In the Cut: Subverting Visual Pleasure

By Jason Haggstrom, October 5, 2011

In the Cut posterJane Campion’s In the Cut is a film designed explicitly as an example of feminist filmmaking. The film might be classified as a thriller or even a slasher film, but viewing the film with such genre expectations would only lead to dissatisfaction. In terms of plot, In the Cut is a film about a serial killer. But the film dodges narrative convention at every turn in order to present something entirely different. There are no clues to drive the audience towards a suspect; to guess at his identity would be arbitrary and beside the point of the film. In fact, the serial killer plot is relegated to the background. To view the film in terms of its plot and the conventions of the thriller genre can only lead to frustration as the film does not work through such a reading. Instead, if we are to connect with the film, In the Cut must be read as a study of the psychoanalytic theory of cinema presented by Laura Mulvey in her landmark essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” I have no intention here of providing a value judgment on Mulvey’s theories. Instead, my aim is to illustrate how director Jane Campion integrated Mulvey’s theories into her film, and then subverted them in order to strike another blow against “the monolithic accumulation of traditional film conventions” that Mulvey was so interested in breaking down. Director Jane Campion uses the language of cinema and the machinations of plot to render the film around the subjectivity of a woman, to challenge the myth of romantic love and the “cult of the female star,” and to establish a world where the male gaze is presented not as a pleasurable vantage point for the audience but a viewpoint to be feared.

Spoilers Ahead:

  • Killer’s identity

Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” looks at cinema through the lens of psychoanalytic theory and posits that it is a medium that is uniquely structured through the patriarchy to “portray a hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic phantasy.” The fantasy she speaks of is specific to the voyeuristic desires of men and their visual pleasure in looking at the objectified images of women. As Mulvey states, “In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” In short, Mulvey’s theory describes cinema as providing two forms of voyeuristic, visual pleasure: that of the audience as “invisible guest” where the look of the spectator is “in direct scopophilic contact with the female form displayed for his enjoyment” and the idea of the spectator viewing the male lead as screen surrogate which gives the spectator “control and possession of the woman within the diegesis.” But In the Cut subverts these concepts of voyeurism and male pleasure by structuring itself around the perception of a woman, by giving representation to her sexual pleasure, and by recasting the male gaze as threatening rather than comforting.

Campion’s film immediately instructs us through shots in its title sequence that that we should not view it with an eye toward “visual pleasure.” This world is not pretty. Trash wanders filthy streets. Portions of the image come into and out of focus. Then, the film cuts between the waking viewpoint of the film’s protagonist, Frannie, and that of her half-sister, Pauline, who wanders in shots designed to indicate that the film will center its look through the eyes of its women (the shots of Pauline’s feet are unsteady like those of a newborn animal taking its first steps). Within the shots of Frannie waking in her bed is a pan over to the empty space where a husband or boyfriend (if she had one) would be laying which further conveys the absence of male perspective within the film’s narrative. But the male gaze isn’t simply non-existent within the context of In the Cut; it is shown as a threat to the film’s women and to their control of “the look.”

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Through its female-driven perspective, In the Cut portrays a world where the presence of men is always threatening. We are made to ego identify with Frannie and Pauline and it is through this identification with the film’s women that we find the male gaze to be a threat which in turn voids it of the “satisfying sense of omnipotence” that Mulvey describes. As Pauline wanders, watching the “petal storm” in the film’s opening, a man performs tai chi in the background; his smooth, unfettered movements are tranquil in their grace, but become unsettling when he directs them (and his eyes) towards Pauline. The threat to the film’s women from the male gaze presents itself again early in the film as Frannie and Pauline walk through the city. As the two women walk down the street, the film cuts to a shot from within a restaurant that they are passing. A man in the foreground notices them and leaves the restaurant in pursuit (he carries a bicycle seat that appears like a hammer, recalling Frannie’s line, “He penetrated her Virginia with a hammer,” just moments before). The threat to their safety is further implied when the camera takes its place over the man’s shoulder as he follows the women. The women are deep in the frame and out of focus, sharpening the suspense over the fact that he is stalking them. When the man is later introduced as Frannie’s most recent lover, John Graham, Pauline tells Frannie, “Don’t look out there, because he’s watching you.” We also perceive this threat to the women in Pauline’s remark that Frannie’s student, Cornelius, “looks like he wants to eat [Frannie]” (reconfiguring the female as an object for literal consumption).

Mulvey notes that women have traditionally functioned “as erotic object for the characters within the screen story.” But In the Cut subverts this by making the dominant perspective—the gaze—be from Frannie, by focusing on her sexual pleasure, and by making Malloy a sexual object to provide her with that pleasure. As described, the refocusing of “the look” through the eyes of the film’s women is established from the very first images of the film. But the focus on female sexual pleasure, and therefore the undermining of male “visual pleasure,” occurs soon after, beginning with the sequence where Frannie observes a sex act in the basement of the Red Turtle Bar. In the scene, Frannie stumbles upon a woman performing oral sex on a male figure whose face is hidden behind shadows. Mulvey argues that it is the image of woman that is objectified and “displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men,” but here we see the opposite. It is the man who is objectified visually with his penis shown in close-up and Frannie taking pleasure in looking. We know this to be her gaze because of the prior shots in the bar—those of Frannie’s point-of-view as she observed the other patrons—and because of Campion’s explicit choice to show the recipient of the blow job (later revealed to be the film’s killer, Rodriguez) as not receiving pleasure from it. Instead, it is Frannie who is satisfied. Her arousal, and the fact that we are meant to ego identify with her in experiencing it, is concretized later in the film when Frannie masturbates while fantasizing about this moment and imagining Malloy watching her pleasure herself.

In terms of plot, Detective Malloy exists to further the investigation of the film’s serial killer, but it is a plot that the film scarcely cares about. Instead, the focus of the film is clearly centered around representing Frannie’s perspective and in breaking down the cinematic codes of the patriarchy that Mulvey has described. Instead of male pleasure in gazing at a female on the screen, we are given Frannie’s sexual pleasure. Frannie’s inner desires for Malloy become externalized through her caressing of his business card over her body, and then culminating into the more direct form of pleasure as she masturbates while fantasizing about him. This objectification of Malloy then extends into actuality when he reveals his own willingness to become an object for her pleasure. He tells her, “I can be whatever you want me to be. You want me to romance you, take you to a classy restaurant, no problem. You want me to be your best friend and fuck you treat you good, lick your pussy no problem. Ain’t much I haven’t done. The only thing I won’t do is beat you up.” It’s a direct response to Pauline’s earlier complaint that “I can remember every guy I ever fucked by how he liked to do it, not how I wanted to do it.” When he and Frannie do have sex, the focus is on her sexual pleasure. Note the camera placement looking down at Malloy’s face between her legs from her vantage point, the shot of him behind her as though she were looking over her should at him, and the numerous close-ups of Frannie’s face that reveal her as the primary recipient of pleasure. Malloy is simply the sexual object providing her with what she wants. But Mulvey also describes the “deeper problem” in that woman, “also connotes something that the look continually circles around but disavows: her lack of a penis, implying a threat of castration and hence unpleasure.” She goes on to say that,

Ultimately, the meaning of woman is sexual difference, the absence of the penis as visually ascertainable, the material evidence on which is based the castration complex essential for the organisation of entrance to the symbolic order and the law of the father. Thus the woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified.

Campion addresses this threat by not only reversing the roles to have Malloy be the sexual icon, but by making him unafraid of castration.

Mulvey states that one of the methods for the male unconscious to escape castration anxiety is the “preoccupation with the re-enactment of the original trauma (investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery), counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment or saving of the guilty object.” It is telling then that Malloy learned the art of cunalingus from an older woman when he was young. Having already “investigated the woman, demystifying her mystery,” Malloy feels no threat and no unpleasure at the sight/site of female genitalia. Further proof of his lack of anxiety comes from the way he handles the phallic symbol that is his gun. In his first sexual encounter with Frannie, Campion makes distinct a cut to a shot of Malloy’s hand as he places his gun on her dresser, disarming himself both literally and in terms of a need for sexual dominance. It’s a form of self-castration, and he does it willingly. Much as the “chicken lady” taught Malloy about the clitoris, the vagina, and how to induce female pleasure, Malloy eventually teaches Frannie how to fire his gun or, in psychoanalytic terms, how to handle the phallus. It is this lesson in weaponry that will allow her to save herself from the killer—the film’s true castrated man whose actions have continually threatened to seize control of the film’s meaning—at the film’s climax.

Mulvey also describes a second method for the male unconscious to escape castration anxiety: fetishistic scopophilia, which she defines as “complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous (hence over-valuation, the cult of the female star).” Campion works to obscure the physical beauty of her female stars, to abate the visual pleasure that the audience would obtain through looking at them, and thereby subvert this “cult of the female star” described by Mulvey. Meg Ryan (as Frannie) and Jennifer Jason Leigh (as Pauline)—two scintillatingly beautiful women—are transformed through (primarily) costuming and lighting into unglamorous, dolled down figures. But the method of the film’s killer, his “disarticulation” of women, continually threatens to re-fetishize them.

The film’s killer, revealed as Detective Rodriguez, is the film’s ultimate symbol of castration anxiety. Rodriguez has not only been stripped of his gun (a phallic symbol, as it is with Malloy), but has been emasculated through the slang title of “house mouse.” Rodriguez’s modus operandi as the film’s serial killer involves not only murdering women, but cutting them into pieces and keeping segments for trophies in what amounts to his attempts to fetishize women and escape castration (which, in his case, has moved beyond castration threat). In her section on director Josef von Sternberg, Mulvey describes his films as producing “the ultimate fetish” where woman (especially in the star of, Marlene Dietrich) is “a perfect product, whose body, stylised and fragmented by close-ups, is the content of the film and the direct recipient of the spectator’s look.” In another passage, Mulvey writes that,

conventional close-ups of legs (Dietrich, for instance) or a face (Garbo) integrate into the narrative a different mode of eroticism. One part of a fragmented body destroys the Renaissance space, the illusion of depth demanded by the narrative, it gives flatness, the quality of a cut-out or icon rather than verisimilitude to the screen.

As we see in these statements, fetishistic scopophilia is about how the image on screen is viewed and fetishized by the audience. Campion uses her film to comment on this concept by not just having the killer dismember (“disarticulate”) and fetishize the body parts of his victims, but by the way she presents these bodily fragments within the context of the narrative. The killer has relocated the “bleeding wound”—Mulvey’s descriptor that ties menstruation to female castration—to other parts of the body as the ultimate method for escaping his anxiety over castration. He is Campion’s perverse metaphor for the audience who desires a fetish object on screen but has been denied through the film’s subversion of the male gaze. Campion places these fetishized body parts further into the context of the cinema screen by the way she shows them within the context of the film. The disarticulated head of Angela Sands is shown through the still framing of photographs while the disarticulated arm of the unnamed med student is portrayed through the black and white viewfinder of a camcorder (a male voice located off-screen repeatedly asks the cameraman to shoot a close-up). These portrayals of bodily fragmentations destroy the “illusion of depth demanded by the narrative” and become metacinematic in the way that they visually represent the fetish objects as being captured through photography. But for the actual audience watching the film, these fetishistic cut-outs of the body by way of dismemberment can only reap unpleasure. Through these methods, In the Cut subverts the enjoyment of the fetishized woman, making the “fragmented body” of its narrative an antithesis to the “erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium.”

Campion’s film also recognizes some of the more finite details of “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” especially the way in which Mulvey describes the “language of the patriarchy” and the “linguistic command” that it uses to define how women are represented in society. In the Cut integrates this concept of language by way of Frannie’s interest and exploration of slang which has little to do with the film’s plot, but has everything to do with connecting the film back to Mulvey’s essay. The film’s language is immediately tied to Mulvey’s “language of the patriarchy” through both dialog and elements of mise-en-scène. The film’s first scene includes the definition of the slang word “Virginia” as meaning “vagina.” Frannie further defines the slang through the male-located example, “He penetrated her Virginia with a hammer.” It’s just one example of how the language is not only patriarchal in nature but always being, as Frannie defines it, “either sexual or violent.” Furthermore, Frannie gathers the slang directly from men within the film and through her exploration and contemplation of the poetry (also created by men) that she sees on posters in the subway (“…under a thicket of kisses,” “…for I had wandered off from the straight path,” “…it’s here in the circle”). In using the terminology of Mulvey, we might say that Frannie is investigating the language of the patriarchy in order to demystify its mystery. It is clearly significant, then, that Malloy uses the term “disarticulate” instead of “dismember” to describe the way the serial killer of the film treats his female victims. Where the “member” of “dismember” would have the secondary meaning of “removing the penis” (which is already removed from the woman in psychoanalytic theory) the “articulate” of “disarticulate” would link to the idea of the removal of voice and, therefore, of any “linguistic command” that the women threatened to possess. We also find details of patriarchal language in the film’s mise-en-scène such as the magnet poetry on Frannie’s door where the words “size” and “power” are all that appear in focus (and only when Detective Malloy appears in the doorway). An example that ties even more directly to Mulvey’s essay is the appearance of the incredibly large wreath of funeral flowers (being carried by two men) with the word “MOM” interwoven into its design. In describing the function of woman in forming the patriarchal unconscious (through raising her children into the symbolic), Mulvey notes that the meaning of woman “does not last into the world of law and language except as a memory which oscillates between memory of maternal plenitude and memory of lack.” In the Cut literalizes this concept through this simple image that implies that “MOM” is the only identity for maternal woman after death. In a later subway trip, Frannie will observe a woman in full bridal attire which contributes the identity of bride/wife to the possible (and limited) identities for women in society. Unlike Pauline who remarked, “I want to get married once,” Frannie shows no interest in occupying the patriarchally sanctioned roles of wife or mother.

Special attention should also be paid to the film’s music and the way Campion draws metaconnections to tie the film back to “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The film’s opening song, “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be),” not only defines a woman’s life in passive terms, but connects the film back to the song’s origin in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and thereby insists upon a metaconnection back to Mulvey’s assessment of him as a director who “take[s] the look almost as the content or subject matter of many of [his] films” and who “has never concealed his interest in voyeurism, cinematic and non-cinematic” (as does the blow job scene with its cigarette in the dark, a visual reference back to a similar shot in Hitchock’s thriller about voyeurism, Rear Window). We also find feminine passivity in the lyric “I don’t want to wait in vain for your love” which was originally written and sung by Bob Marley, but has been redefined here by it being presented as the voice of Annie Lennox, the woman who once sang the feminist anthem, “Sisters Are Doin’ it For Themselves.” The film’s finale where Frannie is confronted by the killer occurs over a soundtrack of Dusty Springfield’s “The Look of Love” which not only ties into to the film’s interest in deconstructing the myth of romantic love (especially in the way romance has been mythologized by the cinema), but into the concept of “the look” that Mulvey’s essay is so focused upon.

A nescient or simplistic reading of the film might bring into question why the serial killer plot is relegated to the background and why the ultimate reveal of the killer’s identity is presented so arbitrarily, almost as an afterthought. Reading the film through the lens of “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” instead of through genre conventions shows that the plot of the serial killer exists primarily as a threat to Frannie’s control of the narrative. For the castrated man, the blow job early in the film and the phallic symbol that is the light house at the climax are attempts to return him into the symbolic through evidence that proves he does not lack. The film’s killer, then, exists in the film as representation of not only castration anxiety and fetishistic scopophilia, but as a threat to Frannie’s control over the diegesis (her controlling gaze). The male gaze is mitigated in favor of a female gaze, and male pleasure is subordinated by female pleasure. Through the female gaze, Frannie becomes the film’s “maker of meaning” and emerges victorious in defeating a killer—the film’s primary symbol of phallocentrism, fetishizing of the female, and fear of castration—who threatened to return the film to the language of the patriarchy. Laura Mulvey claims that, “Unchallenged, mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order.” But Jane Campion’s In the Cut works as a direct challenge to this patriarchal coding in mainstream cinema and as the counterpoint that Mulvey hoped would one day appear.

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