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.