He(terror)sexuality: The Fear, Sex, and Violence of ‘In the Cut’

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Content Warning: Sexual violence, police brutality.

Some of the first lines of dialogue in In the Cut are Frannie Avery (Meg Ryan) and her half-sister Pauline’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) respective observations that: “Slang is either sexual or violent,” “Or both.” It’s an early acknowledgement of the uncomfortable intimacy of sex and violence that will govern every subsequent scene of the film, an overlap that threatens to dissolve the two distinct concepts into one. This central preoccupation makes In the Cut both an astonishingly intelligent take on the erotic psychological thriller, and keenly attuned to the subtle terrors of heterosexual courtship and relationships in a patriarchal society.

As this dialogue indicates, Jane Campion is especially interested in teasing out these entanglements of sex and violence in language. Consider the title, which is spoken by Mark Ruffalo’s cop, Detective Giovanni Malloy, who embarks on a combative affair with protagonist Frannie over the course of a murder investigation. She asks, during their final sex scene, “You like to watch?” and he responds aggressively: “Yeah, I like it in the cut.” The monosyllabic and sharp “cut” phonetically sounds a striking thrill of sensuality. Simultaneously, we remember their previous exchange, when Malloy uses “cut” three times in his graphic description of one particular iteration of the serial killer’s modus operandi, which begins with cutting the throats of his female victims. This sonic callback shoots the sex scene through with violence and fear.

Frannie, an English teacher, seems primarily interested in the erotic potentialities in lines of poetry. Noticing Lorca’s Variations embellishing the subway on her commute, she savours the words in voiceover, “The still waters of the water under a frond of stars / The still water of your mouth under a thicket of kisses.” The repetition of these lines, accompanied by hazy shallow focus cinematography and the appearance of the words onscreen, focalise and intensify Frannie’s sensory pleasure. Frannie’s pleasures and fantasies are not innate; they are tangible and contingent, shaped discursively and through her interactions with her wider environment. It feels like committing to film the relatively recent problematising of heterosexuality as a social, historical, and medical construct, rather than simply the unquestioned norm to contrast homosexuality against.  

Detective Malloy recognises and reciprocates the erotic charge haunting her apartment when he first questions her, reciting Neruda her wall dryly: “I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.” It turns out that violence and desire are mapped close together, as he informs her that a woman’s body part was discovered just a stone’s throw away in Frannie’s garden – the same garden now occupied by her ex-cum-stalker John (Kevin Bacon). Violence descends from the outside, while Frannie attempts to confine, control, and compartmentalise her sexual desires within the four walls of her apartment – a separation of spheres broken down from the moment she observes a sex act performed in the shadows of the bar toilets, unlocking a lust from deep within.

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Malloy explains that the young woman whose murder he is investigating was “disarticulated”. The word is represented both aurally and visually, as Frannie, ever receptive to the power of words, makes a note of it in red pen. The word stubbornly plays on the spectator’s mind as much as it does hers, and for good reason: it’s polysemic and rich, gruesome yet abstract. To disarticulate, in this context, means to separate bones at their joints, but it may also indicate a disruption to a certain logic or argument. With its phonetic closeness and tacit opposition to “articulate”, this word almost denotes a total disintegration of meaning, of barriers, which is happening before our eyes as Frannie’s private sexual world crumbles away.

In the Cut depicts not only the disarticulation of bodies, but the logical disarticulation of violence, desire, and the rituals of heterosexual romance. One significant way it does this is the distinctively sepia-toned scenes of Frannie remembering her mother’s story of how she got engaged to Frannie’s father.

We see that Frannie’s father is attracted to her mother, even as he is engaged to another woman. When the woman angrily breaks the engagement as a result, he offers Frannie’s mother the ring instead. We learn in the present, however, that her father is a womaniser who is now chasing his fifth wife, souring a Hallmark-sweet story. The ease and precision with which her father discarded his fiancée and acquired a new prospective bride make the disturbing implications clear, even as Frannie is determined to preserve its romance. We see her increasingly dark and violent experiences with men tainting the story when she has a gorily absurd nightmare that her mother is lying on the rink, while her father’s ice skates slice through her body. The scenes are so stylised, and therefore defamiliarising – disarticulating – that it is impossible to separate the story from its origins, as a second-hand narrative mined from a jilted woman’s melancholy memory.

Frannie’s mind and fertile imagination rebel to reconfigure the story; the father’s helplessness to stop himself from mutilating her mother in her dream recalls Cornelius’ rationalisation of serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s actions, whom he argues was beholden to uncontrollable desires to paradoxically murder the boys he “loved”. This also recalls the cryptic title card of the film, which dyes the curve of her father’s skating on the rink blood red, and ominously brings his gloved, closing fist to the foreground. The rituals of courtship, and the patriarchal environment, render even the most apparently harmless of men a threat. Seemingly innocuous images of romantic conquest are thus overlaid with, and perhaps even inseparable from, the iconography of violence.

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The memory of violence and trauma directs the first two sexual encounters between Frannie and Malloy. His first initiation of sexual contact comes after she is subjected to an attack and mugging by a masked assailant. Malloy, presumably making a police report, asks her to re-enact the incident, before approaching her from behind and briefly performing as her attacker to seduce her. A complicated cocktail of fear and arousal ensues as Frannie, through Malloy’s touch, comes alive to desire while concurrently reliving her still-raw trauma. In the following scene, when she asks how he became so sexually adept, he describes a predatory induction into sex by an older woman while erotically mapping each movement and instruction onto Frannie’s body anew.

It is in these parts that sex and violence first become indistinguishable, a consequence of Frannie’s continued attraction to a crudely homophobic and racist cop. Even as the film is based in the U.S., Malloy suggesting a chameleon-like ability “to be whatever you want me to be” on their first date immediately drew my mind to the ongoing ‘spycops’ scandal here in the U.K., which revealed that undercover male police officers acquired fake identities to infiltrate predominantly left-wing groups, and in some cases embarked on relationships and families with the oblivious women they were surveilling. The implicit menace of surveillance and covert observation moulds the use of longer shots around Frannie, suggesting she is being watched. It’s no surprise that John somehow seems to know where she’s been and with whom, that Malloy always seems to be trying to encircle her, to capture her.

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Malloy promises he will never hit her, but she still fears and suspects him to be the murderer he’s ostensibly chasing. It’s a suspicion that she is never belittled for. An implicit current of violence can even be gleaned from his boasting of a self-professed “compassion”, or his ability to manipulate and wring confessions out of those held in the cells, which landed him his prematurely successful career in homicide. There is a recognition here that violence is far more complex, subtle, and multifaceted than straightforward and interpersonal cases of assault.

This sense of obscured and latent violence, that may or may not be bubbling under the surface, is evoked in the dreamy and feminine rendition of “Que Sera, Sera”, which bookends the film. It is, on the one hand, about cheerful and carefree nihilism. But, in this film’s world, isn’t there something foreboding about the future not being ours to see? Is it a blessing or a curse to not know what lies ahead? It is worth noting that In the Cut was the first film to be granted permission to be filmed in Manhattan after 9/11, and its trauma lingers in the expressionistic representation of a paranoid city, where the “disarticulating” kind of violence lurks after dark, and the authorities cannot be trusted to protect citizens. It becomes a monumental imaginative task for city inhabitants to carve out a future after such an event.

When Malloy undresses, we watch his arduous task of carefully unbuckling a cache of guns from his hips, whose adornment on his body signals the intrinsic power he has over Frannie, and that the police have over us. While 1991 had seen prominent reportage on the sickening beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers, there were numerous major incidents of NYPD police brutality in that decade, which also irrepressibly inform Campion’s representation of both Malloy and the New York police force.

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Malloy’s complicity in patriarchal violence is especially illuminated. He’s uncritically impressed by the story of Frannie’s parents’ engagement, and he passionately defends his colleague Detective Rodriguez (Nick Damici) after it is heavily implied that he had attempted to kill his wife. That Rodriguez, who could insinuate himself so easily into both the police department and its social culture, is ultimately revealed to be the killer, becomes an implicit condemnation of Malloy and the organisation who sheltered and protected him at the expense of vulnerable women. When Cornelius (Sharrieff Pugh), Frannie’s Black student, is assaulted in custody, we never actually learn which cop was responsible. Yet perhaps we don’t need to know, knitting the individuals back to the institution as a whole.

Campion is fascinated, rather than repulsed, by the darkness of female heterosexuality, with a cognitively complex filmmaking that refuses to make moral prescriptions or condemn women for their desires. The sexual act Frannie observes in the bar, for example, is constructed like a mesmerising neon dream, sumptuously sordid in a variety of close-ups on the man’s glossy wrist, and the woman’s distinctive blue fingernails scratching on fabric. Campion does not indulge in a postfeminist fantasy of boundlessly free female agency in sex, but shows how women navigate and relish pleasure nevertheless; Frannie’s female gaze guides and reinterprets the otherwise faceless scene, transforming it into something sinfully alluring.

The film, and the Susanna Moore novel that it adapts, ask what it means to be sexually liberated, and which intimate desires are cultivated in the petri dish of a society scarred by misogyny, terror, and trauma. Subverting the genre trope of a femme fatale whose appetite for sex and danger brings ruin onto a man, the provocative and prescient hypothesis at its heart contends that to be a heterosexual woman, and to desire sex, is to contradictorily desire violence: to “like it in the cut.”

by Lauren Drozd

Lauren (she/her) is an English and American Literature and Film undergraduate at the University of Kent. She originally hails from Southampton and proudly shares a birthday with Rosa Luxemburg and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Her passions include medieval literature, Marxist feminism, and the films of Derek Jarman. She occasionally tweets @laurendrozd and posts on Instagram @lauren_drozd

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