East Village is not like the rest of America. It reminded me of India, the makeshift quality of it, the eccentric people. It’s got this fabulous patina to it, like a rediscovery of a ruin.”
A community garden on East 6th Street inspired the film’s halcyon opening sequence, of blossom petals whirling to the ground en masse. “Right from the beginning things are misinterpreted. But it’s such an innocent and beautiful misinterpretation, confusing blossoms for snow. It kind of sets up the whole thesis of the film, of delusion and things not being seen for what they really are.”
One of the only major directors to consistently cultivate daring roles for women, Campion specialized in female relationships in her earliest Australian-set films (Two Friends, Sweetie), while in more recent pictures she has dwelled on gender combat. In the Cut juggles both: Campion creates a kind of running dialogue between Frannie and Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), her flaky half-sister who’s embroiled in a destructive love affair. Each has her own delusional way of acting out her hunger for affection. Pauline dreams of marriage while stalking a married man; meanwhile, Frannie is so unsettled by her feelings for Malloy that she convinces herself that he is physically dangerous. Campion retains the s&m aura of Moore’s book, pushing her ongoing exploration of the sex-violence merger as far as it will comfortably go, and then some.
In the Cut has already sent a titillating frisson through the film world; Campion was forced to shave away at edgier scenes in order to avoid a damning NC-17 rating. (She brushes off the controversy as nonsense, sniffing, “How do you know if your film’s going to pass the rating? You don’t know until you try.”) Perhaps the film’s shock value derives from Meg Ryan’s portrayal of an aggressively sexual creature, or the movie’s dogged focus on female pleasure and pain. The role of Frannie, originally written for Campion’s Portrait of a Lady star Nicole Kidman (who reportedly backed out during her divorce), hardly seems suitable for middlebrow Meg, but her squeaky-clean image actually gives the film a startling extra jolt.
Campion had never directed a genre picture before—unless you file The Piano under “gothic”—and her style mixes uneasily with the thriller framework. But she maintains that she found the restrictions of genre comforting and emboldening: “I felt like I wasn’t responsible for bringing up the shadow, that it was already part of that existing format. There are certain rules or a basic shape that you can follow when you’re inside a noir.” She says she looked to classics like Sunset Boulevard and Chinatown for guidance. “They’re not cautionary tales exactly, because they’re not moralistic, but explorations of fear and shadowy parts of life. There’s no prizes for being happy and gay in a noir movie—that’s failure,” Campion says with a shake of the head, pigtails bobbing. “You always have a sense of: Be careful, the world is big and dark and it’s going to confound you.”
J. Hoberman’s review of In the Cut