Jane Campion: Measures of Control

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'I have a great love for all the characters in my stories.  And, I think, the more painfully flawed they are, the more - for me - loveable they are.'

– Jane Campion, Top of the Lake: Behind the Scenes featurette (2013)

'You always hurt the one you love.'

–1940s song title 

In 2013, director Selma Vilhunen highlighted the flaws she found in the increasing demands for 'strong woman' as central characters in films.  The wording of that label, she said, seemed 'to claim that the interesting or approved female character should be powerful, insightful and consistent.  If my female characters are in any way weird or controversial or, god forbid, somehow hateful or obnoxious, I can be sure to meet with a lot of resistance.'  She asked: 'Is Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver a person that we might consider "strong"?  Is Johnny in Mike Leigh's Naked a "strong" man?  I find them weak and terrible - and very, very interesting.' [1]

It is in this sense, rather than any more traditional one, that the characters at the turbulent centres of the films of Jane Campion are weak and terrible woman.  They are, without exception, women: since her final film school short, A Girl's Own Story (1984), every protagonist in Campion's considerable filmography has been a women.  Often, they are professional women - office workers, writers, detectives, teachers, seamstresses.  They start out with a sense of certainty about their lives, determined and persistent in pursuing their goals.  But their flaws lie close to the surface: what Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) in Top of the Lake (2013) thinks of as strength, her mother believes is hardness; in Holy Smoke (1999), Ruth Barron (Kate Winslet) confronts her own essential heartlessness during an enforced psychic breakdown.  Frannie Avery (Meg Ryan) of In the Cut (2003) is perhaps the most directly self-critical: 'I'm scared of what I want'. 

Not that such fears are entirely unfounded.  The threat and menace for women trapped in close quarters with (frequently far older) men stretches back to Campion's commissioned short about workplace sexual harassment, After Hours (1984), as well as her first feature for television, Two Friends (1986).  In her later work, whether coming from the guitar-playing misogynist of In the Cut or the 'sterile dilettante' of The Portrait of a Lady (1996), the threats these men pose are all too frequently realised in a quick descent into physical force.  Added to these are the myriad scenes in which a formerly confident woman is swiftly undercut by the trivial mockeries of a group of men, whether via playground larrikinism or threats of sexual violence - or, indeed, both.

If Campion's women are at times unhinged, uncertain or demanding, their corresponding men are invariably something far worse.  They, in turn, serve to embody larger, more pernicious forces at work in the societies that have formed them, and for which they are the stand-ins.  Littered throughout the Campion filmography is a wasteland of arrogant men who attempt to impress younger, often initially trustful women through displays of abrasive charm and secondhand sophistication.  Such behaviours might be a challenge for heroines elsewhere: something to tame, flaws to be smoothed over in the process of winning a man.  Here, they are simply representative facets of the immovable objects blocking the way for a women's more substantive desires.

The crux of each of Campion's stories is the loss of - and the fight to regain - control: in some way, all her protagonists encounter it, have to negotiate it.  Never allowed to simply go about their lives, they are instead forced to prove how they would act in situations where they feel they should have agency, but are robbed of it.  These situations manifest themselves in both the height of triviality and the depths of tragedy: from the sister who will not leave the house when you tell her to go in Sweetie (1989), to eight years of misdiagnosed institutionalisation and electroshock therapy in An Angel at My Table (1990), to Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) being sent halfway around the world to marry a man she has never met in The Piano (1993), and on, and on.

Yet, if these women are rarely in control, they are also never fully out of control.  Campion's films delight in wrongfooting, in unsettling, in surprising.  They very often deploy the unexpected detail, the casually strange component that grabs the attention and then disappears, and is not explained: a sudden interlude of dancing cowboys in Sweetie, the Greek chorus prologue of The Portrait of a Lady, a vision of flashing Excalibur in An Angel at My Table.  Even the style of her films is liable at any moment to shift into animation, slow motion, or a different film stock. 

What this accumulation of curious interludes amounts to is the readiest means of escape for Campion's characters.  When the forces of parochial society and showy-off men rise against you, simply escape through surrealism.  Such implausible moments of relief conspire to let the unbearable become bearable: staring into the abyss of terminal illness and thwarted romance in Bright Star (2009), Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) and John Keats (Ben Whishaw) become a pair of musical statues.  In The Water Diary (2006), a group of young girls act out their own gymkhana while a persistent drought kills off their beloved horses, with Ziggy (Alice Englert) awarded Best Improved Overall Pony.  Here - and across the work of Jane Campion - for every great wrenching tableau encompassing the range of human misery, there lie a million passionless moments of fleeting peculiarity.


Marc David Jacobs

freelance arts worker

15th June 2018


[1] Selma Vilhunen, 'On Frustration: Female Filmmaker Talks About Being a Female Filmmaker' (2013), p5

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