After the befuddlement and irritation that greeted The Portrait of a Lady and Holy Smoke, 2003 saw Jane Campion receiving her worst reviews yet for In the Cut, a serial killer thriller adapted from the 1995 novel by Susanna Moore, who co-wrote the screenplay with Campion. The plot was too contrived and confused, we were told; the characters completely inscrutable; Meg Ryan was terribly miscast, and obviously only took the lead role (featuring full frontal nudity!) to prove that she could do edgy and dark. This was the stern verdict of the folks who expected - not, it must be said, without reason - that they were going to see another Kiss the Girls. As for the people who just wanted to see another Campion flick; well, there's no end to viewers feeling aggrieved that everything she made isn't exactly like The Piano. Sometimes, you just can't win for losing; if she had followed up that film with several carbon copies, I have no doubt that she would have been criticised for that. Pity the director who gives us the film she wants to make, not the film we want to see.

In the Cut is not her best film, no. It might in fact be her worst; or can I rather say, her least good. But that's not the same thing as calling it flat-out bad, and there's quite a lot going on here that audiences that wrote it off as a failed thriller clearly had no intention of looking for. I guess this much is true: it is a failed thriller, if a thriller it was intended to be. But it is a great success as the film that Campion obviously set out to make: a study of female sexual psychology in a world of hypermasculine violence. Far from being yet another "woman and serial killer" genre flick, In the Cut is something much stranger, and unexpected; something that only Jane Campion out of all the contemporary directors I could name would ever dare to give us. Basically, this is Eyes Wide Shut from a female point of view, a similarly disjointed narrative connected only by the protagonist's emotional journey, set in a similarly surreal version of New York City. Not for nothing, I think, was Campion's film produced by Nicole Kidman, who was originally set to star in it prior to her very public divorce from Tom Cruise, her EWS co-star.

In the Cut centers on Frannie Avery (Ryan), a college English teacher currently assembling a book on urban slang. As the story begins, she is parting ways with her beloved half-sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to meet with one of her students, Cornelius (Sharrieff Pugh), at a local dive bar called the Red Turtle. The meeting is a pointless waste of time, but when Frannie goes downstairs to use the restroom, she spots something most unexpected: a young woman performing oral sex on a man hidden in the shadows, his only identifying mark a tattoo of the 3 of Spades on his wrist.

The next day, Frannie gets a call from NYPD Detective Giovanni Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), investigating the murder and dismemberment of a woman, in fact the very same woman who Frannie spotted in the Red Turtle; parts of her body were found in the garden outside Frannie's apartment. Frannie doesn't really do or say much to help the investigation; she's much too distracted by the 3 of Spades tattoo on Malloy's wrist. Not to tell the rest of the plot - which very quickly becomes very convoluted - Frannie accepts Malloy's offer to go have drinks sometime, and before hardly any time has passed (and as chopped-up women keep appearing in the area), Frannie and the detective start sleeping together.

Let me not mince words: this is a film About Sex, above and beyond all other considerations. I think this goes a long way towards explaining its critical and commercial failure: American filmgoers don't really like to watch sex in our movies. Only if it's discreet and tasteful and filled with gauzy touches, certainly not if it's lustful and fleshy like it is here. And genitals, oh Lord, not genitals! keep those naughty bits offscreen at all costs! Moreover, In the Cut is about a very specific kind of sex: the erotic charge of death and danger. The serial killer trappings that make the movie seem like something entirely else are only there to facilitate the development of a character who is quite unambiguously aroused by the constant threat of being butchered - she plainly assumes that Malloy is the killer, thanks to his tattoo, and when she asks him to describe the state of the murder victims, her tone is somewhere in between fascinated disgust and indirect horniness. More than anything else I can name, it's reminiscent of David Cronenberg's Crash (a masterpiece, but not the kind of film you take back home to mother): it plumbs depths of the sexual psyche that you were much happier not even thinking about, but once you've seen the film, there's no shaking what it's done to you. It helps that the sex scenes themselves are shot with a remarkably straightforward, adult eye; conspicuous nudity, but never exploitative (I haven't mentioned and should have, that Campion's films are unexpectedly rife with naked people; this is thus not an exception but merely an apotheosis), and erotic in a way that movie sex hardly ever is.

At the center of this sexual fantasia, Frannie is a maddeningly opaque heroine; the most unknowable of all Campion's protagonists, more even than Kay in Sweetie. At the film's end, we understand nothing about her other than her actions; there are sepia-toned flashbacks to the meeting of her mother and father that certainly suggest that she has a certain under-formed idea of sex, but nothing that could actually explain what drives her in life or leads her down the path she takes. Even her sister Pauline has a more well-defined character, and she's in but a handful of scenes. This fact about In the Cut makes it perhaps more challenging that might be strictly necessary: we like to have sturdy protagonists to sink out teeth into, and Frannie is a defiantly blank slate. At the same time, I can't imagine the film working the same way with a "stronger" lead. It is at heart the story of a non-existent personality being filled up with dark sexual energies (much the same plot as both Eyes Wide Shut and Crash, really), and in order to work, Frannie must be an empty vessel at the start.

It might be a backhanded compliment to say that Meg Ryan performs this character brilliantly, but I do think it's quite an unexpected and brave work. Much scorn has been heaped upon the actress for playing this character, and it's not exactly hard to see why: Frannie is a particularly bland and disaffected sort, for much of the running time. But far from finding Ryan in over her head, I saw a performance that proved that Nora Ephron's favorite kewpie doll actually has a great reservoir of shadow just waiting to be tapped into. In her hands, Frannie at the outset is anything but boring: she is desperate and hungry, aware that there is no substance in her life but unaware of how to find it. Even a truly regrettable wig can't lessen the force that Ryan brings to bear in creating this character; I honestly don't know that I can name an actress that I expect would have done it better. And maybe the intent was just a cheap "look how edgy I can be!" stunt, but like the fella said, you can't argue with results.

The world of In the Cut is an off-kilter wonderland, with lovely gardens right next to dreadful shitpile apartments, everything in New York seems to be about five minutes from everything else, and under the exceptionally articulate lens of Dion Beebe (in what is likely the best work of his career, and yes, I did just say that in regards to Holy Smoke; what can I say, I hadn't seen this film yet), everything looks off, with depth of field that makes no sense and action that's all cramped together in various parts of the frame. And insert shots: so many insert shots of tiny little details! It is a visually obsessed film to match its obsessed star: full of chaos, but driven, purposeful chaos, that makes us understand intuitively that we're looking at a world of madness - Frannie's madness, I expect. This film yokes us firmly to her perspective on things more securely than any of Campion's films since An Angel at My Table. And that perspective is quite disconcerting for much of the time. In the Cut may have fairly limited goals, but it achieves them perfectly, and the result is the kind of thing that's none to easy to forget later on.

A final personal note: at the start of this Campion retrospective, I never thought that the end result would be that I'd found a new director that I would love this much, and in fact Campion has joined a most elite group in my personal pantheon: a filmmaker for whom I've seen all of her features, and liked every single one. That's a hard claim to make: it's true of Terrence Malick (with his 4 films) and Julie Taymor (with 3); it might be true of Quentin Tarantino if I ever get around to revisiting and re-evaluating Death Proof; it's true of Orson Welles so far, but there's a lot I've yet to see of his work. It's certainly not true of Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Ford, or Bergman. So basically, hooray for Jane Campion, a director of the most exquisite talents. Bring on Bright Star already!