Released at a time when many a studio mogul’s idea of a good women’s movie was a bevy of earth mothers murmuring mutually supportive nothings while facing down divorce or breast cancer, Jane Campion’s 1989 feature debut, Sweetie — the story of a fat, unhinged young woman driving her family insane — was received with equal parts rapture and disgust. Even the disgusted would agree today that the movie was, in its twisted way, a feminist landmark, opening the door for filmmaking that gave women equal opportunity with men to come on hostile, manipulative, sexually curious (or ravenous, or kinky), even barking mad. Much as Madonna did in pop music, Campion tore down a barrier for cinema.

That barrier is down for good, but Campion is still trying to top herself in both style and subject matter. At 49, though, it’s hard to be a pioneer of excess every time one gets behind the camera — and, anyway, that’s a project best left to Catherine Breillat (Romance, Fat Girl), who makes Campion looks like the Pollyanna of cinema. With the exception of the ravishing An Angel at My Table, a straightforward biopic of the troubled New Zealand writer Janet Frame and Campion’s finest movie to date, this conspicuously imaginative filmmaker has gotten herself bogged down in rote perversity, and mannerism more wacky than innovative. Her soaringly romantic The Piano beguiled, but try watching it again and you’ll see why its daft plotting and hyperbolic dialogue have been so widely lampooned. The unbearably sluggish The Portrait of a Lady was larded with gratuitous postmodern flourishes, and Holy Smoke was an unholy, amateurish mess.

Now comes In the Cut, a match made in heaven — or hell — between Campion and the best-selling novelist Susanna Moore. Moore’s novel, about a professor of literature who gets dragged into a lower-Manhattan underworld murder investigation and falls for the detective assigned to the case, is funny, scary, elegantly written and almost unbearably hot in its gleefully incorrect account of a woman’s sexual liberation that is tinged with masochism. As a movie, it must stand or fall by intense chemistry between the lead characters. Sadly, as co-written by Campion and Moore, In the Cut suffers from a fatal emotional and erotic imbalance.

Moore’s novel is not much of a murder mystery: A sadistic killer (you can see the perp coming a mile off) haunts Frannie’s neighborhood, dismembering attractive young women, and after she herself is attacked by a masked stranger, all the men in her orbit become the focus of her distrust. Instead, Moore, who apparently had an affair with the detective who served as her consultant on the book, has distilled a warped romance out of the erotic charge between Frannie (played in the movie by Meg Ryan, willfully cast against type), a WASP-y teacher who sublimates her loneliness into pedantic cataloging of street slang, and Detective Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), a working stiff who has never met a woman he can’t satisfy in the sack. Malloy is a departure from the shy, sensitive types Ruffalo usually plays, but the boyish young actor’s unapologetically candid masculinity is drained of its potency when set against Ryan’s wan professionalism. Far from being set alight, this Frannie seems almost to hold her nose for the duration of the steamy sex scenes. One is left fantasizing what Nicole Kidman, originally cast as Frannie, might have brought to the table.

As if to compensate, Campion goes into impressionistic overdrive, filtering 21st-century alienation through mean-streets ’70s moviemaking in an intermittently gorgeous meld of Taxi Driver and Klute (right down to its heroine’s Jane Fonda shag). She shoots down hallways, removes the soundtrack, puts it back in, brings on a thunderstorm, wedges in a couple of dream sequences and slices up Jennifer Jason Leigh. The angular shooting style that felt so right in Sweetie, here seems unwieldy, fidgety and contrived. Trying to convey the hot, panicky claustrophobia of New York’s urban underworld, Campion can’t complete a frame without throwing technique at us. Which makes watching In the Cut nearly as much hard work as making it must have been.

| Directed by JANE CAMPION | Written by CAMPION and SUSANNA MOORE, adapted from the novel by Moore | Produced by LAURIE PARKER and NICOLE KIDMAN | Released by Screen Gems | At the Grove, AMC Santa Monica, AMC Century City

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