Jane Campion has directed seven feature films during her thirty-year career, and that relatively small output, coupled with the dearth of female filmmakers worldwide, has lent each of her releases the unlikely status of “event-movie.” Sweetie, her 1989 feature debut, really was an event: a disturbingly comic and psychologically acute depiction of sex and sisterhood from a bold young director in full command of her art. As with few other contemporary directors, one gets the sense that Campion’s work is an ongoing project; each film seeks to establish new parameters for female subjectivity in cinema, and Campion’s sense of freedom betrays the fact that her conceptions are so rarely challenged or addressed by her peers. The title of A Girl’s Own Story, one of three formidable early Campion shorts included on the Sweetie disc recently updated for Blu-Ray by Criterion ($39.95), sounds like a deceptively modest mission statement: “A girl’s own story? Imagine that!”
With its disjunctive editing and entrancing depth-of-field composition, Sweetie would seduce even if its subject were pinwheel manufacture. It observes the perilous relations between the prim, superstitious Kay (Karen Colston) and her sister, Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon)—explosively moody, promiscuous and possibly schizophrenic—who intrudes upon Kay’s story, and home, halfway through the film. Sweetie seemingly has no right to impede Kay’s attempt at self-actualization, but she grabs the narrative spotlight and her father’s affection, as she does everything else in sight. The men on the periphery are useless. Why shouldn’t Sweetie, untalented and overweight, dream of stardom? Through Campion’s distanced lens, Sweetie’s flair for performance and rejection of feminine propriety mark her as a potential heroine. While focused on sexual trauma, infantile regression and possible incest, Campion’s film skirts Freud to forge its own skewed impressions of intimacy and kinship. Campion trained as a social anthropologist in New Zealand, where she was born, and her elemental, fragmented short film An Exercise in Discipline: Peel (1982) indicated that family dynamics would become her forte; tilting at the academic, it begins with a flow chart that links father to sister to child. As for Sweetie, it might be the most acid depiction of family relations ever inscribed, per the director’s postscript title card, “for my sister.”
Though it opens with a baby’s-eye-view shot of a mother blocking out the sun, An Angel at My Table, the TV miniseries Campion made in 1990 (available on DVD from Criterion; $39.95), employs a comparatively unsophisticated visual language. It’s also Campion’s most enchanting depiction of female selfhood, its simplicity less attributable to small-screen necessity than to the director’s infectious adoration of her subject, the romantic and resolutely unpretentious New Zealand novelist Janet Frame. Based on Frame’s three-volume autobiography, Angel is another Campion tale of a traumatized woman attempting to establish a sense of self, and in the cripplingly shy but generous and gifted writer, the filmmaker seems to have found a kindred spirit. This portrait of the artist follows Frame (played by Kerry Fox as an adult) and her unforgettable, untamable shock of orange hair as she navigates a childhood network of verbal and sensual stimuli; a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia and an eight-year stay in a treatment facility; and a subsequent, tentative embrace of adulthood, sexuality and emotional articulation through literature.
The contours of this story may sound familiar—and for those who suspect a variation on the Oscar-baiting biopic, possibly insufferable. But Angel is unswayed by neatness and causal explanation, and forgoes Life Lessons and glimpses of the Writing Process. Frame’s eventual artistic success provides an excuse to tell the story, but it has surprisingly little bearing on the tale. Campion even avoids treating the systemic injustice at the story’s center—Frame’s hospitalization—as an indictment of mass society’s suspicion of difference. Angel is merely, and miraculously, an unsentimental account of a rich internal life given the chance to unfurl slowly in public view.
To combat the commonplace notion that Campion’s films lost their vitality following the critical and commercial success of The Piano (1993), I offer In the Cut (2003), an abstract feminist thriller (based on the novel by Susanna Moore) about the things men do, and threaten to do, to women. (It’s available on DVD from Sony; $9.99.) An emotionally raw Meg Ryan stars as Frannie, an East Village high school English teacher who, unnerved by witnessing a private sex act, begins an affair with a brash detective (Mark Ruffalo) investigating a neighborhood murder. “She was disarticulated,” he says of the victim, and the verb (definition: to separate at the joints) comes to haunt a film already caught in the sway of language. Frannie is writing a book about street slang, and on multiple occasions she falls into a swoon while reading MTA-approved subway poetry.
Not surprisingly, given Campion’s indifference to plot mechanics, In the Cut doesn’t pass muster as a murder mystery, but it succeeds as her most obsessive and expressionistic film to date. The camera seems almost predatory; we look through a male gaze wedded to the medium close-up shot, which is used to disarticulate female bodies via careful framing. Campion views Manhattan askew, locating her fertile urban jungle a few blocks south of the clinical affluence of Stanley Kubrick’s psychic cousin Eyes Wide Shut—though in contrast, her film’s sexuality is genuinely explicit and at times even warm. Her reward? Being the only female director cited in Slavoj Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. Campion deserves better company, and she knows it: In the Cut highlights a classroom’s boredom with Virginia Woolf and climaxes with a literal visit to the lighthouse.