Dir: Jane Campion. US/Fr. 2003. 113 mins.

Describing Jane Campion's latest opus In The Cut as a serial killer thriller is as simplistic as calling The Piano a coming-of-age story. Yes, the skeleton of the film is a genre thriller about a woman caught among a string of suspects in a brutal murder spree in lower Manhattan, but what makes this chiller so compelling is the flesh which Campion has crafted on it. Boasting a career-boosting performance by Meg Ryan who follows in the footsteps of Kerry Fox, Holly Hunter, Nicole Kidman and Kate Winslet as yet another actress electrified by her collaboration with Campion, In The Cut will be one of the season's most talked-about films.

Financed by the UK arm of Pathe Cinema, In The Cut will first be distributed domestically by genre specialists Screen Gems and mainstream audiences will certainly be lured by the prospect of a juicy adult suspenser starring Ryan. The US will be a vital test ground to see if those audiences embrace or reject Campion's mesmerisingly arty visual style and off-centre storytelling techniques. Pushing easy audience buttons is not her priority here and nor was it the intention of Susanna Moore, who wrote the novel on which the film is based and collaborated with Campion on the screenplay. Screen Gems and distributors who have bought the film internationally should take care not to alienate upscale arthouse audiences who will glean most pleasure from the film and for whom, if positioned as such, it could well be one of the must-see events of the year.

Campion is one of those rare signature film-makers whose passion for her subjects and sublime visual stylings signal her films out as unmistakably Jane Campion films. She and her Holy Smoke cinematographer Dion Beebe work wonders on their grimy New York settings, making the city at once beautiful and menacing.

In In The Cut, she explores the sexual reawakening of an attractive thirty-something woman and collides it with violence and paranoia. The result is both profoundly unsettling and incredibly sexy. Campion generates authentic sexual heat out of her stifling urban summer setting, using visual, aural and pacing techniques to reflect the longings and desires of Ryan's character. Collars around the world will be hot. Ryan plays Frannie, a lonely college professor living on her own in a cramped apartment in Manhattan. She socialises with her nymphomaniac half-sister Pauline (Leigh) and sees a black student Cornelius (Pugh) out of the classroom so that he can help her new study on urban vocabulary.

When we first see her meet with Pugh, she goes to the bathroom only to stumble on a man being given oral sex by a woman. She watches the act and later masturbates at the thought of the man whose face she doesn't see although she notices a distinctive tattoo on his wrist.

When parts of a female murder victim are discovered in her garden, she is questioned by the detective on the case Malloy (Ruffalo). There is a strong attraction between Frannie and Malloy, but they only act on it, when after a bungled date, Frannie is mugged - possibly by the killer.

The sex with Malloy is a revelation to Frannie, but she is nervous about him and as more murders take place and she espies the same tattoo on his wrist as she saw on the man at the bar, she begins to suspect that he is the killer.

Meanwhile an unstable former lover (Bacon), Malloy's pugilistic partner (Damici) and the student Cornelius (Pugh) also emerge as dangerous men in her eyes.

Campion and Moore's script is hardly crammed with edge-of-the-seat thrills and there is a failure to elicit suspense from the film which would have helped its commercial prospects. Having said that, they have changed the ending of the book from doom-laden to upbeat which was no doubt a commercial necessity. But then again it is the characters here - notably Frannie and Molloy - and their interplay on both sex, romance and trust levels which are intriguing, not so much the plot.

Ryan is so tightly wound as to be entirely convincing as Frannie. She falls into character immediately in a way she has never done before, and the strong, guiding hand of Campion can be seen in her performance. Ruffalo is his usually charismatic self as Malloy, exhibiting a sexual authority as well as an awareness of his intellectual shortcomings and vulnerabilities when it comes to his growing affection for Frannie. Their love scenes together are natural and candid.

Censors will have a field day: Campion does not shy away from nudity of both actors, her violence is graphic and gore factor high, while the provocative nature of the film-making makes the sex/violence combination even more disturbing. Although the film is now rated R in North America after several cuts, it might encounter different issues in different territories.

Exec prod: Effie Brown

Prod: Laurie Parker

Scr: Jane Campion, Susanna Moore, from Moore's novel

DoP: Dion Beebe

Prod des: David Brisbin

Ed: Alexandre de Franceschi

Mus: Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson

Main cast: Meg Ryan, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nick Damici, Kevin

Bacon, Sharrieff Pugh