In the Cut

My question then, how did Medusa feel looking at herself being slain and pinned up on screens, walls, billboards, and other shields of masculinity, is really a political question that bears directly upon the issues of cinematic identification and spectatorship: the relation of female subjectivity to ideology in the representation of sexual difference and desire, the positions available to women in film, the conditions of vision and meaning production, for women (1).

Setting the Scene: Through Ruined Woods to the Gorgon’s Land

And Perseus told him of the place that lies,
A stronghold safe below the mountain mass
Of icy Atlas; how at its approach
Twin sisters, Phorcy’s daughters, lived who shared
A single eye, and how that eye by stealth
And cunning, as it passed from twin to twin,
His sly hand caught, and then through solitudes,
Remote and trackless, over rough hillsides,
Of ruined woods he reached the Gorgon’s land,
And everywhere in fields and by the road
He saw the shapes of men and beasts, all changed
To stone by glancing at Medusa’s face.
But he, he said, looked at her ghastly head
Reflected in the bright bronze of the shield
In his left hand, and while deep sleep held fast
Medusa and her snakes, he severed it
Clean from her neck…

The camera separates elements of an inner urban landscape, noting them, one at a time, still-lifes at the rough end of town. A pile of trash. Broken objects. Isolated pieces of graffiti, like so many decapitated Medusa heads, deface the surfaces of wall, window, pavement (3). Nothing moves. We are in a wasteland.

A woman’s high-heeled feet step carefully, slowly, along a New York pavement, picking a winding path amongst the discarded refuse of the city. We watch them at close range, but from above, from where the woman’s eyes would be. It is the stepping we are forced to focus on, and the obstacles in her path. The sound track, a discordant rendition of “Que Sera Sera”, matches the slightly drunken quality of the perspective. The familiar lyrics introduce the theme of a woman’s identity (“what will I be?”), which, inherited from the Doris Day good-girl tradition of the feminine sex, includes limited destiny (“will I be pretty, will I be rich?”), disabled vision (“the future’s not ours to see”), and passive feminine surrender (“whatever will be, will be”). The woman reaches her destination – a lusciously beautiful garden, as vibrant and inviting as the previous images were sterile and alienating. We now see her face, enjoyed in close-up by the slightly soft-focus camera. She cradles her steaming cup of coffee, glimpses a neighbour practicing the gentle art of Tai Chi, raises her head to watch a sudden blossom shower. Prelude. Peace. Sanctuary. Beauty. Inside the apartment another woman sleeps, dreams of the black gloved fist of an unknown man, falling snow, skaters, a frozen black-and-white landscape, the man’s skate-blade scoring a deep arc into the ice as he sweeps towards the audience. Blood fills the icy crescent as the title credits emerge: In the Cut (Jane Campion, 2003). This is the terrain we will be entering. A frozen landscape scarred with violent slashes – but edged with garden.

We don’t know yet, but later it makes sense, that the high-heeled woman, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), sister to the dreamer, Frannie (Meg Ryan), is prey to the unseeable destiny announced in the Doris Day lyrics. Pauline’s habitual fatalistic gesture of rubbing the Buddha’s tummy each time she enters her apartment fails to bring her good luck. Neither does the “courtship fantasy” bracelet she passes on to Frannie fulfil its promise. Very much the suffering romantic, sexually promiscuous yet longing for a “love child or two” and eventually the husband to go with them, Pauline throws caution to the wind in her affairs with men, casts herself as desperado in the games of sex and courtship, and dreams unrealistically of romantic futures in the most unlikely circumstances.

Pauline lives in a small apartment above a nightclub. This is a venue in which women perform writhing erotic dances before the immobile gazes of the paying customers. We are shown just enough of this den to see that it is a stage where women knowingly enact male fantasies of female seduction. The inauthenticity of the displays of female sexuality in this bar are obvious in the ritualised aspects of the performance: the gyrating pelvises thrust into the passive faces of the clients, the half coy, half crude exhibition of breasts and buttocks, the masturbatory pretences, the invitations to voyeurism. Pauline is not a dancer, yet within the film’s aesthetic and imaginative landscape, the location of her apartment places her symbolically in proximity to the Medusa’s cave, but with this difference: where the garish lighting and phallic accoutrements in the nightclub emphasise the fraudulent femininity of this space, the mise en scène created for Pauline’s apartment gives it an intimate, cave-like atmosphere which, whilst also obviously constructed, resonates with the taste and personal, feminine yearnings of its female resident. A hanging garden trails from the ceiling and is augmented throughout by decorative dangling mobiles, beaded curtains and fairy lights (4). This is an enchanting, softly lit, feminine space, warm-toned and womb-like. Pauline and her sister Frannie meet in this space, trade intimacies, dance, touch, advise and attempt to protect each other. If Pauline’s apartment approximates Medusa’s cave, it is a cave of her own making, projecting her femaleness. The closeness to, but difference from, the male fantasy of woman’s snake-filled cave downstairs, provides a visual metaphor for the conflict between male and female representations of female space, a conflict which Pauline is to lose when she lets Perseus into her room. Like the Medusa, whose “sisters” Perseus tricks into revealing her whereabouts, Pauline’s cave, her inner sanctum, is discovered, invaded and defiled. Also like Medusa, Pauline loses her head while she is unconscious, literally, but also metaphorically.

The Victims (Medusa’s Lovely Locks)

Her beauty was far-famed, the jealous hope
Of many a suitor, and of all her charms
Her hair was loveliest; so I was told
By one who claimed to have seen her. She, it’s said,
Was violated in Minerva’s shrine
By Ocean’s Lord. Jove’s daughter turned away
And covered with her shield her virgin eyes,
And then for fitting punishment transformed
The Gorgon’s lovely hair to loathsome snakes.
Minerva still, to strike her foes with dread,
Upon her breastplate wears the snakes she made…

The hair upon Medusa’s head is frequently represented in works of art in the form of snakes, and these once again are derived from the castration complex. It is a remarkable fact that, however frightening they may be in themselves, they nevertheless serve actually as a mitigation of the horror, for they replace the penis, the absence of which is the cause of the horror. This is a confirmation of the technical rule according to which a multiplication of penis symbols signifies castration (6).

The Medusa we in the West have inherited from Freud, via the Greeks, is no woman: she is a monstrous threat to phallic masculinity and to reason. She is simultaneously phallic and castrated. What she is, man cannot understand, cannot even look at. If he could look at her, he might see her as Helene Cixous did and realise that the unrepresentability of the female sex is in his eyes only:

You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly, she’s laughing. Men say that there are two unrepresentable things: death and the feminine sex. That’s because they need femininity to be associated with death; it’s the jitters that gives them a hard-on! For themselves! (7)

Medusa’s legendary power to effect erection in her male onlooker is both desired and feared. She is too much, and not enough, more, and less. In one stroke Perseus deprives her of her reflection (he captures her image on the surface of his shield) and her head.

In the Cut

As a modern Medusa figure Pauline returns the mythologised creature to womanly proportions. She represents the common fate of the contemporary woman who, despite the sexual revolution, despite women’s liberation, nonetheless remains trapped within the patriarchal definitions of “femininity”. She sees herself as seeking true love; less idealistically she calls herself a “lunatic” and a “freak”, pathetic in the lengths she will go to “to get a dick inside me”. Frannie loyally describes her sister as a “poet of the unconscious”; the doctor she has been having sex with (11 appointments in one week!), along with the courts he must have appealed to, see her as a menace and brand her with a restraining order. The scene in which we hear her telling Frannie of her most recent “romantic” disaster represents Pauline compassionately and with humour as an ordinary, flawed, human woman, neither slut nor wife, neither good girl nor bad. She has stolen her lover’s suit from the dry-cleaners. She retreats to her sister’s lap and together they sing along to the lyrics of hopeless love coming from the radio – “I don’t want to wait in vain for your love”. Any possibilities of Pauline being interpreted as a sinister siren, an actual psycho, are immediately defused through humour and tenderness. This is not a dangerous woman but simply a sad woman looking for love in the wrong places.

Eventually Pauline puts her overly-enthusiastic head into the lap of the serial killer, blind to his true identity, to his fears and murderous designs. Of course the identity of the killer is not revealed until near the end of the film. In addition, we do not see Pauline being either seduced or murdered. However, in a scene where Frannie tells Pauline her mother’s story of becoming engaged to their father (the women are half-sisters) Pauline reveals herself to be acutely vulnerable to the commonplace fairytale of being chosen by the charming Prince. She wants the ring on her finger. She laments her single state and even expresses envy of Angela Sands, the first murder victim, because at least she was engaged! Frannie, in contrast, replies quite sensibly that Angela was probably murdered by her fiancée. This key scene even overstates the likelihood of Pauline falling prey to the engaging advances of the serial killer who is also a serial fiancée. Like the other victims the murdered Pauline is discovered to be wearing an engagement ring. But the man who has put the ring on her finger is not a love-struck Romeo, although he tries to present himself through that guise. He is actually a well-practiced fisherman with a taste for calamari (8), cunning as Neptune in the ways of sea-creatures, knowledgeable when it comes to bait. He knows what fantasies play in the mind of a Pauline and he tricks her with a diamond ring into trading this romantic promise for her head. She swallows the bait, hook line and sinker.

When Pauline becomes the third and final murder victim, it is a lock of her hair which announces the fact. Malloy first notices Pauline’s hair when he is surveying Frannie’s apartment. He is investigating the first in a series of murders of women and Frannie lives in the same apartment block as the murdered woman. Malloy’s eye is caught by the framed photograph of Pauline. He picks it up and idly remarks the resemblance to his ex-wife who also used to have long hair, but “she cut it”. Frannie’s hair is brown, straight (even slightly lank), shoulder length and tidy. The stylish cut of her hair is distinctively modern and urban. In comparison, Pauline’s wavy long blonde hair twines about her face and shoulders, suggesting the archetypal feminine contours of voluptuousness and sensuality in its casual tangle of untidiness. This is bedroom hair; Medusa hair: snaky, sultry, seductive. As Frannie slowly searches the bedroom calling for her sister, she notices a thick strand of hair lying on the bed. At the roots a bloody trace of scalp is still visible; it is a trace of the body trying to hold on, vainly resisting the force which is wrenching it apart. This severed lock of hair is a mute sign of the brutal attack upon Pauline’s life, a piece of evidence which leads Frannie further into the apartment, into the bathroom, where she discovers her sister’s decapitated head in the basin. The lock of hair is a sign which prepares Frannie, and the audience, for the shocking sight she and we have yet to witness. But the limp tress is also a now disembodied element of that body, chilling in itself, not in a sensational way, but because it belongs to a head which was once held gently between a sister’s hands, was once stroked as that same head lay in her sister’s lap. We recall the scene where Frannie tenderly lifts back Pauline’s long fringe to reveal the black smudged weeping eyes which are hiding in humiliated defeat after her ended affair. In its disconnected presence, this torn lock of hair registers the profound absence of a woman’s life: it symbolises, not castration and repulsive horror – as in Freud’s narrative – but death and intense grief.

The Serial Killer’s Bag (Perseus’ Trophy)

My gallant Perseus, tell me by what craft,
What courage, you secured the snake-tressed head

To decapitate = to castrate (10).

Detectives Malloy and Rodriguez are working together to solve the murder of Angela Sands, last seen alive in the bar of The Red Turtle. Malloy is the officer in charge of the investigation. Rodriguez, affectionately called Richie, is Malloy’s partner. They have known each other for years: which is why Malloy never suspects Richie, a man with a past history of violence, of being the serial killer who is cutting up the bodies of women and carrying away various body parts – including the head of a college girl – as souvenirs. He uses a waterproof bag for this purpose.

Because Angela Sands was a tenant in Frannie’s apartment building, Frannie is questioned by the two detectives. They know that she was in The Red Turtle that last night of Angela’s life. Did she see anything? Nothing, Frannie lies. In fact, what she saw that night, without understanding what she saw, was the soon-to-be murderer having his cock sucked by the soon-to-be murdered woman. She saw this through the half-open door of a basement room when she was looking for the bathroom. The fellated man, seeing himself being watched, held back the kneeling woman’s abundant hair, letting Frannie get a better view. She saw a tattoo on his wrist. She watched his glistening penis disappearing into the woman’s mouth. She saw that he was wearing the black trousers and white shirt of a detective. Thinking that Malloy, who has a tattoo on his wrist, was the man in the basement, reading the scene only in terms of sexual pleasure and not in relation to murder, Frannie keeps what she saw to herself. It is not until the end of the film that we, at the same moment as Frannie, will discover that Rodriguez and Malloy have matching tattoos, a symbol of their first big bust together as cops. It is Rodriguez and not Malloy who belongs to the penis-centred underworld Frannie has glimpsed; Rodriguez and not Malloy whose imaginary landscape is strewn with castrated bodies.

During the scene in which Detective Rodriguez first appears, his inadequacy as a man is highlighted in several ways. He has brought coffee for himself and his “partner”, Malloy. Malloy criticises his “servant” for bringing him a half-full cup. Their tiff has all the characteristics of a domestic argument, with Rodriguez cast in the subservient “wife” role. When Malloy steps out onto the pavement with Frannie and begins suggesting a date with her, Rodriguez, who has remained inside the car, interrupts Malloy’s propositioning by squirting him with a water-pistol (11). It is a comic moment in the film, but also symbolic of Rodriguez’s sexual immaturity: he is the eternal boy, insecurely possessed of only a toy, a powerless, and obviously artificial, phallic substitute. Rodriguez’s dialogue also bears the marks of castration anxiety: he repeatedly uses tropes of sucking and eating, in which the male genitals are the object of another’s unwelcome appetite. For instance, the following lines are all spoken to Malloy:

I was telling her about the time the cat ate the D.A.’s balls.
There must’ve been a hundred fuckin’ fags looking to suck my dick.
That chick. She wants to suck your dick.

It is also significant, given that he is the serial killer, that Rodriguez never puts himself, in language, into the position of having appetite. He only positions himself as the one threatened with being eaten. One of Frannie’s students, Cornelius, who is writing his class paper on the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, tells Frannie that Gacy was a victim. “Of what?” asks Frannie. “Desire” is his answer. This perception of male innocence for their sexual crimes, still, of course, has popular currency. Certainly it is a view which is mostly upheld by the cinema of horror (12).

That Rodriguez sees women as Freud’s Perseus sees Medusa – that is as a horrifying spectacle of castration which is simultaneously (and in contradiction) reassuringly phallic – is evident in a “joke” he shares with Malloy. Noticing that they are being watched by a woman at the bar Rodriguez says to Malloy – “all you need is tits, a heartbeat and a hole”. Malloy replies – “you don’t even need the tits”. Rodriguez supplies the punch line – “you don’t even need the heartbeat”. The misogyny of this exchange is brutal, quite literally paralleling, at a verbal level, the physical acts of woman-murdering that have been occurring in the city. It is a verbal slashing, a piece-by-piece reduction of the living female body to nothing more than a dead hole. Malloy is complicit in this misogyny, responds appropriately to his cue, dons his tough-cop masculinity in siding with his partner. It is without doubt his ugliest moment in the film. Nonetheless, and without excusing or condoning Malloy, the final, fatal cut is delivered by Rodriguez. All he sees and needs in a woman is a hole. And yet, he has to cut them, again and again, in order to keep believing and reproducing this fiction.

In the Cut

When his criminal identity is at last exposed, Rodriguez tells Frannie, his next intended victim, that he knows what she and all women want. He knows, he says, that she wants it so bad it hurts. And he intends to give it to her, the killing pain of a knife thrust accompanying the romantic thrill of a kiss. Frannie sees all too clearly, by the light of the lighthouse where he has imprisoned her, that Rodriguez is the man she saw in the basement, having his dick-sucked by the woman who was destined to become murder victim number one. She sees the tattoo. She knows that she has to face the one who severed her sister’s head, the one who has sent the New York police force into a state alarm.

When Perseus defeats Medusa, her head becomes his trophy, a symbol to other men of his superiority and a means of exerting violent power over them. Medusa’s head becomes Perseus’ weapon. In battles he has only to brandish the horrifying head before his enemies’ eyes and they are immediately turned to stone. Perseus’ victory over other men consists in his careful avoidance of her face and her gaze. Warned and assisted by Athene, Perseus does not look directly at Medusa, but “at her ghastly head / Reflected in the bright bronze of the shield / In his left hand”.

Like Perseus, Detective Rodriguez needs a trophy, a victory symbol, proof that he is the possessor of a superior weapon, that he can not only take his place in the battle but that he can dominate it. But Campion clearly undermines the “heroism” of this quest, linking it instead to a psychic deficiency. We learn from Malloy that Rodriguez was made a “house-mouse” in the Police department after he tried to kill his wife because she had thrown his Hispanic Society Trophy out the window. “That was the San Juan Man of the Year Award. Richie takes that stuff seriously”, Malloy tells Franny. House-mouses, he further explains, are “guys who put their balls in the drawer ’cause they don’t want to be on the streets no more”; his shield and gun are taken from him; he is put on restricted duty. Thus Rodriguez is a man who has lost all his trophies. The male institution he works within add their own cut to the domestic castration he suffers: at one stroke he has lost his trophy, weapons, protective shield and balls. He is no longer a man, just a mouse.

However, creating his very own brand of Medusa’s head, complete with his “trademark” souvenir (a diamond ring), offers Rodriguez a way back into the heat of male fraternity. After the second murder the Police Department intensifies its investigations to the extent that “even the house-mouses are back on the street”, as Malloy says. Perseus was able to escape because of the hood of invisibility he was given by the Gods. With the cover provided by his membership of the police department and the “secret club” he and Malloy belong to (and which his tattoo signifies), Rodriguez is able to escape both suspicion and detection. Malloy defends and sympathises with his partner as he tells the story of Richie’s humiliation (not the story of the wife’s ill-treatment), clearly revealing his identification as a man with the other man’s perspective. The male-dominated, almost obsessively phallocentric culture of the police force stands in the place of the Gods, unwittingly conferring a hood of invisibility which, ironically, allows its possessor to create the dramatic police activity which involves him as one of its law-enforcement agents.

The True-Tongued Detective (Man without Parallel)

Detective Giovanni Malloy, who had responded to the picture of Pauline’s long tresses, has an eye for hair. After making love to Frannie for the first time he tells her the story of “the chicken lady”, an older woman who initiated him into the pleasures of a woman’s body:

She takes me into her bedroom and she’s a real woman. She’s got pubic hair from here to here, black and curly like those Spanish girls. And I want to get the fuck out there so she grabs me and says, ‘you ever kissed a girl down there?’ I says ‘no’. So she wets her fingers, she touches herself real soft, touches her clit, tells me to lick there, tells me to put my tongue there, take my time, lick in a slow circle, and after a while she came.

Malloy describes how he let this older woman guide him, his fingers, his tongue, his eyes, towards the mutual goal of her climax.

In the Cut

In Malloy’s telling of this story, visually authenticated as it is by his oral enjoyment of Frannie’s “pussy”, he proves himself to be a man who is not afraid of the Medusa, who does not need to see her flowing tresses as so many penis substitutes reassuring him in the face of the abyss of a woman’s “hole”. Malloy has been invited to part a woman’s hair and explore the complex flesh that it surrounds, (much as Frannie sees the sadness in her sister’s face hiding beneath her messy hair). On another occasion Malloy uses his voice through the telephone to guide Frannie’s hand into the wetness of her “pussy”, to make her clit “jump into [her] hand”. That Malloy is able to itemise the various corporeal elements of a woman’s body, that he can speak the words of her body and pleasure, distinguishes him from the classic cast of male heroes, the legion of Perseuses, who see nothing in a woman except their own castrated reflections. After Pauline’s murder Malloy is able to describe in detail the components of flesh, bone, sinew and muscle which the killer’s knives had to carve through in the difficult effort to severe head from neck. He knows that more than a single swipe was needed. He knows about bodies; much more than any death-dealing, romantic hero imagines.

When Frannie finds her sister’s severed head wrapped in a plastic bag and abandoned in the bathroom hand-basin, her shocked, immediate response is . . . to rescue and protect it. She clutches the bag and falls to the floor sobbing into the cradled head. The tenderness and grief in this scene is impossible to convey in words. The distance the film takes from horror at this point is quite remarkable and poignant. Perseus uses Medusa’s head to strike terror into his enemies. In his hands her snake-clad head and gaping abyss of a mouth become the means of a certain exchange between men; a double-sided shield erected in the space between their warring bodies. In Frannie’s hands Medusa’s head represents loss, not fear. The head belonged to someone – Pauline – a woman loved and grieved over. That is its meaning.

Malloy is the first to approach Frannie. We hear his sympathetic voice before we see him, coaxing Frannie to let him take the plastic bag, Pauline’s head. “I know, I know” he soothes. He carries Frannie’s shoes which have come off, forgotten. Her bare feet stagger. At the police station he places a shoe near her foot, lifts her foot. She can barely move. Cinderella’s Prince carried Cinderella’s shoe; he made all the women try it on in his quest to find its owner. But Malloy’s concern is with Frannie’s foot, not the shoe and whether it fits. During their first lovemaking Malloy notices Frannie’s foot, raised because she has cramp. He kisses and soothes it. After Pauline’s murder Malloy helps Frannie take a bath. Sitting on the edge of the bath he gently washes her outstretched foot. Christ was also given to this charitable act of the washing of feet.

Although Malloy is marked by a tattoo, a sign which appears to link him sexually to the first murder victim, his fearless arousal in the face of a woman’s genitals, along with his gestures of tender, humble care, make him the most unlikely murder suspect. Trusting the tattoo, a superficial sign after all – and, in the context of the murder investigations, only circumstantially relevant – rather than the more intimate knowledge she has of this man, Frannie mistakes his identity, is blinded to his difference as a man, mistrusts the deeper, more intimate meanings she has responded to in him. But, in addition to his enjoyment of the female sex, and his willingness to give pleasure and comfort, there are other signs, less literal than the tattoo, which indicate Malloy’s identity as “a good man”, quite the opposite of the man in the basement.

Malloy first appears at the top of Frannie’s staircase, bathed in light, as Frannie is ascending, an arrangement of actors and other elements of mise en scène which parallel and invert those in The Red Turtle scene. In Frannie’s apartment, as he casts his gaze over the objects in Frannie’s room, Malloy is struck by the quotes she has pasted everywhere. He chooses one to read out loud – “I want to do to you what Spring does to the cherry trees” – and hides his enjoyment by wiping his hand over his mouth. After he has left, Frannie adds his card to the quotes on her notice board, caressing the letters of his name as she does so. There is something poetic in their attraction, but Frannie is not able to completely trust this impulse, overwhelmed, as it seems to be, by the circumstantial evidence which mounts to incriminate Malloy. The evidence that finally and wrongly convinces her that he is the killer is the charm from her bracelet which she finds in his pocket; she lost this charm on the night she was attacked in the street. It seems to confirm her worst fears. The false discovery sends her racing away from Malloy and into the arms of the truly bad man. It is a mistake already foretold in one of several “Poetry in Motion” signs Frannie reads when journeying by train. After having been physically attacked in the street at night, Frannie soon after muses on this quote from Dante’s Inferno: “Midway along the journey of our life I woke to find myself in the middle of a dark wood for I had wandered off from the straight path”. She is wondering about Malloy, who he is, why she is having sex with a man she suspects of being “blown” in a bar basement. The woods are so thick with wolves and other psychos that a good man is literally hard to read.

The Avenging Heroine: Athene, Andromeda, Medusa’s sisters

Andromeda was pinioned to a rock.
When Perseus saw her, had a wafting breeze
Not stirred her hair, her eyes not overflowed
With trembling tears, he had imagined her
A marble statue. Love, before he knew,
Kindled; he gazed, entranced…

She told her name, her country and the tale
Of her proud mother’s beauty – boast and bane.
Ere all was told a noise came from the sea,
And from the ocean depths a monstrous beast
Loomed up, its breast spread wide across the waves

In the Cut

Despite the havoc he creates, Rodriguez is not as successful as was Perseus in creating a replacement phallus from the decapitated head of a beautiful/terrible woman and in transforming in his escape from killer to fiancée. For one thing, Persueus had Athene and the gods on his side, Medusa had no-one. The Gods gave Perseus what he needed – winged shoes, hood of invisibility, a hollow pouch for the dismembered head – just as the Police Department give Rodriguez the means of free access and safe travel around New York City. But Rodriguez is also finally confronted by a different agent of justice, a woman who feels only love and kinship rather than rivalry and jealousy towards her mortal Medusa sister. When Frannie is kidnapped by Rodriguez, soon to become his next disarticulated victim, a piece of her body turned into a lifeless souvenir, she is finally able to see who he is. Cast as Andromeda in Perseus’ drama, “rescued” and proposed to at land’s end by Medusa’s killer, Frannie knows her rescuer and romancer to be the same monstrous beast who would now add her head to his collection. Imprisoned at the lighthouse, her host’s phallic beacon and “little fishing lodge”, she knows that he is Neptune, the seducer; Perseus, the head-hunter; Bluebeard, the serial “husband”; her romantic father, the ice-skater from her dream and her mother’s oft-told courtship story, who “cut” her mother to pieces when he left for the inevitable next woman. Rodriguez becomes them all and is undone as he fractures into these mythical heirs of his own fragile manhood.

Frannie is wearing Malloy’s coat. In the pocket there is a gun. He has already taught her to confront her fear of this weapon and given her a lesson in aiming and shooting. In Malloy’s definition, a gun is a tool, not a phallic symbol, as useful to a woman as to a man. The fatal shot which Frannie aims at Rodriguez is, then, only the literal means to his more important symbolic destruction.

In parallel with her defeat of the Neptune-Perseus-sea-monster, Frannie also undoes Athene’s original miscarriage of justice which sets the Medusa saga in motion. After witnessing Medusa’s “violation” by Neptune, Athene transforms Medusa’s locks into snakes and causes her appearance to effect petrifaction in on-lookers. Frannie, also witness to a violation when she sees Angela Sands, murder-victim, performing a head-job in a dark basement, does not see guilt in the female victim. On the contrary, she is aroused by the spectacle and in her subsequent masturbation fantasy she identifies with the woman’s lust, proving herself to be kin in sex rather than aloof and judgmental virgin priestess. Similarly, she knows that her sister Pauline, despite her desperation to have a man, was not desirous of her own death. Frannie neither blames nor judges her sister. She separates a woman’s sexual desire from sin. She also sympathises with her mother – “she was very beautiful, of course” – and regrets the sad tale of abandonment which her beauty engendered.

Identified with a tradition of female victims, stretching at least from Medusa to her sister Pauline, Frannie takes the law into her hands, takes the story back to where it began, and prepares to start it differently, with a new man, the man she had wrongly suspected. Streaked with the blood of her combatant, Frannie emerges from the inferno that had tried to claim her, into broad, dawning daylight. The penultimate scene of the film tracks her steps in slow motion through the vibrant colours of the garden we first saw through Pauline’s eyes. Eden regained by woman; retraced and reclaimed by Medusa’s sister. It wasn’t she who put the snake there.

Knowledge does not always lead to victory, especially not in real life. But for a woman to know the identity of a man who for thousands of years has been protected by invisibility and has constructed his shield from the mutilated bodies of women – this is no simple or easily achieved knowledge. And since we are in the realm of myths and fairytales, she deserves to be rewarded. Thus it is that the final door of the film closes on the view of Frannie, lying down beside Malloy, accepting his embrace, knowing that she can trust him.

Matters of Perspective

(Reply to Perseus, 2003)

Wise Athena, we have heard the boasting
Tale from Perseus and his champions. Now
Tell us how you earned those bloodstains
Streaking your hot flesh from neck to heel.

And so began a tale from which we all
May learn to see things differently. It came
Not from her memory alone – always
A shaky matter when it comes to truth –
But from a deeper and a wider place.
Thus she spoke:

I’ll tell you how they died, those long-locked ones,
Tricked by slick imposter into losing
Their fine heads, how I survived, a witness
and a mourner of these scenes.
At once he caught my eye and lured it deep
Into his shadows, took me down into
His hide-out underneath the city’s mass.
What caught my eye was that tattoo, the 3
Of spades, which I at first misread, seeing
Only sex – (I am no virgin, truth to tell) –
And not the mark of death I later read,
(How could I know there was a living twin?)
My sister’s eye was caught by the white stone
Emblazoned on the ring with which his sword
Was offered, dazzling her with mirrored dreams
And age-old fantasies she thought they shared.

He made me gaze at his first victim’s head.
He couldn’t look me in the eye but tried
To trap the image of my horror in
The rear-view mirror of his car. So sad
A sight, her hair matted with blood. I could
Not see her face, but her hair reminded
Me of my sister’s lovely, long blonde curls
They twirled around her neck (it was a lock,
Oh, torn roughly from that darling head which
First told me she was dead, beloved Medusa).
His hand caught up that tumbling hair to show
Me how she feasted on his rod, not knowing
She was hooked and he was bait. I did not
Look away, felt my desire rise and tug
That inward eye which held me fixed. It made
Me dream of kisses. He dreamed instead of snake-filled pits.

When later I asked how she died and was
It quick, another tattooed man – who I
Would take to be my lover – spoke in tender
Words of epiglottis, sinew, muscle,
Bone, the detailed mass of flesh resisting
Severance. He knew how much it took to
Break the bond with life, he knew of necks
That wanted to be kissed. In my mind I still
Cradle my beloved sister’s head, still
Stroke her tangled hair with tender fingers.
Remembrances of love and a grief there
Is no cure for, guide my steps to death’s dark shore…

He took me to the lighthouse, I thought he
Was my rescuer, that he would vanquish
The monster I had chained and fled, but I,
Too late, saw he was the monster, that
He’d been within the circle of my life,
Just as he’d carved his circle in the ice
Of my own mother’s frigid innocence.

Cursed Bluebeard! Plotting to make me his
Latest wife. My eyes filled with tears as I
Thought again of my poor sister. And of
My throat stretched in fearful recognition
From that same knife. Inwardly again I
Saw my mother, beautiful of course, like
Her two dancing daughters, how she fell for
Father’s kisses, how I would not do the same.
And then from my own hand a double shot
Rang out. The monstrous beast collapsed.
I looked into the star filled sky and saw the light
Fall onto the waves that shine and lap in
Brilliant tips in view of new beginnings


  1. Teresa de Lauretis, “Desire in Narrative”, in Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema, Macmillan, 1984, p.136.
  2. Ovid, Metamorphoses, translated by A.D. Melville, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1987, section IV, lines 770–788.
  3. Thank you to Claire Nihill for this connection.
  4. I believe this response to be valid despite the fact that these particular aspects of the interior decoration were deliberately constructed for more practical reasons: that is, to hide the technical equipment used in filming within the cramped space of this apartment.
  5. Ovid, 1987, section IV, lines 792–803.
  6. Sigmund Freud, “The Medusa’s Head” (1922), in Marjorie Garber and Nancy J. Vickers, The Medusa Reader, Routledge, New York, 2003, pp. 83–84.
  7. Helene Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa” in Garber and Vickers, The Medusa reader, pp. 133–134.
  8. Another meaning of Medusa is octopus or jellyfish. In mythology Medusa has a marine genealogy: she is cousin to the Nereids, mermaids and daughters of the nymph Doris by Nereus, a prophetic old man of the sea. Her own father, Phorcys, was also an old man from the sea. It is also relevant that Medusa was raped by Neptune – “Ocean’s Lord” – and, in a famous case of blaming the victim, she was punished by Athene for this transgression. When Rodriguez is showing Frannie mug-shots at the police station he tries to flirt with her and asks her out for “calamari”. Malloy, in contrast, is having “curried tofu” for lunch. The calamari-connection was brought to my attention by my student-detective, Charon Freebody. This might have been the point at which she solved the case. Heads could have been saved!
  9. Ovid, 1987, section IV, lines 770–771.
  10. Freud, 2003, p. 84.
  11. There are other occasions in the film where Rodriguez’s repressed homosexual attachment to Malloy is suggested. For instance, when he joins Frannie and Malloy at the bar where they are having their first date, again interrupting them, he sing-quotes the lyrics of a popular song to his cop-partner: “If loving you is wrong I don’t want to be right”. His next words refer to the number of “faggots” on the street “looking to suck my dick”. Frannie accuses him of being homophobic. I would suggest that his homophobia is a mask for unacknowledged homosexual love.
  12. See Linda Williams, “When the woman Looks” in Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism, eds Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp, and Linda Williams, University Publications of America, Los Angeles, 1984; and Carol Clover, Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1992.
  13. Ovid, 1987, section IV, lines 672–677, 690–694.

About The Author

Sue Gillett is the author of Views from Beyond the Mirror: The Films of Jane Campion (ATOM, 2004). She lectures in film, literature and women's studies at La Trobe University Bendigo.

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