uch ink has been spilled over a recent crop of movies which contain enough explicit sex or casual nudity to push the boundaries of the R rating. Call it skin verite: Anthony Hopkins shows off his snow-white chest hair in The Human Stain! Sean Penn’s dropping trou in 21 Grams! William H. Macy goes down on Maria Bello in The Cooler! But because Meg Ryan has chosen this moment to shed her chirpy good-girl image along with her panties, it is Jane Campion’s In the Cut that’s caused the biggest flap of all. Ryan not only gets naked, she gets her close-up from dreamboat Mark Ruffalo and his curiously attractive Magnum, P.I. moustache. For its frank nudity and rare depiction of oral sex performed without body doubles Cut is being called part of a “new wave of sexual realism” in film. But compared to its source material, Campion’s film feels like an incomplete picture.
Raunchy and literary, Susanna Moore’s novel In the Cut caused something of a sensation when it was published in 1995. It was explicit enough to qualify as erotica, yet the New York Times Book Review clambered to praise its “sparkling prose” and “wit and erudition.” Set in downtown Manhattan, the book is narrated by Frannie (Ryan’s character), a college lit instructor who’s compiling a slang dictionary and generally sleepwalking through life. When she gets tangentially involved in a murder case and meets dirty Detective Malloy (Ruffalo), their attraction is powerful, immediate and mysterious to both of them. Soon, he’s giving her more than his business card.
Frannie is not Malloy’s type (“not a nurse . . . not blonde”, she says), but she’s experienced enough to recognize and fear his power, which is also what makes him want her. In this predatory atmosphere, heat rises from the tension between Frannie’s conflicting desires for self-preservation and annihilation in the book, at least. Film Frannie falls flat in the bedroom and the rest of the movie. She already seems beaten more resigned than resilient, more fearful than feisty.
A big problem with the adaptation is that, in the novel, a reader is privy to Frannie’s thoughts as they dart around her head. Book Frannie can show us she’s smart and tough, if sometimes contrary: “The story made me smile and I wondered if it made me smile because I wanted [Malloy] to like me. I was a little worried when I realized that it was more than wanting him to like me. I wanted to be like him.” A viewer, on the other hand, has to hear her random thoughts spoken aloud. Poor Film Frannie is stuck blurting out clunkers like “Poetry is my passion.” She sounds like the type of single woman who has too many cats, wears leggings without irony and takes tap classes at The Learning Annex.
Of course, Cut would earn a triple-X rating if it stayed true to every one of Moore’s passage, especially those in which Malloy “took my two hands and placed them on my ass, and then with his hands on top of mine, he pulled me open, apart, exposed to him with my own hands, arched, spanned, and with a low moan he entered me with such ease, such presumption, that I began to come the moment he was inside of me.” But Ryan and Ruffalo never muster up enough of that tension the push and pull of two hard customers jostling for position to make their scenes together truly sizzle. Alternately menacing and protective, he smolders throughout. But she, having ditched her goofy doll-smile and floppy Muppet walk, seems to have confused serious acting with “acting seriously depressed.” Ashen and robotic, Ryan endures Ruffalo’s oral ministrations like they’re a mildly unsavory bit of housework. Watching Malloy put his cufflinks on, Book Frannie says, “I remembered that it was masculine gestures that aroused me.” Later that night, she masturbates and imagines he’s watching. But Film Frannie touches herself in bed while a shower of petals blows around outside her window. Book Frannie handcuffs Malloy to a chair in mid-argument and has her vengeful, selfish way with him. In the film’s equivalent scene, Ryan sounds like a sorority girl trying to prove that she’s tough.
The reality is, it’s tough to make sex truly sexy in any medium. On film and on the page, sex is as tricky to negotiate as dirty talk is in real life. Every viewer, reader or dirty-talkee brings their own particular boundaries to the party. One tiny misstep can induce a mood-killing cringe or burst of laughter. Often, the sexiest material is that which suggests as much as possible while leaving as much as possible to the imagination. (My first taste of this phenomenon was The Sure Thing, in which John Cusack asks Daphne Zuniga, “Wait, don’t touch you there? [she gasps] Or don’t touch you there? [she groans]” All the while, “there” remains tantalizingly off screen.)
Unfortunately, In the Cut is twice as brazen and half as hot. Sure, it’s a more comprehensive view of a woman’s sexual repertoire than most of what we see at the multiplex. And I’d like to personally thank Jane Campion for letting me see Mark Ruffalo completely naked. But for all the fuss about Ryan’s brave performance, her Frannie is a washout. Book Frannie is smarter, more dynamic, more conflicted, and infinitely sexier. What draws her to Malloy is the unnerving, intoxicating power of a man who, quite simply, knows how to fuck a woman. What draws us to her, not Film Frannie, is that she’s a woman who knows how she wants to be fucked. n°
© 2003 Emily Mead and Nerve.com.