Director Retrospective: Jane Campion
Special Edition: Women Directors
After a break for Summer, I thought it would be a nice time to resume my exploration of the filmographies of various important directors — but with a twist. For my previous 25 directorial retrospectives (how in the world did I watch that many movies last year?!?!), I focused on filmmakers with at least 10 films to their credit — that way, I’d have a wider range of films to watch and think about and, as a result, might be better positioned to notice overarching themes in their work. At least, that was the logic. BUT…as some folks thoughtfully pointed out, that 10-film-minimum threshold meant that some important directors — notably, women filmmakers — were all too often left out, since women have rarely had the same opportunities to make as many films as their male counterparts. In light of that, I’m going to spend some time over the next several weeks looking specifically at the careers of various women filmmakers. These retrospectives won’t look exactly the same as the previous ones — after all, it’s difficult to do a Top 5 if you’ve only got 6-7 films to choose from — but I hope that this special series will still provide a helpful introductory primer to the works of these influential artists.
To start off, I wanted to take a look at one of the most well-known and well-regarded women directors working today — a director who’s achieved acclaim in her feature-length films, her short films, and more recently in her television work. Her work has been nominated for pretty much all the big awards — including the Academy Award for Best Picture, the Palm d’Or, the Golden Lion, etc. etc. — and has received many, if not all, of those awards. I’m talking about New Zealand director, writer, and producer Jane Campion.
The Rankings (Worst to First)
For this post, I watched all 8 of Campion’s feature-length films. And though I didn’t include them on the list below, I also viewed several of her short films: Passionless Moments (1983), A Girl’s Own Story (1986), and Peel (1986) — the latter of which received the Short Film Palm d’Or. I’ve ranked Campion’s films below from worst-to-first in my mind with a few brief comments on each…
#8: In the Cut (2003) – Ouch. You know…I think there’s maybe an interesting movie here somewhere — particularly if the film focused more on complex female sexuality and desire and less on…well…everything else (e.g. serial-killers, racist and sexist and homophobic detectives, the difficulties of being a teacher, poetry, etc.). But that potentially interesting movie isn’t the one that we get here; instead, we get a “thriller” that is decidedly un-thrilling — that is, it’s obvious to everyone watching the identity of the killer almost immediately. Although I admire the gusto, if not the execution, in which Meg Ryan throws herself into a role that is obviously opposite her typical roles, whoever thought it was a good idea to cast Mark Ruffalo as a charmless, unrepentant jerk made a huge mistake. Really…this is the only overtly “bad” movie on Campion’s list in my opinion.
#7: Two Friends (1986) – OK…this one’s a bit of a cheat on my part, as Two Friends was actually a made-for-television film that Campion made very early in her directorial career — a fact I became aware of only after watching it. However, since I did watch it, I thought I’d go ahead and include it on the list. The basic plot here involves two young women navigating adolescence and their changing friendship, as they face different obstacles and receive different opportunities and make different choices in their respective lives. It’s actually a pretty solid film — especially for made-for-television work — in terms of its coming-of-age qualities. That said, there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking here either, as some of the film’s beats seem a bit familiar with other similar stories/films. A decent flick but probably not one that you need to watch unless you’re really into Campion’s other work and you’re curious to see the earlier stages of her career.
#6: The Portrait of a Lady (1996) – I don’t have much to say about The Portrait of a Lady. It’s a perfectly fine period-piece drama that is basically the premise of all those mid-to-late Victorian stories that you’ve read about the dangers of falling for the wrong dude. [It is an adaptation of a Henry James novel, after all!] Both Nicole Kidman and Barbara Hershey are good in their respective roles — Hershey even garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress here. Mary-Louise Parker is over-the-top sassy, maybe/probably/certainly to a distracting degree. John Malkovich is fun as a reeeeeal creeper. And there are lots of good actors in supporting roles here (e.g. John Gielgud, Shelley Winters, Shelley Duvall, Viggo Mortensen, Christian Bale, etc.). A good enough film if you’re into this time-period or subject-matter, though, as stated earlier, it does feel familiar — which may be more of a problem with the original source-text than the film itself.
#5: Holy Smoke! (1999) – Alright. Now we get to probably the most controversial film on this list in terms of its placement within Campion’s oeuvre: Holy Smoke! The title of this one sort of tells you everything. It’s a weird, problematic, complicated, problematic, ridiculous, problematic, problematic film. (Did I mention this movie is problematic?) Written by Campion herself and her sister, the film focuses on a young woman (played by Kate Winslett) who travels to India, gets involved with what might be a cult, is then kidnapped by her own family, and basically imprisoned by a cult de-programer (played by Harvey Keitel). The tone is all over the place here, the characters are extremely slippery, the philosophical explorations feel a little amateurish, and the sexual dynamics are…um…messy for pretty much everyone involved. It’s one of Campion’s worst reviewed films, generally speaking; and I totally get that. If you watch this film as a kind of “Eat-Pray-Love” dark-romantic comedy — which the first half sorta encourages you to do — then the film doesn’t really work very well. But after watching the film, I kept wondering if the way to watch the movie was to think of it as a sort of anti-romantic comedy — i.e. in fact, a critique of romantic comedies (like a really fucked-up When Harry Met Sally + Love in the Afternoon or something). In that sense, it’s definitely a film that sticks with you, or at least it stuck with me, which is why I’m listing it higher on my ranking than most critics probably would.
#4: Sweetie (1989) – This is actually Campion’s first feature-length (NON-television) film, and it’s really quite remarkable in its strangeness as well as, by the end of the film, its surprising emotional resonance. The plot focuses on two adult sisters, Dawn and Kay, who are literal opposites of one another, and how a family can cope (or not) with its own members who are difficult to live with. As characters, Dawn is childish, petulant, unpredictable, and mentally/emotionally unstable, while Kay is extremely anxious, superstitious, frightened, and somewhat emotionally distant. The first portion of the film largely explores the romantic relationship between Kay and her boyfriend, Louis. [One of the more humorous scenes is very early on when Kay visits a local tea-reader, who tells her that she’ll meet a man with a question on his face. I won’t give away how that prophecy becomes true, though it demonstrates the peculiar charm of Campion’s film.] The latter part of the film explores the problems that arise when Dawn (or “Sweetie,” as she’s often called) unpredictably arrives with her drooling lover, Bob, to live with Kay and Louis, and we see the lifelong consequences and strain that Dawn’s exhausting personality has placed upon her sister and her parents. If this was just a “quirky” film, then it would be enjoyable enough; however, as stated earlier, Campion manages to draw real emotional weight from these characters so that the conclusion feels, paradoxically, like a tragedy and a relief. Anyway…this is a good one to watch if you get a chance, and there’s even a Criterion Collection version now so you shouldn’t have much trouble finding it.
#3: Bright Star (2009) – Generally speaking, I’m very hard on movies about writers and, in particular, poets. I tend to find such movies unbearable, in fact. But I have to admit that I was mostly impressed by Campion’s love-letter to the James Dean of the Romantic Poets, John Keats. Bright Star — which pulls its title from one of Keats’s poems — focuses on the last portion of Keats’s life, when he’s a sick and (mostly) struggling poet, whose work doesn’t seem to resonate with his contemporary readers. During this time, he meets and falls in love with Fanny Brawne, which coincides with an incredibly prolific period in the poet’s career shortly followed by his untimely death. All of the performances — notably Abby Cornish as Fanny Brawne, Ben Whishaw as John Keats, and Paul Schneider as Charles Brown — are strong and the production values are excellent. In fact, I’d venture to say that this is probably Campion’s second-best looking film (after The Piano). It’s clear that Campion is a fan of Keats’s poetry — her characters read or quote Keats in several of her films, including In the Cut and An Angel at My Table — and this feels like one artist paying respects to another artist whose work has clearly had an impact. While I wouldn’t say that Bright Star is a “great” film, it is a good one — especially if you like period-pieces, tragic love stories (is there any other kind?), and/or Romantic poetry.
#2: The Piano (1993) – Speaking of Campion’s best-looking film, well…here it is: The Piano. If you’re familiar at all with her work, you were probably expecting this to be in the #1 spot — after all, that’s where the majority of critics would place it based on the reviews, the reputation, and the awards garnered. But I actually think there’s another Campion film that’s slightly better than this one. [More on that other film below.] Without a doubt, The Piano is Campion’s best known work among casual audiences; it was highly regarded upon release and earned a bevy of Academy Award nominations — including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, etc. etc. etc. [Of the nominations, it won three awards: Holly Hunter for Best Actress, Anna Paquin for Best Supporting Actress, and Jane Campion for Best Original Screenplay.] The plot of the film involves a mail-order bride named Ada who, along with her young daughter, arrives with a much-beloved piano in a rural village in New Zealand, where she must deal with a husband that she doesn’t love and a rough-and-tumble admirer. Much of the film’s success is due to its performances. The aforementioned Hunter is an absolute force as a woman who is obsessed with music but who herself has practiced voluntary muteness since childhood; and Paquin also does an excellent job as Hunter’s translator-child, especially considering that this was her first role. [Winning an Academy Award for your FIRST performance sets the bar pretty high, I’d imagine.] Moreover, both Sam Neill and Harvey Keitel are also very good in their respective roles as Ada’s husband and her admirer (and eventual lover). There is a real weight to this film — visually, thematically, symbolically, etc. — that is difficult to describe but sorta undeniable upon viewing, and I mean that in a positive way.
AND MY PICK FOR CAMPION’S BEST…
#1: An Angel at My Table (1990) – After careful consideration, my personal favorite of Campion’s oeuvre would have to be An Angel at My Table — a somewhat unexpected pick for me, considering that I hadn’t even heard of this film prior to starting this retrospective. A biopic based on the life of acclaimed New Zealand writer Janet Frame, Campion’s film (like Frame’s own autobiography) is divided into three parts — documenting her childhood, her recurring personal and professional troubles, and her eventual success as an artist. Each section of the film sees Janet being portrayed by a different actress — most memorably, Kerry Fox (who a few years later would give another great performance in Danny Boyle’s first film, Shallow Grave). Like many other Campion films, An Angel at My Table is an exploration of the very real, very historical trials that women have faced and continue to face. A shy, nervous, and introspective individual, Janet is misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic, is institutionalized, is subjected to shock-treatment, and is very nearly lobotomized — all because she is seen as being “different” than others around her. [In fact, it’s while being institutionalized that Janet writes and publishes her first book, which receives critical acclaim and, in turn, helps to convince the doctors NOT to give her a scheduled lobotomy!] An Angel at My Table is certainly a sad and tragic story, but it’s also ultimately one about the strength and perseverance (and eventual good fortune) of one woman who survives a series of terrible circumstances. You should watch it.
The Final Word
If you’re keeping score, by my count, Campion’s made two great films (i.e. An Angel at My Table & The Piano), two good films (i.e. Bright Star & Sweetie), two solid films (i.e. The Portrait of a Lady & Two Friends), one bad film (i.e. In the Cut), and one film that I just don’t really know what to do with but still sorta admired (i.e. Holy Smoke!). Visually, Campion’s work is pretty consistently striking in its use of color, framing, light and darkness, etc. and the production values are generally top-notch too. The fact that she writes or co-writes many of her movies is also intriguing to me — particularly those moments of her films that take a more surreal turn. [I’m curious whether she envisioned how she might film these scenes as she was writing or if she only considered the filmmaking aspects after the writing was complete.] For American audiences who may have only considered this part of the world via the lens of more bombastic directors like George Miller, I think it’s immensely valuable to view works by a director like Campion, who not only provides a different perspective of the Australasian geographical region but also different themes — leaning heavily into issues of womanhood, sexuality, patriarchy, etc. While it seems that she’s currently content to do television work for the time being, I do hope that she returns to feature-length films at some point in the future.