Jane Campion doesn’t actually use the word “comeback.” But the director of “In the Cut” sounds ripe for one, especially given the failure of her last two films, “The Portrait of a Lady” and “Holy Smoke.”
“Their lack of success,” she says, halting before finishing the sentence: “I felt like I really needed to take advice and listen to people more and hear what they’re saying.”
And so she did, nursing her latest project over time.
A one-time painter, the 49-year-old Campion has long won acclaim for her startling visuals, beginning with her feature film debut in 1989 with “Sweetie.”
But it was “The Piano” in 1993 that established writer-director Campion’s reputation. An account of adultery set in her native New Zealand in the 1850s, the movie won the top prize at that year’s Cannes Film Festival and went on to snag Academy Awards for actresses Holly Hunter and a then 11-year-old Anna Paquin as well as for Campion’s screenplay.
“In the Cut,” starring Meg Ryan, Mark Ruffalo and Jennifer Jason Leigh, may be Campion’s boldest, best movie since “The Piano.” But will it find the audience that deserted her over the past decade when she made “The Portrait of a Lady” and “Holy Smoke”?
“I can’t fathom George Bush’s America. I mean, you just don’t know,” says Campion, pigtails framing a face that is as bright and open as the film is intentionally clammy and dark. “The point is, you never know. I can remember an American producer-friend after ‘The Piano’ going, ‘Yeah, interesting. Gee, this won’t play in America.”’
A changed New York
What Campion does know is that she intended to make a serial killer film with a difference, using Susanna Moore’s best seller to weave a disturbing portrait of New York post-Sept. 11 (although the novel was published before the terrorist attacks).
Best known for her perky romantic comedy persona, a sad-eyed, brunette Ryan plays Frannie Avery, an English teacher who seems hollowed-out. Stumbling one evening upon an erotic encounter at a local bar, Frannie is sucked into the lethal climate of a serial killer, who may or may not be the detective assigned to the case, Ruffalo’s blue-collar Malloy.
Campion had her doubts about taking on the serial killer genre, especially since she despises examples of it such as “Kiss the Girls” (1997), no matter how great their box-office success.
Such films, she says, tucking herself into a sofa at London’s Dorchester Hotel, are “disgusting, horrible, pathetic. They have no flavor, no tone, no anything else. I mean, they have nothing to offer.”
Instead, Campion argues, “the genre works best when it is subverted and is at its most boring when it is literally followed.”
She extols films such as Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) — “the reason that film is special isn’t the story, it’s the treatment” — or defining New York movies of the 1970s such as “Klute” or “Taxi Driver,” to which “In the Cut” intends to pay a kind of homage.
Those two films, however, inhabited a Manhattan long before terrorism refashioned the city. The Sept. 11 attacks gave the landscape of “In the Cut” an inescapable texture, says Campion. Faded shrines to loved ones who were lost, as well as tattered flags, are evident throughout the movie, which was shot in lower Manhattan, not far from where the World Trade Center stood.
“I thought it was really appropriate to include the backdrop of a grieving New York, because in a way our story is a story of grief — grief for your life, for a disappointed life, for a life of dreams and romances that haven’t worked out.”
Family of grief
On that front, Campion speaks from experience. In 1993, not long after “The Piano” stormed Cannes, Campion lost a son, Jasper, who died of complications from a difficult birth when he was 11 days old. (The director, who’s divorced, has a 9-year-old daughter, Alice.)
“I feel like I am part of the family of grief because I lost a son, and when you know, you know,” she says, returning to what she regards as her new film’s true subject. “You learn that grief is a really important part of human existence, and to grieve well is, I think, something you can do; grieving well is an action.”
Ryan praises her director’s ability to cut to the psychological quick. “That’s Jane’s achievement,” she says. “The movie’s so intimate; it’s like listening to the breath inside your own head.”
Campion, in turn, was pleased to allow Ryan a chance to strut her stuff, as this director’s women frequently do. Hunter, Nicole Kidman, Kerry Fox and Kate Winslet are just some of the Campion heroines who have registered as determined outsiders, careworn lovers, or sometimes both.
“There’s a lot of interesting talent out there,” says Campion, “but actresses, I reckon, have to feel they’re in the right part and comfortable and understood in order to do good work.”
Kidman (a co-producer of “In The Cut”) was Campion’s first choice for Frannie but ultimately dropped out.
The role, frontal nudity and all, then passed to Ryan.
“The way Meg talked about it was so kind of thoughtful and brave, and I felt, well, she’s a realist; she knows what we’re asking for here as far as the nudity is concerned.”
The $12 million budget allowed Campion a lot of autonomy.
“If you come in under the radar, nobody expects too much from you,” she says. “We thought it worked for us to feel light on our feet; we felt we could make our film better for less.”