(1954 - present)
Three Key Films: An Angel at My Table (1990), The Piano (1993), The Portrait of a Lady (1996)
Underrated: Holy Smoke! (1999) Though one could make a solid case for any of Campion’s post-Piano features as the most “underrated” of her canon, The Portrait of a Lady and Bright Star (2009) both earned passionate supporters and Oscar nominations upon their release, and the demented In the Cut (2003) at least enjoyed significant infamy. Her 1999 effort, Holy Smoke!, on the other hand, opened to barely a whisper, despite the presence of leading lady Kate Winslet riding her post-Titanic buzz wave. The film is constructed as an extended tete-a-tete between two unreliable narrators: unruly post-adolescent Ruth (Winslet), “rescued” against her will by her Australian family after a stint in an Indian cult, and sleazy American de-programmer PJ Waters (Harvey Keitel), whose unorthodox counseling methods lead to psychosexual warfare with his resistant client.
What begins as a somewhat academic dissection of gender roles quickly devolves into a bizarre fever dream of hallucinations, public humilitations, and some of the most disturbing pop music cues seen in film since A Clockwork Orange—and maybe this chaos is Campion’s point. Objectivity and thoughtful, civilized analysis can only get filmmaker and -goer so far when the subject matter is this sticky and personal, and Holy Smoke! features perhaps the most compelling integration of Campion’s trademark surrealist flourishes. This is a film where cars have antlers, macho men wander deserts in red dresses, acting ingénues dance sari-clad in the horizon, and Pam Grier is the calm and sensible voice of reason. You want an auteur at her least filtered? Then give Holy Smoke! a second chance.
Unforgettable: The titular object in The Piano can be read as a symbol for just about any of the film’s primary thematic concerns: voice, sex, power, love, trust, authority, happiness. But above all else, Ada McGrath’s piano is a vessel of pleasure, and when Campion reunites her protagonist with her most prized possession during a trip to the beach with the enigmatic George Baines, camera, performer, music and mise-en-scene seem to soar. Joy is a difficult emotion to portray with complexity, but Campion and lead actress Holly Hunter offer a truly multi-dimensional portrait of Ada’s soul during this short, nearly wordless sequence. Ada is visibly a mother, a lover, and a wife in this scene, but she’s also a woman incapable of being defined by her relationship to the film’s other characters. The name of the piece she performs is “The Heart Asks Pleasure First”. It’s a statement Ada understands well in this moment.
The Piano (1993)
The Legend: New Zealand native Jane Campion has been riveting and enraging audiences in equal measure for nearly thirty years now, ever since her short film Peel (1982) received the short competition’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Born in Wellington, Campion earned degrees in both anthropology and painting before studying film, and both disciplines have clearly influenced her unique, idiosyncratic cinematic style. Shortly after finishing her studies at the Australian School of Film and Television, Campion made a name for herself in the Australian film and television scene, with several acclaimed short films and a television feature, 2 Friends. Her first feature film, the bizarre and acidic Sweetie (1990), premiered to boos at Cannes, but like much of Campion’s work has since been reclaimed as a significant work of art. She had better luck with An Angel at My Table, a television miniseries adapted from Janet Frame’s autobiography, which earned her plaudits around the world (including the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival).
The cornerstone of Campion’s career, and the film that she will probably remain best remembered for, was 1993’s indescribably haunting The Piano, starring Holly Hunter as a mute mail-order bride shipped to meet her husband in the wilds of New Zealand with her daughter and beloved piano in tow. Cannes was kinder to Campion this time, to say the least: she became the first female director in history to win the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or for feature film. More success followed: The Piano became an art-house sensation worldwide, and Campion, along with Hunter and nine-year-old actress Anna Paquin, earned an Oscar for her work. The film immediately posited Campion as one of the most significant female directors in the world, and remains one of the touchstones of that slippery category, “women’s cinema”.
Not one to rest on her laurels, Campion used her clout to move in even stranger, more controversial directions, and every project she has made since The Piano has suffered from negative comparison to that film. 1996’s fascinating The Portrait of a Lady did not jive with purists seeking a more conservative adaptation of Henry James’ novel, but Campion’s complex authorial voice and the towering performances of Barbara Hershey and Martin Donovan have ensured its rightful status as a major work. Campion’s next two features, Holy Smoke! and In the Cut, led many critics to claim that she had lost any gifts she once had, but what those films lacked in narrative legibility they made up for in stylistic bravery. 2009’s Bright Star was hailed as a return to form of sorts, though those of us paying attention knew that Campion never really lost her touch; nonetheless, the film is an effortlessly beautiful reminder of Campion’s signature approach: turning traditionally “feminine” subject matter inside out through evocative staging, unconventional imagery, and raw (even ugly) emotionality, she’s the inverse of the Merchant & Ivory mold: a bonafide rule-breaker committed to showing us women we have never seen onscreen before. Lee Dallas
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