Saturday, March 24, 2012

Jane Campion's IN THE CUT: Shadows from the Lighthouse





When I was just a little girl,

I asked my mother, what will I be?
Will I be pretty?
Will I be rich?
Here's what she said to me:

Que sera sera,
Whatever will be will be
The future’s not ours to see


Que sera sera.

I first heard the song “Que sera sera,” a song about a girl growing - verse by verse - into a woman, in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much; Doris Day, singing it in the film, a mother to her child, seemed to me, as I was then, a young girl, an emblem of cheery, sweet comfort, and wholesome, warm motherliness.  And there must have been something about Day’s recording of that song that warmed the hearts of the original listeners, too, for the song rose to the number two position in the U.S Billboard Hot 100 and to number one in the UK Singles Chart in 1956.
 


Doris Day and her song in Hitchcock’s film reassure us of a comfortable, content 1950’s housewifely vision of womanhood, where a girl’s uncertain future – “what will I be?” - is nothing to fear, particularly when there aren’t many optional deviations from the traditional path and particularly when that lovable, faithful everyman Jimmy Stewart is there to make everything all right.  


Two years later, however, in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Stewart would play, not the steadfast father and husband, but Scottie Ferguson, the San Francisco detective who becomes obsessed with his friend’s wife, not the cheerful Day but another, more mysterious and sensual blonde, Kim Novak.  And the relationship in this later film is not the happy marriage with children that Day and Stewart represent in the earlier film but something much more uneasy, a thing fueled by passion, a thing in which romance is inextricably tied to violence. 
 


Jane Campion’s In the Cut features another blonde actress, Meg Ryan, one whose character longs for romance, longs for the Doris Day-everyman Jimmy Stewart fairy tale life, where romance, marriage, and motherhood are the uncomplicated norm.  But in In the Cut, Ryan, whom we perhaps know best from her roles in romantic comedies as that sweet, effervescent, tousled blonde
of When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail – the 90’s equivalent, if you will, of a Doris Day – has hair that is a straight, lank brown and a face that is alternately blank or troubled – and her character’s life is neither one suited to Doris Day’s persona nor to the 90’s comedienne’s.


No, Day’s version of “Que sera sera” won’t suit the story for In the Cut’s Frannie Avery, Ryan’s character. Campion gives her, instead, the chillingly woozy Pink Martini version of the song:
And with this version, the song’s implications and ideas shift: from pleasantly querying and comfortable to queasily questioning, fatalistic, vertiginous.  The line “whatever will be will be” contains, here, no sunny, maternal comfort.  The mother we imagine in this version, interacting with her daughter, is no happy, loved Doris Day, cheerily making beds, but rather someone more confused and insecure. 

What a mother passes to her daughter, particularly in regards to her dreams of home and love and men, is something Frannie Avery clings to, even though the thing passed on to her unsettles her more than it comforts her.  In the midst of the opening sequences of the film, Frannie lies sleeping on her bed, in a sluggish sleep, 

and she dreams a dream cast in black and white: a man and a woman skating on a pond in a lovely winterscape, her mother and her father.  


But the dream has a nightmarish quality, the skates cut the ice cruelly, 
and the man’s hand grips tightly, a rubbery gloved thing, as he watches the woman skating.  Is this woman of the dream in a romance or a horror story?  Frannie’s dream blurs the line between the two sorts of narratives.


Also in those opening moments, we see another, parallel woman, whose narrative is blurred as well, and our ability as viewers to initially interpret the tone of her story is confounded: we see her high-heeled feet, fuzzy, and weaving a bit - drunk or injured - as she walks along the pavement.


But the camera pans up, and it is not an unhappy, unsteady woman on the street, but one walking in an apartment’s garden path, meandering more than weaving, we realize, as she hugs her cup of coffee to her chest and lifts her face to the morning light. Petals in a snowy shower float down, moved by a sudden breeze.  She smiles. 
The shift for us as viewers from unease to peace is unexpected, and within the peace the unease remains.  The happy woman enjoying her coffee in a garden does not fully displace the vision of the drunken, hurt woman on the street. 

And above the woman in the garden, through a window, Frannie dreams her restless dreams.  She awakens and sees the snow-like petals outside her window, horror story-fairy tale dream and morning reality-surreality combine, indistinguishable, one from the other.  

In the Cut, throughout, plays with boundaries - between dream and reality, past and present, mother and daughter, sister and friend, dream and nightmare, romance and horror story, lover and killer, ecstasy and agony - as we follow Frannie’s character, who cannot see, as clearly or as quickly as we’d perhaps like her to, the differences, the boundaries. She, herself, frequently blurs in the camera's unsteady gaze.

 She moves, often, it seems, as if in a waking dream, reacting slowly or oddly or lethargically, her volitional power compromised in the midst of a life she cannot grasp hold of, control, and define.  And her story takes on that weight felt in the throat and chest, when while struggling to scream in the midst of a nightmare, one is left only pinned down, open-mouthed, and voiceless.  
 

Frannie’s voicelessness is highlighted, ironically, in her profession as an English teacher and in her obsession with words themselves.  Frannie keeps post-it notes with phrases or words scattered over her cupboards, desk, and walls in her apartment; she keeps magnetic words that form no sentences all over her door;
she rides the New York subway and seeks thirstily for the poem fragments posted on the train’s walls, 
and she mouths the words to herself, savoring them, seeking for some definition, some fulfillment - of a desire, of a whole story, for her story, perhaps.  
The words mean something - they must mean something; they must form, if we dwell with them long enough, some clue to herself and her life and her family - the random bits somehow coming together, we sense she hopes, as beautifully as does Virginia Woolf’s own semi-autobiographical, stream of consciousness novel To the Lighthouse, which Frannie assigns to her high school English class.  
 

To the Lighthouse, which Woolf wrote partly as a way of understanding and dealing with unresolved issues concerning both her parents, also explores the boundaries between memory and reality, reality and perception, and it links the emotions of childhood to adulthood – the child and the childhood memory stays, a sticky residue, in the adult.  


But while Woolf successfully harnesses freely associating words, shifting perspectives, the randomness of thought, emotion, and memory to one whole thing, Frannie finds no such artistic, cohesive, self-expression, especially self-expression that satisfactorily melds the little girl she was with the woman she is in the present world she lives in. She can borrow only fragments of stories and words from others: from the subway train walls, from her mother’s story of romance with her father, from a magnetic word game on a door, and also from her gifted male student, Cornelius, with his street slang, which she grasps at as obsessively as the other words around her.  He tells her at one point, when she critiques his choice of a writing subject, “But you told us that everything we write is an expression of ourselves.”  She has to agree, but, in practice, self-expression evades her.  Her male student is more articulate than she.

Instead of expression and articulation for herself, the sense of things and of the self coming together in carefully constructed phrases of words, Frannie is faced with inarticulateness - and in the world of the film, her inarticulateness is paralleled by dis-articulation, the separation of body parts at the joint.  

 
For disarticulated women’s bodies keep turning up in her New York City neighborhood, an arm at the laundromat, a head in the garden.   

Frannie’s story - of a woman who cannot find her volition, her definition, and her voice - is linked to other women in this seedy vision of an immediately post-9/11 New York, women in a world of powerful, fully volitional men, 

who threaten, very literally, to disarticulate them.   


But the problem is not just that Frannie and these other women - her mother, her half-sister, the blank-faced bride in the subway, 


the hyper-sexualized women in the strip club 
- must live in a threateningly violent and masculine world, they must interact with it because their desire for men and for the romance that only the male-female pairing brings compels them to give in to it, to immerse themselves it.  

But the pairing is unbearable, confusing.  Frannie and her half-sister, Pauline, and their mother do not want just sex, like so many of the men in their lives seem to want: they want romance.  They want the path to the happily ever after.  Frannie clings to her mother’s story of the courtship with her father, not just because it is a clear articulate voice, a cohesive story, but because it is a love story, the kind that little girls dream about, with early, innocent desire.  In her mother’s story, the couple’s eyes meet across the frozen pond, they fall immediately in love, he gets down on one knee and proposes.  


And as he does, the snow falls as a blessing; 
the pair marries.  

“I don’t quite believe it,” Pauline tells Frannie, of this story.  
And Frannie responds, not quite believing it either, but still saying, “‘That was my mother’s story, the way she always told it.’” The reality, both women know, does not match.  Whatever the initial romance, there was no happily ever after. “He killed her,” says Frannie.  “When he left, she couldn’t understand.”  And so while Frannie’s father found other wives and other lovers—among them--Pauline’s mother, Frannie’s mother remained in a death-like stasis, her dream turned to nightmare confusion, her romance violently extinguished by her lover.  
 

So Frannie and Pauline are not blind to the death of romantic dreams, but they still want that romance; they still want the fairy tale ending.  Pauline gives Frannie a courtship bracelet, an old-fashioned sort of thing a young girl might wear: the bracelet’s individual bangle charms - a heart, a church, a baby carriage with a baby that tumbles in and out - representing that Doris Day dream for the two women.  
  
There is both irony and longing as Pauline fastens the bracelet on Frannie’s wrist - the music of sex in the strip club pounds below Pauline's apartment and the desire for romance and home pounds in the two women, simultaneously.

Frannie and Pauline’s desire for romance and relationship, of course, is not divorced from sex, and Campion’s portrayal of the women’s sexual desire is frank, unabashed, raw.  Both women, however, cannot seem to distinguish between sexual violence and sexual love, between sex and violence – particularly because in the dominant attitudes of the men around them, sex and violence are treated as two halves of the same thing; as Frannie observes of her student’s street slang, the words and phrases are “either sexual or violent.”  


In the male-female interactions in the film, indeed, sex and violence often seem indistinguishable; sensuousness might turn quickly to violence or violence might turn into sexual passion.  Throughout the film, a former lover of Frannie’s (Kevin Bacon) after having been rejected by Frannie, dogs her steps, his unwashed presence and intense gaze constantly invading and unsettling, disrupting.  He is the lover turned to stalker, capable, we must suspect, of violence. 

Red is the repeated, constant theme throughout the movie, too, a non-specific visual text, but nonetheless evoking both the violence of blood and the hotness of desire - and the blurring of the boundary between the two.  Red is present everywhere, even in the ordinary, the mundane:
The red, we must note, however, runs as an undercurrent and plays into the more explicitly specific thematic content without calling flamboyant attention to itself.

Indeed, the interactions between the characters are so compelling, so much themselves speaking to Campion’s themes, that the red never intrudes even though it pervades.  In another scene, which plays on the theme of violence and sex –a scene notably reminiscent of the classic scene in In a Lonely Place, when Humphrey Bogart savoringly describes how a man might slowly strangle his lover with an embrace of the arm –Frannie and the police detective, Giovanni Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), who becomes her lover, turn a role play of violence into sensuality.  Frannie, who, previously, was attacked by a mugger on the street, her attacker’s arm grasping from behind her and around her neck, allows Malloy to attempt to jog her memory of her attacker: Malloy, behind her, grips first one arm, then the other, around her neck. 
 “Like this?” he asks softly, and the stranglehold turns smoothly to love-making, a striking, visual shift from violence to sex.

It is in the relationship between Frannie and Malloy that the boundaries between sex and violence become most blurred and confused for Frannie, and it is this relationship, too, that becomes the crux of Frannie’s desires, both her grown up sexual desire and her inherited girlhood desire for the Doris Day tale of romance and marriage.  Frannie is drawn to Malloy, aroused by him, from the very first, but the relationship between them is unsettled from the first, too.  Frannie encounters him initially, she believes, in the shadowy corner of a café basement; she gazes at him, riveted and unseen, as he enjoys favors from the woman between his legs.  


She next sees him, his full face this time, in her apartment, where he’s come to question the apartment residents about one of the murders.  


She recognizes the tattoo on his wrist as same as the man’s from the café.  Ruffalo, as Malloy, exudes a quiet, unreadable charisma, and we cannot tell if we should be repulsed by him or as attracted to him as Frannie is.  In Malloy, Frannie sees both the kind of male dangerousness that she knows has hurt her mother, her sister, and herself, and she is nonetheless – or all the moreso - drawn to him.

Frannie’s next interactions with Malloy, particularly because they include his partner, Detective Ritchie Rodriguez, highlight even more the dangerous maleness, particularly in the way that they flaunt their exclusion of Frannie and her specifically female presence.  The detectives, because they are police detectives, have already a kind of power, volition, and authority, and an exclusive partnership and job-related banter that shuts Frannie out, shuts her up.  Frannie is put behind them in the backseat of their police car, where she cannot open the doors for herself to get out; she is, as such, immediately degraded in class, infantilized, diminished.

A diminishment we see she feels, and we feel the men accept as their due.  


The fact that the men are armed further highlights their position and power over Frannie; that Rodriguez carries only a water gun, having been demoted for attacking his wife with his gun, only highlights the male power of the scene.  Rodriguez playfully interrupts a conversation between Malloy and Frannie, once Frannie is out of the car and on the street again, by squirting water at them, effectively underscoring both his prior and more important relationship with Malloy and his male power.

Frannie’s relationship with Malloy becomes still more confusing, and with her, we continue to be drawn to Malloy and, increasingly, to fear him.  His presence and his gaze here, for example, reflected back to us as having that same stalking threat of the other men in her life:


Campion, though, subverts the typical thriller arc, where the tension is steadily tightened, and gives us, instead, scenes in which we are not sure if we should be calm or fearful.  In one scene, Malloy drives Frannie out to an isolated wooded area, casually mowing down a red stop sign when he pulls off the main road, 
and at this point, Frannie already suspects Malloy as a killer, and yet she will not make a decisively distrustful move since he has also become her lover; she submits to him, letting him drive her where he wills.  


The setting itself is full of confusing indicators, a deer gracefully leaps across the road in front of their car, 
and the green light of the trees filters down on everything – and yet the pool by the wood is littered with black bags of garbage.  When Malloy pulls out his gun, neither Frannie nor we can predict what he’s about to do with it, and when he teaches her to shoot  – “You need to learn how to handle a gun,” he says, in double entendre – instead of shooting her, the question of his intentions towards Frannie only continue to be muddled.  Is he her killer or her lover?  Both?

The film plays again and again on this confusion between violence and sex, and as the details of the serial murders become clearer, the confusion intensifies.  Each of the disarticulated women has a diamond engagement ring on her hand, a gift and a signature of the killer, a killer who asks a woman to marry him before he kills her.  


When Frannie eventually finds herself in the presence of the man who will kill certainly her, the scenes play like a distorted romance, like a vivid, fully nightmarish version of the story of Frannie’s mother and father where this time, her father slices through her mother and leaves her on the cold ice, her new engagement ring still on her hand.

The killer takes Frannie to a red lighthouse, 
a graphic symbol of violence and sex and, in its reference to Virginia Woolf’s Lighthouse, a more subtle symbol of Frannie’s psychological confusion.  In the end of Woolf’s book, the adult characters return to the lighthouse, a kind of attempt at reconciliation between their childhood memories and their adult selves.  At the film’s lighthouse, Frannie must face her mother’s inheritance, her girlhood dreams, her desires, her confusion, her lack of volition, her voicelessness.   The lighthouse becomes the place where she must make or unmake her own story, where she will either emerge an articulate woman or a disarticulated one. 

Campion, beautifully, denies us the thrills of conventional catharsis though, and we are left with an image, an ambiguous image, of Frannie, under the shadow of the lighthouse, bathed in blood, the killer lying on top of her in the attitude of sex.
In that image, we cannot be quite sure what has been resolved for Frannie or for us.  


She is not disarticulated, to be sure, however, and in those final moments of the film, Campion gives us a character who, in some sense at least, steps from the path she’s been following, that passive path of inheritance from her mother, the path of succumbing to the death of the self at the hand of a lover.  The delineation between sex and violence is, perhaps, not fully marked out, but Frannie does become a volitional being in those final scenes, one who refuses, finally, to be led and controlled, one who refuses to sit in the back of the police car, as it were.  She becomes the one who handcuffs Malloy - while he protests that he “feels like a chick.”

Jane Campion is a filmmaker who defies any tidy pigeon-holing into a particular genre.  I believe the defiance stems from her place as one of our true artists, an auteur, if you will accept the term, and it is likely the attempt to fit this film into the thriller genre that has left it so underrated.  While it employs some plot points that fit into that genre, it isn’t a thriller, and seeing it as such will cause the viewer to miss those questions and ideas that Campion is most interested in exploring, exploring so deftly with her camera in this story.  


No, this film is a not a thriller.  It is an exploration of the conflation of sex and violence, where women--still clinging to the stories and myths of their girlhood dreams, the inheritance of their mothers--are relegated to the place of second class citizen, only so many bitches to be gazed at, dismembered, and discarded, in a masculine world.


This is also the portrait of a particular woman, with her complex, raw desires, and conflicted dreams, and as such, it is the kind of female portrait in which Campion excels, giving us again --as she also gave us in Sweetie, Angel at my Table, The Piano, Holy Smoke, and Bright Star --a woman who defies conventional Hollywood categories.  She gives us another story - this one involving a serial murder - from that unusual perspective: a woman’s. 


She also gives us, less blatantly, a story of the world of a grimy New York, where the 9/11 tributes, the repeated images of the American flag,
 remind us of the destruction and violence that might explode in our midst at any moment.  It is tempting, in fact, to consider the parallels between this film and the post-Vietnam vision of New York in Taxi Driver, since both films are interested in what’s crawling beneath the surface of that big American city, a city so ready to erupt into violence or succumb to violence. 

Dorothy Allison, who wrote Bastard out of Carolina, the semi-autobiographical story of an abused girl, relates in her essay “This Is Our World” that a friend once said to her, “'You write such mean stories . . . Raped girls, brutal fathers, faithless mothers, and untrustworthy lovers – meaner than the world really is, don’t you think?’”  And Allison, reflecting on this question, responds to us, her readers,

Meaner than the world really is? No. I thought about showing her the box under my desk where I keep my clippings. Newspaper stories and black and white images – the woman who drowned her children, the man who shot first the babies in her arms and then his wife, the teenage boys who led the three-year old away along the train track, the homeless family recovering from frostbite with their eyes glazed and indifferent while the doctor scowled over their shoulders. The world is meaner than we admit . . . for everyone who will tell us [artists] our work is mean or fearful or unreal, there is another who will embrace us and say with tears in their eyes how wonderful it is to finally feel as if someone else has seen their truth and shown it in some part as it should be known. ‘My story,’ they say. ‘You told my story. That is me, mine, us.’”  

Jane Campion’s In the Cut shows us a mean world, one perhaps that we’d like not to see; we might prefer the world of the cheery Doris Day or the lovable Meg Ryan.  Those worlds, those women are much more comfortable, easier to understand, easier to live with.  Or perhaps, if we’re to have garish red blood in our movies, we’d like the movies to be more satisfying thrillers where evil is evil and the protagonist is threatened but not confused.  Or perhaps we’d like our blood to come with the splashes of a genre horror film, where the scares are jump scares and the blood sizzlingly horrifying rather than sickening and lingering.  But like Dorothy Allison, Campion is not interested in showing a comfortable, easy world with tidy definitions and traditional perspectives.  


She gives to us something much more pungent, a story to which we can more honestly say, as uncomfortable as it might be, “That is me, mine, us.”