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Thursday, November 14, 2019

Beyond the Canon: In the Cut + Klute

It is no secret that the cinema canon has historically skewed toward lionizing the white, male auteur. Beyond the Canon is a monthly series that seeks to question that history and broaden horizons by pairing one much-loved, highly regarded, canonized classic with a thematically or stylistically-related—and equally brilliant—work by a filmmaker traditionally excluded from that discussion. This month’s double feature pairs Jane Campion’s In the Cut (2003) with Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1971).

By Caden Mark Gardner

At the 70th Cannes Film Festival in 2017, directors of past Palme d’Or winners were invited back to celebrate the Festival’s history. At the center of one photo for this occasion was Jane Campion surrounded by an overwhelmingly male swath of contemporaries—a damning visual of the festival’s historic gender inequality. Sharing the top prize for The Piano in 1993 with Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine), Campion remains the only female director to win the award. The Piano went on to achieve world cinema renown, winning three Oscars, and reaping $140 million in global box office. That type of success is seldom replicated. Since The Piano, Campion’s works have been predominantly female-focused and specifically concerned with portraying femininity in relation to toxic masculinity and patriarchy, an impulse most recently realized in her limited run series Top of the Lake (2013—17).

None of Campion’s post-Piano works, however, have been as polarizing as her dark and disturbing adaptation of Susanna Moore’s bestselling novel, In the Cut (2003). The film stars Meg Ryan as Frannie Avery, a college English professor who becomes dangerously entangled with a detective investigating a series of murders in her Manhattan neighborhood. Moore’s novel, first published in 1995, emerged at a time when erotic thriller films were produced and consumed at rapid volume—think Basic Instinct, Body of Evidence, and Disclosure. But Campion chose to set her adaptation in a contemporary, post-9/11 NYC, and in the process offered a critique of that once-prolific genre. It is a “revisionist erotic thriller,” much in the tradition of the grittier 70s Westerns that offered stark spins on their earlier, more gung-ho cousins.

Meg Ryan and Jennifer Jason Leigh in In the Cut (2003) 
In the Cut was largely met with critical revulsion, despite the intriguing, heavily promoted appeal of an against-type Meg Ryan subverting her “good girl” persona. A (mostly male) critical body seemed disappointed in the film’s insistence on notes of reflexivity and ambiguity within and alongside moments of female pleasure. The snarky tenor of some negative reviews—“So we have to watch Ryan, author of the most famous fake orgasm in cinema history groaning and moaning once again,” sneered The Guardian—suggested that many critics were simply not ready to engage in good faith with a female director explicitly probing the subject of female pleasure and unabashedly investigating the effects of being desired upon a woman’s psyche.

As opposed to the critical vitriol In the Cut received, Alan J. Pakula’s Klute was met with instant recognition, going on to win Jane Fonda her first Oscar for her leading role as sex worker Bree Daniels. Like Ryan’s Frannie, Bree becomes involved both professionally and intimately with a detective (Donald Sutherland) who is investigating the serial murders of sex workers. Fonda’s Bree is equal parts jaded and vulnerable, aware of how she is perceived as a sex worker while also feeling caught, unable to stop turning tricks despite the numbing effect of the work. As an alternative, she tries to get work as a model and actress, but the oppressive male gaze cannot be escaped. In one scene Bree is shown sitting in a long line of equally beautiful models positioned as objects of desire for the men in charge who loom over the seated, silent women.

Jane Fonda in Klute (1971) 

In contrast to Bree’s life as a sex worker, In the Cut’s Frannie is a college professor, a supposedly maternal and nurturing occupation, but she is nevertheless a sexual being and an object of desire. Whatever Bree and Frannie do, there is an undercurrent of voyeurism and judgment. Obsession and desire in the crosshairs of the male gaze and a pervasive feeling of unease permeate both films as the female characters are hunted by an unknown killer.

In Klute, the authorities only become concerned with the murders of sex workers when the murders are connected to the disappearance of a rich businessman. In the world of the film it is an accepted banality that women simply vanish, resurfacing as dead bodies. In In the Cut Campion reveals society’s deeper disregard for the female body by having Frannie discover a limb in her garden; women are not even left as corpses, merely disembodied parts.

While Klute has reached an expansive audience, In the Cut warrants another look from moviegoers. It functions as a fascinating and arguably necessary corrective to the erotic thriller genre. Once seen, it grabs hold of you and proves difficult to shake off.

Join us for Beyond the Canon on Sun, Nov 24 at 2pm.

Caden Mark Gardner is a freelance film critic and writer from Schenectady, New York. His bylines include MUBI Notebook, Reverse Shot, and Los Angeles Review of Books.

In the Cut courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics/Photofest
Klute courtesy of Warner Bros./Photofest
© 2019 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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