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Dame Jane Campion has long been recognized as an auteur to watch. Her first short film, ‘Peel,’ won the Short Film Palme d’Or at Cannes, and about a decade later she won the Palme D’Or that people mean when they say “the Palme d’Or” for ‘The Piano,’ becoming the first woman ever to do so. This year, she won the Academy Award for Best Director for her work on ‘The Power of the Dog,’ making her the first woman in history to have won both the Best Original Screenplay award, which she won for ‘The Piano’ in 1993, and the Best Director award.
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Throughout her acclaimed career, the New Zealand director has remained true to the dark, wacky sensibility that made her films stand out in the first place. She has even switched up her medium of operation to do so. When she returned to television in 2013 (she directed the 1990 TV series ‘An Angel at My Table’) with her thriller miniseries ‘Top of the Lake,’ she said in an interview for Guardian: “The really clever people used to do film. Now, the really clever people do television.” An uncompromising artist, she has operated wherever her vision can most clearly come to life. More than the recognition she has garnered, Campion’s commitment to her craft makes her stand apart as one of Cinema’s greats.
Jane Campion: Visual Novelist
Campion has said many times throughout her career that she considered herself a writer before beginning her directorial career, and that she only began directing because it seemed she was the only one up to the task of putting her scripts into motion.
Perhaps because of her penchant for reading and writing, her films often feel like novels. As a matter of fact, Campion adapted the Henry James novel The Portrait of a Lady in 1996, chose the poet John Keats and his lover Fanny Brawne as the subjects of the film ‘Bright Star’ (played by Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish, respectively) wrote a gothic tale on par with the works of the Brontë sisters for ‘The Piano,’ and adapted Thomas Savage’s novel The Power of the Dog to make the award-winning movie that won her Best Director.
A lover of literature, Campion captures the sort of subtle, interpersonal moments that authors often depict with inner monologues. Moments like the meditation scene in ‘Sweetie,’ when Kay (Karen Colston) questions the man leading the group meditation (Charles Abbott). The camera leaves a lot of room around his head, at one point framing a potted plant as prominently as his head itself, a detail Kay must be noticing. After all, when Kay speaks from her chair, we get a close-up of her face, which informs us that this whole scene takes place from her perspective. She insists that the meditation won’t work, clearly getting under the skin of the meditation leader despite his best efforts, and when she finally does close her eyes we are shown a vision in her head that reveals to us the chaos we have sensed there throughout the film.
The most indelible scenes in Campion’s oeuvre, like the meditation scene, put the minds of her characters on full display. Her characters constantly measure one another up, most of them reacting slowly and carefully unless something boils over within them, and something always inevitably does. The camera, meanwhile, hints at what’s going on just beneath the surface, making her movies rich with inner life even in the less shocking and dramatic scenes.
Emphasis on Visual
To achieve such richness, most often without the aid of a literal inner monologue, takes artistic prowess. Campion understands that Cinema is, at its core, a visual art form, and often what guides us through her dense and emotionally complicated narratives are visual metaphors. A striking recent example occurs in ‘The Power of the Dog,’ when Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) tells Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to put a wounded rabbit out of its misery. After Peter breaks its neck offscreen (we watch Phil watching it happen), we see a shot of bloodied grass in the wind. The rabbit, cowering beneath the wooden beams that broke its leg, and the eerily compelling, bloodied grass, tell us more about Phil than he himself would ever feel comfortable sharing. The scene also hints at Peter’s killer instinct.
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As an art student at the University of Sydney, Campion studied painting, and her practiced hand translates to her movies. There exists an abundance of references to paintings in Cinema, and the connection between the two art forms is pretty intuitive. Campion, in a manner similar to David Lynch and Luis Buñuel, creates visual masterpieces all her own that draw from, and advance, the works of painters before her.
Feminist Cinema Icon
One of the aspects of Jane Campion’s films that has made them so lastingly impactful is the complexity of her characters. Featuring complex and not always likable leads had long been a staple of arthouse cinema before Campion began her career, but unlike many of her male contemporaries, Campion extended the complexity to women. A quote from one of Campion’s interviews, which can be found in Virginia Wright Wexman’s Jane Campion: Interviews, reads “One of the things we learn in movies directed by men is what the ‘fantasy woman’ is. What we learn in movies directed by women is what real women are about.”
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Women in Campion’s films swear, compete, break down, pee, fall in love with all kinds of people, and exist in simple ways that don’t always come to light in male-directed films. They are not role models or ‘fantasy women.’ In fact, almost all of the characters in Campion’s movies lead unenviable lives that remind us of our own messy world rather than provide an escape. Campion capitalizes on that realism to show the female experience as only a female director could.
Campion holds a distinct place in Cinema history as a female powerhouse in a historically male-dominated industry. In an interview at the Lincoln Center, Sofia Coppola called Campion a role model, expressing how empowering Campion’s body of work has been for her. Greta Gerwig and Jane Campion presented the honorary Governors Award given to Lina Wertmüller, and in her speech, Campion explicitly called out inequality in the industry. She has carried the torch between generations of excellent female directors, and the characters she’s written will undoubtedly leave a legacy befitting of her bold, outspoken condemnation of industry inequality.
Where to Begin
If you have yet to challenge yourself with Campion’s work, I recommend starting at the beginning with ‘Peel,’ the short film that got everything started. It’s a perfect example of how deeply she delves into the most unsuspecting moments, as the action kicks off with an upset young man throwing orange peels out of a car window.
If you have a little more time, watch ‘Sweetie,’ her debut feature film. It’s an excellent introduction to the subtle, almost intrusive nature of Campion’s films. It’s similar to Aunt Morag’s (Kerry Walker) description of Ada’s (Holly Hunter) piano-playing in ‘The Piano’: “Her playing is strange, like a mood that passes into you…. To have a sound creep inside you is not at all pleasant.” Though unsettling, the film will keep you thinking for weeks. As will each one you that you watch afterward.
By Kevin Hauger
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