Making the cut

Jane Campion has made an incredibly sexy movie, and she knows it. In the Cut, a hot noir romance based on the bestselling thriller by Susanna Moore, has provided the Academy Award-winning director with a canvas across which to explore and explode an astonishing control of sexual tension. The result is a lush, erotic masterpiece that has already been welcomed as her finest work since The Piano.

From her earliest student shorts, repressed sexual desire has been a consistent undercurrent in the New Zealander’s work.
The development of Harvey Keitel’s sexual obsession with Holly Hunter in The Piano, culminating in the scene where he strokes her skin through a hole in her stocking, is exemplary of her feel for the underside of passion. In the Cut takes it to another level.

In an unexpected sleight of casting, Meg Ryan has been given the role of Frannie Avery, a tough-talking New York writing professor who soothes her disappointment at the romantic fantasy she has failed to attain with her more manageable love of words and poetry. When a young woman is murdered in her neighbourhood, she becomes embroiled with the investigating officer, Malloy, played by Mark Ruffalo.

Although Campion loved the book when she read it, she says that she didn’t consider turning it into a film until chatting with her friend Nicole Kidman. (Kidman was originally slated to play Frannie, and retains a production credit.) “Because I was at that stage in my life feeling very ‘Buddhist’” — she laughs noisily — “and couldn’t imagine ‘doing’ this material” — she gathers up her long ash hair in her hands — “and I also thought it was very frightening.” She sighs.

Despite a respectable number of “dis-articulated” (as Malloy has it) corpses, Campion is too sophisticated a filmmaker to trowel on the horror. “I’m not into serial-killer type movies per se,” she insists. “The word mystery is really important to me but I really loathe being scared every five minutes for no reason whatsoever, and in the end it’s the janitor you’d never met. I liked this because it was more of a character study.”

She was also influenced by her early conversations with Moore, who guided her to the romance at the heart of the thriller. As well as her emerging relationship with Malloy, Frannie enjoys a peculiarly sensual intimacy with her half-sister Pauline, with whom she trades clothes and secrets, and with whom she lolls, skin to skin. Pauline is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who shows off a deliciously sticky-out tummy.

“Don’t you just love it?” Campion squeals. “That girl is so sexy. God! It was a delight to get to know Jennifer Jason Leigh. She’s sweet and really stern. And she loves herself and her body — and her tummy.”

Campion, too, is a pretty sexy dame. At 49, she is, she says, “a big advocate of all things female”. “I love women and I love being a woman, and I think it gets even better as you get older. I don’t think you know what you are when you’re younger. Getting older, I do know why it’s unique, why men love it, and I’m friends with that quality. I’m not objectified in that cute-sex-thing way any more so I can participate more equally.

“One of the sad things is people clinging on to their physical youth, which means you don’t get to that prime-of-life thing. At 21, you’re most objectified, most confused and unaware, but most desirable to men because you’re pretty and naive, and that’s the most harm that is done to you.”

The best thing in life, she says, is to feel in yourself and free. Perhaps it was this attitude that enabled 42-year-old Meg Ryan to deliver the performance of her career as Frannie. Campion admits that she hadn’t considered Ryan as a possibility to work with until a colleague put them in touch.

“I never really thought about Meg before. She seemed to be in a completely parallel universe to me, but I was intrigued by her. When she was having a relationship with Russell [Crowe] and I knew she was in Sydney I would have loved to have said, ‘Hey, Meg! Come and meet some mates! Let’s go and get some coffee!’ But you just never had access.”

So Campion was shocked when Ryan’s acting coach, whom she knew through Keitel, called her up proclaiming her a great dramatic performer and insisting that the director should see her. At the time Kidman was still cast in the film, but the pair did meet. Then, when Kidman pulled out for personal reasons, Campion decided she wanted a slightly older actress to distract from her original collaborator’s absence.

“And that makes the story even more poignant because they haven’t had their baby yet and the chances are getting more and more limited.”

Ryan auditioned. “And she was great. It was pretty easy to see immediately what sort of person she was. ‘Here I am, this is me, ask me anything and I’ll try.’ She was brave and available, which is really hard to do. Both Mark [Ruffalo] and I were impressed.”

Campion relishes research, and the bizarre sidestreets it can lead you into. She talks excitedly about having a “real crime scene guy” talking them through exactly how he would handle a washing machine full of body parts, and whoops delightedly over the fact that Moore wound up having a relationship with one of the detectives she was shadowing for background.

Campion even hired a gigolo to help her choreograph the sex scenes, “but we couldn’t afford his services”. It sounds as if she found her own frisson with the detectives she was hanging out with, however. “There was one in particular — he was always trying to find your limit, you know?” He found it in a lapdancing club when he suggested that Campion herself should be lapdanced. She hoots at the recollection.

‘My view on eroticism and sexuality is that it’s all about focus, that anything you pay attention to has erotic value to it. That’s my entire theory — attention, hyper-focus, creates tension.” But In the Cut is a long way from the hole in Hunter’s stocking. “It’s very different — the sexuality is generated by the man and he has a focus on the female. It’s clear that he’s made it his business to know how to love a woman sexually. I like it because the woman is not in control.”

This power differential is made explicit on the couple’s first date, when Malloy lays out a frank sexual menu, telling Frannie that the only thing he won’t do is beat her up.

“That scene in the bar where he says, ‘There’s hardly anything I haven’t done. How do you want it?’ — basically saying all the games, the rituals, that’s all they are. ‘... Do you want to be wined and dined, do you want me to lick your pussy?’ It’s exactly that kind of thing Frannie wants to hear, but at the time it’s too much. I think she likes it, but it’s shocking.”

Campion’s protagonists inhabit dusty orange streets by day and ruby-lit rooms by night. It all tastes very strongly of woman, as does all her work. Campion never plays safe. She’s constantly refining her aesthetic vision, and consequently her movies — Sweetie, An Angel at My Table, The Piano, Holy Smoke — seem stylistically very different. But on some level they all play with the juxtaposition of the domestic and the Gothic.

After the bluster of accolades that followed The Piano, her adaptation of the Henry James novel Portrait of a Lady, starring Kidman, was not a critical success. While her subsequent collaboration with her elder sister Anna, Holy Smoke, got a mixed reception. She admits that she was disappointed, particularly by Portrait of a Lady.

“I was sad. I thought about whether there were ways I could have improved the film to make it work better for people. Given that it was a different medium, I should have been more aggressive about changing things around. I hadn’t done a thorough enough adaptation — which changed the way I approached In the Cut. I was much more willing to take feedback.”

Campion’s singular vision is often described in terms of her woman’s sensibility. “I’m not really sure what they mean by that,” she says. “It would be interesting to work out if there is such a thing. I think we’re talking about sensitivity in general and I don’t think that is the territory only of women. But I’m sure gender is a part of that.”

Her work, though, remains strikingly female, although this is perhaps only the case because the typical cinemagoer is still so saturated in the male perspective.

Why is it still so hard for women to get behind the camera? “I don’t think it is so hard for women,” she interjects, “if they’re given the chance. I’ve been working for a long time now and I can see what’s going on. Nothing has changed very much since when I began. I used to feel a lot more feisty about all that. Now I think it’s just the world. It’s not my job to fight these things.

“Look ... it feels so aggressive and competitive, actually pretty frightening, and it’s an environment that I don’t think women on the whole are that ...” She trails off and ruffles with annoyance. “I feel like I’m speaking bullshit here, but there are practical reasons, too, that if a woman wants to have a family that’s very difficult because the nature of the job is pure commitment, 15-hour days, and I don’t know if there’s any way around it.”

Campion has a husband and a daughter, Alice. She shows me a photograph. “She looks like Anna Paquin when we were doing The Piano.” Alice is a very different person from her mother, she says, and together they strike a good balance. Her first child, Jasper, died at only 12 days old, shortly after Campion won the Cannes Palme d’Or for The Piano. She rarely talks about it — in 1997 she told the Christian Science Monitor that the period was “the most dire chapter of my life ... The success of The Piano escaped me completely.”

She thinks you have to be driven to achieve Hollywood-style success. She says that, for her, it has always been more about finding the best way to be. Perhaps that explains the risks she takes and the boldness of vision and gesture that sets her apart.

“I think I found so much freedom in the work that it was irresistible. It was the best way of living I knew —better than normal life, because in normal life I was more hidden. I felt that I could express my strangest, my weirdest, most extreme sides. So I can understand why I did it. I think I would have suffered from not doing it, and I don’t think I’m the only woman to feel that.

“But now I feel, ‘Dammit, I can feel free any old where.’ I still love doing it. It’s a great way to live because now I’m relaxed with it.” — Â

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