Past Perfect: Criterion Classics - Sweetie (1989)

[2 May 2007]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Sweetie is a strange experience, a movie made up almost exclusively out of hints and suggestions. Nothing is ever discussed outright in this amazingly nuanced narrative, and issues that appear to be boiling below the surface are simply allowed to simmer and soak into everything around them. Obviously, as portrayed by Australian auteur Jane Campion in her first feature film, this is a family hiding a mountain of damaging dysfunction behind their dry, sometimes even dopey, demeanor. Whether it’s just a simple case of one child’s uncontrolled id crashing into the rest of her family’s slighted and submerged egos, or something far more sinister and suspect, the result is a ticking human time bomb waiting to insert itself into situations and simply implode.

As a tale of people picking each other apart for the sake of their own sense of security, Sweetie represents one of the most amazing family dramas ever delivered to celluloid. But there is more to the movie than just a sizable sibling spat with parents unable to control their progeny. In the hands of Campion, fresh from success in the short-film arena, this is art animated, a purposefully arcane cinematic vision made meaningful and important by the way in which this skilled filmmaker positions her lens.

While many will see Sweetie as the catalyst, the crazy deluded sister whose extreme case of angry arrested adolescence leads the rest of her kin towards all kinds of dire decisions, it is actually Kay who plays the mechanism for change more times than not. Always willing to challenge her parents, but never able to find the words to express her emotions, she is all outbursts and whining, pure pain pouring out of her horribly wounded heart. While she is clearly unlike her sibling in outward appearance, inward ability or perplexed personality, she is equally adept at making the familial world revolve around her. Sweetie simply acts out, making her demands as apparent as possible. When they are met, she is only semi-satisfied. She pushes for more, and when she doesn’t get it, tends to revert right back to her spoiled square one.

Kay, on the other hand, is skilled at the silent, suffering approach to approval. She wants everyone to acknowledge her sister’s interpersonal deficiencies and wears her many tiny triumphs as mental medals to prove her priggish superiority. To argue that one or the other is the only causational component is foolish. Both are on paths of stagnant self-destruction and it will take an act outside their control to create a break that will either free them or forever lock the family in a cycle of denial.

Something is being avoided here, and all arrows point to Father, Sweetie, and some manner of unnatural attraction. That Campion doesn’t come right out and scream “child abuse” or “incest” is one of Sweetie‘s more intriguing - and irritating - elements. We don’t like our issues to be open-ended, without clear-cut indicators of side, morality, and meaning. When Kay spies her sister giving “Daddy” a bath, it is an unsettling scene. The sexual aspect is also amplified by both characters’ approach to physicality. Kay is completely cut off from her boyfriend Louis. Sweetie will sleep with anyone—including her sister’s limp lover. So it’s not hard to accept that sometime in the easily-dismissed distant past, Sweetie was a victim of some kind of unhealthy relative relationship.

But maybe that’s not true. Perhaps her overt carnality is just a recent development, a way of dealing with a life overloaded with disappointment. After all, Sweetie lives in a perpetual dream of fame and privilege, a fantasy fostered almost exclusively by her dad. So it could be that her present state of mind creates the perception of childhood trauma, while the truth is actually more complicated and less scandalous than we apparently want it to be.

There are also obvious hints of mental illness with both sisters. Kay has developed such a hatred for trees (naturally, Sweetie and Dad share many a private moment in the family tree house) that she actually attacks the poor defenseless plants with a kind of insular insanity. Her sister, on the other hand, is a “Goth girl, interrupted” mess. Fashions forged out of broken bits of cloth and cut-up dresses, eyes smeared with dark circles of black, Sweetie suggests the kind of kid who has spent decades trying to escape who she is inside. We do get a chance to see her as a youngster, and the pleasantly perky ginger we witness is a shock.

It’s as if Campion is purposefully playing with our perception of the character to keep any and all possibilities about her past in play. Indeed, Sweetie is a film that loves the notion of acuity, of how the seemingly normal can be nutty and an inviolable vice versa. Tossing in obtuse sequences where unusual imagery is intercut into the narrative, and a use of angles that often suggest something slightly askew existing just out of frame, Campion’s compositions make us aware that the images are just as important as the dialogue being delivered and the performers providing the necessary emotional truth.

The cast here is truly amazing, doing something that few films and actors even attempt. Campion has purposefully created individuals that walk the fine line between empathy and ennui, likeability and loathing, and constantly causes them to cross back and forth between the two extremes. At first, we feel this is Kay’s story, and Karen Colston does a brilliant job of getting us on her side. Of course, the minute we arrive at some manner of understanding, Kay contorts and confronts our feelings for her. Similarly, Sweetie is a cruel comic contradiction who would be pitiable if she weren’t such a sensational slag. Geneviève Lemon, required to do most of her acting with her eyes and remarkable bulk, finds the sad soul inside this spoiled sow, and manages to make us care even as Sweetie continually makes us cringe.

As a battle of will between two wounded women, Campion sets up a kind of call and response - or better yet, cause and effect - style of storytelling. The minute her mad bitch of a sibling starts going off the deep end, Kay cranks up the hurt homebody routine. The result is the film’s real theme—that within each family, love and hate become part of a tainted tug of war where nobody wins and everybody loses.

This is best highlighted in the film’s three main subplots. The girls’ parents separate, and sides are instantly drawn. Mom ventures out into the wilderness, ending up a cook for a group of Outback cowboys. Dad initially seeks Kay for help, but we soon learn that he really needs Sweetie to feel calm and complete. Bob, Sweetie’s pick-up “producer” sex partner, also represents the reality of the character’s sense of self. Looking to the obvious junkie for confirmation and affection, she literally drains him of life until he is left, flat on his back and covered in coffee, in a local diner.

Kay’s live-in lover Louis is a little trickier. An admirer of transcendental meditation and spirituality, he original hooked up with his current paramour after learning their love was fated by a fortuneteller. But his eye is constantly wandering, from a fellow TM devotee who flaunts her tantric sex manual, to Sweetie herself, who practically molests him on a trip to the beach. It is clear that both gals are starved for love, needing any manner of recognition, good, bad, or indifferent to fuel their failing sense of self.

It all rushes to a head in the final scene, a sequence that becomes a kind of metaphysical showdown between Sweetie, her parents, her past, and her sister. Kay is also clearly in confrontation mode, making everything that’s happening about her, her decisions, and her desire for change. On both sides of the battle are Dad (staunchly status quo) and Mom (ready to involve the authorities for the first time in decades). When a real outsider is tossed in—in this case, a rascally young neighbor boy named Clayton—it crosses everyone’s wires, leading to judgments that otherwise would not be made, and results that no one could easily have expected.

The ending of Sweetie is indeed odd. It seems to suggest that only one person was responsible for the familial unrest, when we know very clearly that this is not true. As a matter of fact, it even goes so far as to argue that much of the destruction foisted onto the clan could have been avoided had certain “institutional” steps been taken beforehand. Nothing seems really settled either. One character even envisions their life the way it used to be, back before things got out of hand, back when things seemed simple and pure.

By placing us in these contradictory realities, Campion creates a truly unreal atmosphere, a cinematic sense that guarantees Sweetie turns out to be a true motion-picture masterpiece. Riffing on references that she was hung up on at the time (including a closing moment lifted directly out of the David Lynch oeuvre) and purposefully framing her scenes to throw both the actors and audience off guard, the look of this movie is simply amazing. Initially, no one is seen straight on. We view shoes, the side of someone’s face, the top of a person’s head. Then, slowly, people start to creep in towards the middle of the compositions. By the time we get to the end, when anarchy rules the lives of everyone involved, Campion keeps the action centered.

There are also times when blocking provides the necessary undercurrent to an otherwise ordinary scene. While Dad is crying, Mom, Kay and Louis step out onto a vast Australian highway, and the overwhelming vista, matched against Campion’s purposeful placement of her players (Mom up front, Kay off to one side, Louis far off in the background) suggests everything we need to know about whose making the decisions here.

It’s a stunning conceit, one that works much better than a viewer initially imagines. Instead of making everything cold and distant, it allows elements from outside the sequences, as well as information and emotions we’ve experienced previously, to float in and permeate the action. When Sweetie is wrestling with Clayton, we sense something unsettling. As the visual remains off in the distance, we suddenly recall the moment where Sweetie and her father infer some inappropriate contact and the aura of such abuse makes us instantly fear for what will happen next. Similarly, when Louis learns the truth about the tree he planted at the start of the couple’s relationship, the lack of any outward arguing allows us to fill in the blanks from the preceding discussions the pair have had.

In a sense, Sweetie is made up of nothing but the vaguest of recollections, without any real reason or outright rationale for all the tension and turmoil on hand. Sure, the main character is a harried handful, the kind of girl child that will end up dead, drugged up, or deposited in a home for the rest of her restless life. But that doesn’t mean that Sweetie deserves such a fate. She simply wants to share her purpose and pain with everyone. And they too have been more than happy to channel their inner emptiness into her…just like all families seem to do.

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