Every generation, it seems, requires its own anti-sex movie. A couple of decades ago, we had Fatal Attraction, with its insatiable blonde nutjob carving up rabbits; now we have In the Cut, a gory and sexually explicit drama in which romantic intimacy seems never to be possible without sleaze, fear, loathing, and outright paranoia.
This movie’s claim on the public’s attention seems to derive chiefly from the fact that Meg Ryan quite realistically simulates sex in it, with herself as well as with a male partner. In principle at least, this represents progress for her career: She has, after all, been famous thus far chiefly for so-called romantic comedies that are neither romantic nor comedies: Hollywood ordure in which vacant eye-twinklers exchange lamely written one-liners on their way to “true” love. So–again, in principle-it should be heartening that Ryan is making a movie about something closer to human reality. . . . But not so fast, Chester: With In the Cut, Ryan has actually made only a lateral, or possibly even a downward move–from films in which only very boring people have sex, to a film in which only pathologically self-destructive people have sex.
Ryan plays Frannie, a New York City English teacher who has trouble making romantic connections. Her half-sister Pauline, played, admirably as always, by the genuinely talented Jennifer Jason Leigh, gets more romantic action, because . . . well, because she has absolutely no standards. Pauline gets hurt a lot, but she seems to accept that as part of the world of love and sex. Frannie quite rightly worries about Pauline and her relations with questionable guys, and even suggests to her that it might be safer for her to just imagine sex with men instead of actually doing it.
When a film’s central character is introduced as a propagandist for autoeroticism, you can be pretty sure that the rest of the movie will be devoted to her coming of age toward sexual maturity. But here’s the movie’s basic problem: The kind of sexual world it depicts actually makes Frannie’s first course seem the wiser one. Into her sphere of loneliness comes a laconic but sexually skilled homicide detective who is in her neighborhood investigating a grisly sex murder by a serial killer. He and Frannie start an affair, but, as these things often go, she becomes ambivalent about him: On the plus side, he satisfies her in bed; on the minus side, she remains somewhat troubled by the fact that he is, in all likelihood, himself the serial sex murderer. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.
A bare plot summary of this kind cannot help leaving the completely false impression that the movie is sexy and suspenseful. So let me say in the clearest possible terms: Though this film does contain more explicit sex than any American film I can remember, and also contains violence of an exceptionally gruesome kind, it is neither erotic nor suspenseful. As to sex, it is well to remember that one important reason people (generally) like it is that it is pleasant. The sex presented in this movie, however, is decidedly unpleasant: grim, distrustful, laden with fear. And as to suspense, the plot twists here are close to obvious, minutes ahead of their actual revelation.
So that’s the unappetizing cake the moviemakers have baked–and to disguise its taste, they have topped it with a thick icing of pretension: Our heroine is a writer, and looks for clues to her situation in random works of poetry she sees posted in the subway–Dante, Garcia Lorca, etc. The film’s director, Jane Campion, is already in the Pretension Hall of Fame for her awful 1993 movie The Piano, and she further distinguishes herself here. (I used to boast, quite truthfully, that I had memorized–and could recite–every line of dialogue Holly Hunter spoke in The Piano.)
To summarize: In the Cut is a movie for absolutely no one. People who have no problem with sex in movies will be revolted by the sordid way it is depicted here. People who are squeamish about sex will be just as revolted, by the fact that is depicted so graphically. I was talking about this with a friend, and she asked me, well, what about the 14-year-old boy who is the main purchaser of movie tickets in this country–won’t he love all the sex and violence? Answer: He, too, should save his money and skip this movie. In a sense, he’s better off than the rest of us: What he’s looking for, he can find in just about every other Hollywood movie at the megaplex. For adults, it’s not so easy.