Superficial steam 

Nudity can't conceal flaws of Stain and Cut

There's a paradox involving starlets and nudity. The ones starting out won't take off their clothes, for fear of losing credibility, but established film actresses take off their clothes so they will be taken seriously.

We find two examples of movie stars being unclad in calculated ways in The Human Stain with Nicole Kidman and In the Cut with Meg Ryan (a film co-produced by Kidman). But neither film makes good on their promise of depth, and while each features erotic scenes, they're essentially for the wrong reasons.

Stain centers on Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), a Jewish classics professor who unwittingly uses a racial epithet in class and runs afoul of campus correctness. As his personal and professional lives fall apart, he begins a passionate affair with Faunia (Kidman), an uncouth janitor half his age. Faunia, who insists their relationship be purely sexual, brings plenty of baggage; she's being stalked by her psycho ex-husband (Ed Harris).

Coleman is haunted by a bombshell secret in his past, and we see its origins in flashbacks featuring a watchful Wentworth Miller as Coleman's younger, conflicted self. Philip Roth's original novel delves deeply into themes about self-loathing and political correctness, but Robert Benton's icily formal film adaptation ducks controversy at every possible turn.

The film's present-day scenes all but ignore the material's ethnic implications and instead focuses on the minor scandal over Coleman and Faunia's Viagra-fueled romance. Stain suggests that sex is forever the masculine Achilles' heel, quoting Roth's line "every mistake that a man can make usually has a sexual accelerator."

As a sexual accelerator, Kidman is no slouch, but the glamour she suppressed to such superb effect in The Hours returns rather absurdly here. As Faunia, Kidman looks like a supermodel attending a costume party with a "white trash" theme. She may be relaxed in the bedroom scenes, but she comes across as tense and studied whenever she tries to convey Faunia's social class. Plus, she makes such conspicuous show of smoking cigarettes, it's as if Stain's dirty little secret is tobacco.

Sex becomes a distraction for Stain's stronger ideas, but it's the overt preoccupation of In the Cut, Jane Campion's adaptation of Susanna Moore's erotic thriller with literary pretensions. Meg Ryan plays Frannie, an English teacher repelled by the emotional messiness of sex but attracted, against her better judgment, to a sleazy homicide detective (Mark Ruffalo). He investigates a series of grisly crimes against women that grow increasingly close to Frannie.

Ryan's name has become synonymous with vapid chick flicks, and Cut lets her play against her lightweight image. The film matter-of-factly notes the realities of physical gratification (including masturbation and oral sex). Yet Ryan seldom lets pleasure seem particularly pleasurable. She's so intent on being serious that she scarcely smiles and spends much of the film with a dazed, faintly nauseated expression, making Frannie seem too passive.

Ryan's best as a surrogate audience member during Cut's surprisingly effective suspense scenes. Like Don't Look Now, the film works best as the kind of mood piece that makes you perceive the world in a new and unnerving way. And had it been simply a sexy thriller, Cut may have been rather fun.

Instead, Campion offers a feminist meditation on violence against women, replete with unsubtle symbolism and crime scene atrocities. The points Cut gets for its sexual frankness are deducted for the film's overall themes that sex, men and marriage are all basically bad.

While Stain and Cut won't garner Kidman or Ryan more respect, their nude scenes certainly won't make them any less popular.



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