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'Sweetie' Is Jane Campion's Stunning Freshman Effort

This is Jane Campion's first exploration of the subtle threads that hold us to the world of people and things -- sometimes against our will.


Director: Jane Campion
Cast: Genevieve Lemon, Karen Colston, Tom Lycos, Michael Lake
Distributor: Criterion Collection
Rated: R
Release date: 2011-04-19

Early in Jane Campion’s phenomenal freshman effort Sweetie, Kay (Karen Kolston) disrupts a meditation class by demanding of the teacher “Excuse me, but I don’t feel anything?” In fact, Kay feels more than she can bear and finds in her psyche a terrifying collection of images centered on the gnarled interior of a tree and the equally intertwined nature of human relationships.

This meditative vision becomes representative of the film as a whole, indeed, of Campion’s larger aesthetic vision. It’s a vision of a thousand small moments, shattered fragments of life that can never be reassembled or formed into a coherent narrative. And yet each of these shards embodies revelatory meaning. Campion's 1989 Sweetie layers symbolisms to worry its audience about how we connect (or refuse connection) to a complex world of things and people, all asserting their claims of meaning and significance upon us.

We don’t meet the titular character of Sweetie until about 30 minutes into the film. Indeed, the story seems to revolve around Sweetie’s sister Kay and her difficulties establishing a sexual and emotional connection with new boyfriend Louis.

Sweetie, Kay’s developmentally challenged sister played brilliantly by Genevieve Lemon, literally bursts into this situation by breaking into a window to have sex in her sister’s house with Bob (Michael Lake, being weird and hapless). Sweetie has the personality of an extremely temperamental child who at the same time exudes a reckless eroticism.

In what would become characteristic of her work, Campion uses the relationship between Kay and Sweetie for both absurd humor and some of the most harrowing emotional (and physical) struggles ever rendered in film. When the struggles pass, sexuality blends with spirituality and becomes a window to female awakening and transcendence.

Campion admits in one of these disc’s numerous extras that, early in her career, she literally struggled with her fear of moving the camera too much. Luckily for us, this anxiety led to a number of beautiful long shots and close ups that helped to define Campion’s style. The human body becomes a palimpsest in each frame, rendering fear, anxiety, lust and terror. Campion’s style not only makes use of the human face to tell her story -- hands, arms, legs and even feet become omens and portents, too.

As does the naked human form, long an artistic obsession for Campion that infamously played an important role in The Piano, as well as some of her lesser efforts like the strange, disturbing and somewhat off-putting In the Cut. In all these films, nudity serves as complex metaphors for both vulnerability and the fear of vulnerability. Sweetie’s moments of literally naked sexual passion manage to convey both the banality of the breasts and buttocks with the frightening possibilities of emotional nakedness.

Campion fans should be aware that the extras available on this disc are the same as Criterion’s 2006 regular DVD release. However, they are essential for anyone who has followed Campion’s career. A long interview from 1989 gives us a detailed examination of her film school years. This will be encouraging and instructive to discouraged film school students everywhere, as Campion describes herself as a “guerilla filmmaker” who had absolutely no connections in the industry. We also get a "making of" feature that contains an insightful conversation with Lemon and Colston.

Criterion makes a point of including a booklet of film essays with all their releases. Sweetie comes with a much smaller booklet than is normally included but it does contain an outstanding essay by Dana Polan, a film scholar at New York University’s Tisch School. Polan looks at the technical aspects of Campion’s work and its relationship to her larger oeuvre. Polan makes the point that Sweetie follows many of Campion’s films in seeming to grant its female protagonist a clear, meaningful resolution to her struggles while concluding with a strange coda that calls that resolution into question.

A collection of three shorts from Campion’s apprentice period is included and these will be worth the price of the disc for film buffs. One of these is the harrowing An Exercise in Disciple: The Peel, in which a small child flinging orange peels out the window on a country road triggers an exploration of just how dangerous our disconnection with others can become. In this chilling short narrative we can clearly see Campion experimenting with what will become her recognizable compositional style. Eyes, lips and nostrils become metonyms for frustration, anger and desperation.

Campion’s use of the human body mirrors the way she edits human experience. We see this in one of the included short films Passionless Moments. Buying beans, doing yoga, being annoyed by the sounds of neighbors and accidently waving hello to someone becomes for Campion minute novelizations of philosophical problems. On display here is the fragility of human moments that opens the possibility of zen-like laughter. Characters wonder about the meaning of pop songs and see angels, rather than lint, swirling in the air.

The extras also include a commentary track with both Campion and screenwriter (and frequent collaborator) Gerard Lee. The fact that Campion and Lee co-wrote the screenplay allows for a very detailed discussion of the complexities of the narrative voice. Campion points at that it’s a film that refuses to allow one character a monopoly over the events or their meaning but rather “wafts over” the story.

“She was just born… I don’t have anything to do with her.” This is Kay’s assertion about her sister, her rejection of responsibility of the person she calls “a dark spirit”. In fact, Campion does not let Kay (or the viewer) get away with this claim. At the beginning of her career, she insisted that we look at the subtle threads that hold us in relationship with the world, whether we like it or not. This may become your favorite Campion film.


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