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Jane Campion: Authorship and Personal Cinema

Alistair Fox

(Indiana University Press; US: Sep 2011)

Personal and Powerful Portrait of a Troubled Lady

The ‘intentional fallacy’ is the trap we critics fall into when writing a review that tries to uncover the ‘intention’ the author had in writing the book, or the artist’s purpose when creating the work of art. It was something to be avoided when I was a student of literature, because we can never truly know what was in another’s mind at a specific time. However, this biography of Jane Campion effectively announces the death of the intentional fallacy. It’s all about ascertaining the intention of, in this case, the ‘auteur’ (not director, not filmmaker) in producing her work.


The life experiences and purpose of the artist are everything to our understanding of her films. This examination of Campion’s work is forensically detailed in its analysis of how her cinema corresponds to her personal life and how, therefore, we can interpret her intentions in making them.


Campion and her sister Anna were raised by a series of nannies due to their parents’ frequent prolonged absences whilst on tour. Their mother, Edith, was an actor/writer and their father, Richard, an actor/director. Campion set out to prove herself, from an early age, as a creative force equal to that of her father in particular. Fox shows her urgent, competitive edge in her youth and can draw upon personal evidence from both Anna and Campion to back this up. As a living artist and ‘auteur’, Campion is both helpful and quite contradictory. This leaves the biographer and academic with some clearing up to do. Fox maps out her philosophy and creative direction very precisely.


He is so precise and detailed, in fact, that he reinforces the evidence for the presence of anxieties and events from Campion’s family life in her films with minute material examples. The depressed mother, in the 1984 film A Girl’s Own Story, wears a dress (with the price tag still attached as an emblem of possession) that belonged to Edith Campion. In In The Cut (2003) the phallic drawing of the red lighthouse on the blackboard (to illustrate Woolf’s To The Lighthouse) was drawn by Campion herself. Anxiety is layered upon anxiety in her works, according to Fox, making for a difficult read in some cases and the abiding presence of a mentally ill mother and philandering father re-appear and emerge as crucial catalysts time and again.


Attraction and repulsion exist in the dynamic between Campion’s heroines (if they can be called that) and the men they encounter. Abusive, problematic relationships are interspersed with powerful love affairs and dangerous encounters (Holly Hunter’s Ada in The Piano 1993, Meg Ryan’s Frannie In The Cut 2003). Throughout, the presence of a charismatic and unfaithful father figure destroys equilibrium and provides the source for discord (Holy Smoke 1999). Anna Campion is a sometime collaborator with Jane, in a concerted attempt, Fox would have it, to emerge from and perhaps exorcise the shadows and ghosts of their shared past.


This is a challenging book and resides firmly within the territory of academic monographs. It would be difficult to be anything else when considering Campion’s output and the issues and fictive composition therein. There remains, however, a respect for the elusive mystery at the heart of the artist’s work. That might be enough to bolster the flagging reputation of the intentional fallacy, which after all, is intended – somewhat ironically—to help we, the audience, find what delights us in an artist’s work.


‘…Campion interposes a much greater degree of symbolic displacement between her real-life experience and her fictionalized response to it. While it is possible… to identify elements that correspond directly to events or objects in Campion’s past experience, as she has warned us, everything is “mixed and matched,” with elements being transposed and reassembled, so that the lines that connect the fiction to the reality are obscured.’ (p.226)


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Dr Gabrielle Malcolm is a writer, artist and academic based in the UK. She is known for her publications on Victorian literature and culture and her writing on Shakespeare on stage, TV and Film. She has published alongside writers such as AS Byatt in 'The Dickensian' journal, and her performance art pieces were featured in the Liverpool City of Culture celebrations in 2008, at the Liverpool Tate amongst other venues. Recent publications include a chapter in 'Writing Women of the Fin de Siecle: Authors of Change' (Palgrave McMillan, 2011). She is an avid fan of the Gothic and the Neo-Victorian. Her literary blog 'A Special Mention' has many followers and she can regularly be found tweeting @gabymalcolm, with fellow Shakespeareans and fans of Gene Kelly.


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