The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: January 28 - February 4, 1999

[Movie Reviews]

| reviews & features | by movie | by theater | film specials | hot links |

Piano lessons

Jane Campion composes herself

by Peter Keough

"Jane Campion: A Complete Retrospective." At the Harvard Film Archive, February 3 through 21.

The Portrait of a Lady Difficult women come easy for Australian (née New Zealand) filmmaker Jane Campion, as can be seen from the retrospective of her films that's about to open at the Harvard Film Archive. From her brilliant first short films (February 3 at 9:15 p.m. and the 7th at 4 p.m.) to her masterpiece The Piano (1993; February 5 at 6:30 p.m., the 6th at 2 p.m., the 7th at 6:30 p.m., and the 8th at 9 p.m.) to her latest feature, the ambitious but disappointing The Portrait of a Lady (1996; February 4 at 6 and 9 p.m. and the 7th at 1 p.m.), Campion explores not only what women want but how they get it.

From the beginning, she herself seems to have known want she wanted as a filmmaker -- and how to get it. Made in 1982, her student short "Peel" establishes in its taut and kinetic nine minutes the style and themes she would develop throughout her career. The color orange and little else unites a father, a mother, and their bratty son on a motor trip: an alarming shade of it glows in the center line of the highway, in the trio's carrot-topped coifs, and in the citrus peels the boy insists on tossing out the window to dad's growing, ineffectual fury. The squabble ends with the two boys locked outside the car, excluded from the fed-up female inside. Related in raw fragments shot from the capricious angles and edited with the elliptical cuts that would become Campion trademarks, the film introduces the male opacity, the female opaqueness, and the genial family chaos that would characterize her best work.

All the woman in "Peel" wants is peace and quiet; the film ends with her infuriating silence. Not so the irrepressible '60s adolescents of "A Girl's Own Story" (1984), a 26-minute black-and-white short investing Campion's whimsy with sinister Buñuelian reverie. Constrained by their Catholic-school uniforms and the weirdness of an inept and vaguely incestuous patriarchy, these girls pursue their yearnings for sex, independence, and the Beatles, finding their voice at last in a dreamy girl-group rendition of a melancholy pop ballad with the recurring lyric "I feel the cold."

These teens return in a contemporary setting and a more calculated format in Campion's studied, rough, but rewarding first feature, 2 Friends (1986; February 13 at 1 p.m.). The film traces the relationship between two teenage girls, beginning with their final break-up and ending with their greatest moment of triumph. Louise (an elfin and prim Emma Coles) is proper, self-controlled, talented; Kelly (a blowzy and endearing Kris Bidenko) is overweight, adventurous, and irresponsible. Both come from fragmented families: Louise's divorced mother, Janet (Kris McQuade), is more a sister than a parent; Kelly's mother, Chris (Debra May), has remarried an unsympathetic blowhard named Malcolm (Peter Hehir) who chummily tyrannizes the family.

Although she didn't write the script, Campion's personal touch can be seen in the film's offbeat narrative structure -- it's a series of episodes going back in time -- and its themes of social repression, conformity, rebellion, and the limits of communication and reconciliation. She would give similar material a more personal and inspired spin in her next feature, the bizarre and bravura Sweetie (1989; February 5 at 9 p.m. and the 7th at 9 p.m.), which would bring her international attention.

Once again, Campion subverts the good-girl/bad-girl stereotypes, not to mention filmmaking conventions. The first half of the movie relates with deadpan whimsy the drab absurdities beleaguering mousy Kay (Karen Colston), whose relationship with her blandly well-intended boyfriend begins to go wrong when she uproots the tiny tree he plants in their asphalted yard to commemorate their love. Kay's fear of the destructive power of roots and family trees becomes understandable when her overweight and overwrought sister, Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon), drops in to stay.

A difficult woman and then some, Sweetie is infantile id at its most demanding, a mess of insatiable appetites and deluded ambitions of show-biz success. Her increasingly psychotic tantrums are given counterpoint by Campion's oddball but unobtrusive editing, compositions, and camera angles (shot from under beds or the upper corners of rooms, the film seems observed from the point of view of a naughty child or a flighty imp). The inescapable center of attention of her bedraggled family, she brings chaos and clarity, disruption and reconciliation, and, in the end, when the tree's threat is fulfilled, a sardonic redemption.

The travails of the troubled woman prove grimmer and more hopeful in An Angel at My Table (1990; February 20 at 2 p.m. and the 21st at 2 and 6 p.m.). Campion's distinctive take on the bio-pic, it's a three-hour fictionalized version of the life of Janet Frame, one of New Zealand's greatest writers. Unlike Sweetie, Frame was an odd girl out whose eccentricity was not indulged, whose genuine talent was not encouraged. Marked by a "Peel"-like shock of unruly red hair, paralyzed by shyness and a unique vision, Frame struggled through childhood and adolescence in a rural backwater raised by a caring but non-comprehending family racked with its own tragedies.

As an adult she was incorrectly diagnosed as a schizophrenic and sentenced to seven years in a snakepit hospital, where she received more than 200 shock treatments, "each one," as she described later in a memoir quoted in the film, "the equivalent of an execution." At the last minute, she is rescued from a lobotomy when her book wins a major literary prize. Powerful stuff, and in lesser hands doomed to preachy melodrama. But Campion's indirection, her bemused, unsettling insight, and her cumulative, meditative narrative frame her subject's sensibility, genius, and triumph, as does Kerry Fox's brave and wise performance.

The Piano Women find another, more eloquent expression in The Piano, as does Campion in her consummate work to date. The film begins with a voiceover from Ada (Holly Hunter, with scarcely a syllable of dialogue, in her greatest performance) that comes not in her speaking voice -- she has not spoken since childhood -- but in her "mind's voice," that of a changeling child. Imprisoned in the 19th-century social restraints embodied by her stern black bonnet and gown, Ada gives voice to her soul through her piano (in the moody, somewhat anachronistic rhapsodies of composer Michael Nyman).

Unwed and burdened with her child Flora (an eldritch Anna Paquin, winner of one of those freak Best Supporting Actress Oscars), herself a witchy handful and her mother's interpreter and familiar, Ada is sent packing from her native Scotland to the surf-tossed, mud-clotted wilds of New Zealand and mail-order husband Stewart (Sam Neill). There, the piano proves an object of contention, as the hapless and puritanical Stewart insists on leaving it on the beach. On the other hand, his semi-feral neighbor Baines (Harvey Keitel, poignantly vulnerable despite his Maori markings, piggish behavior, and trademark nudity) is intrigued both by it and by the truculent, fragile Ada, who passes through the benighted settlement like an inkdrop through water.

Baines offers Stewart a strip of land for the instrument and then enlists Ada for "lessons." What follows is a perverse and wrenching treatise on capitalism, sexual politics, and passion as he trades piano keys to Ada for increasingly intimate, fetishistic favors. Far from being victimized, Ada gains power through the transactions, and though it carries the price of a brutal convulsion of violence, the finished composition is a sensuous meditation on language, sublimation, fate, and the ineffable mystery of the female will.

Not so Campion's most recent film, the starchy, misconceived, but still rewarding The Portrait of a Lady. Henry James's novel assiduously analyzes the paradoxical fate of a spirited woman who loses her freedom when she inherits a fortune, and it seems Campion too may have lost a share of her independence and her distinctive vision, through the boon of a big budget and stellar casting in this lush period adaptation.

With the opening credit sequence, Campion gamely tries to make James's Portrait another girl's own story: female voiceovers coo about love, and contemporary women inexplicably pose before trees and perform a kind of wavy celebration of the earth goddess. A cut is then made to a be-bustled Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman in a rusty hairdo evoking Janet Frame) as she flees the proposal of landed, stolid Lord Warburton (Richard E; Grant), rebuffs the advances of her American suitor Caspar Goodwood (Viggo Mortensen), and endures the chidings of her consumptive, languorously smitten British cousin Ralph Touchett. Isabel retires to her bedroom, and, perhaps in an attempt by Campion to wrest her movie from its dead white male author, enjoys an erotic fantasy involving all three spurned men.

Here and elsewhere Campion's dadaist caprices backfire, and for the most part she falls back on the elegantly appointed Merchant/Ivory brand of stilted storytelling. A recent orphan taken on by her wealthy émigré uncle Mr. Touchett (John Gielgud), Isabel is adopted by her consumptive cousin Ralph, who nudges his father into leaving her enough money "to serve the needs of the imagination." The moribund Ralph sees the vital Isabel as his artwork, but she's usurped by the machinations of the shadowy Serena Merle (Barbara Hershey in a wrenching portrayal of ruthlessness and love) and her accomplice, the shallow dilettante Osmond (a sibilant, reptilian John Malkovich), who, inexplicably, seduces the headstrong heiress.

Campion, too, seems seduced by the hoity-toity rococo vistas and Renaissance splendors of a plushly costumed and set-designed 1870s Europe. With Ralph, though, and Merle, she does do justice to the author of the novel and the authors of Isabel's destiny. In her passionate sensibility, which grasps that of James without always understanding it, Campion's Portrait is almost worthy of both artists. See it as a learning exercise for her next opus: Holy Smoke, which will star Kate Winslet as a difficult woman who seeks spiritual and carnal guidance from a guru played by Piano man Harvey Keitel. It's due in the fall.

[Movies Footer]

| home page | what's new | search | about the phoenix | feedback |
Copyright © 1999 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.