Notebook Primer: Jane Campion

From early shorts to the wide acclaim of "The Power of the Dog," the New Zealand filmmaker has carved a unique and utterly audacious career.
Kat Sachs
The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
The Power of the Dog
The New Zealand-born, Australia-based writer-director Jane Campion is one of several female filmmakers to be celebrated as having been the first of something, that consolation prize of the historically marginalized.
She was the first woman to win the Palme d’Or (for The Piano, in 1993). She wasn’t the first woman to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director (that was the late, great Lina Wertmüller), but was the second—though with The Power of the Dog she recently became the first woman ever to be nominated twice in that category, a feat befitting the film, the filmmaker, and the people for whom this accomplishment is a balefire of hope.
“I would love to see more women directors because they represent half of the population,” Campion has said, “and gave birth to the whole world. Without them writing and being directors, the rest of us are not going to know the whole story.”
Some of that story is told through her audacious body of work, which consists of nine features, several shorts, and two seasons of an acclaimed television series. It’s undeniable that she possesses an idiosyncratic vision, at once titillating and empathic. Bearing consistent motifs and themes, each of her films reflects a turbid authorial sensibility, a discriminating recognition of talent among her collaborators, and a commanding visual aesthetic that treats the Australian suburbs with the same outre potency as a Montana hillscape.
An Exercise in Discipline: Peel
Jane Campion was born on April 30, 1954, in Wellington, New Zealand. Her parents, Richard and Edith Campion, were successful in theater; he was a director, and she an actress. Together they founded the New Zealand Players in 1952, said to be one of the country’s first professional touring theater companies. This influential endeavor lasted only through 1956, as the country proved difficult and costly to traverse.
The couple had three children: in addition to Jane, Anna, herself a filmmaker who would later collaborate with Jane on some of her films, the oldest; and a younger son. (Relationships between siblings is a key theme in Campion’s films.) Her mother, however, suffered from severe mental illness, and this experience likely informed the empathy with which her daughter views even her most dysfunctional characters.
Initially rejecting the theatrical world of her parents, Campion studied anthropology at the Victoria University of Wellington. (Many critics have attempted to connect this part of her education to her films, but she’s remarked that it wasn’t impactful on her work.) Unable to deny the draw of the arts, she next studied painting in London and Sydney, then, finally, film at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS).
Before enrolling in film school proper, Campion made one short work, Tissues (1980), about a child-molesting father, that she submitted to gain admission to the school. This and another early effort called Mishaps: Seduction and Conquest (1981) hints at Campion’s talent for exploring stories of a particularly titillating nature: The second short centers on the correspondence between real-life English mountaineer George Mallory and his fictional brother Geoffrey. The former is writing about his imminent trek to the top of Mount Everest, while the latter fixates on a secretary in his office who won’t give him the time of day.
Australian cinematographer Sally Bongers worked on the film, and she and Campion became close. They would work together on Campion's next several shorts as well as her second feature, Sweetie (1989). (Another first: With Sweetie, Bongers became the first Australian woman to shoot a feature film on 35mm.) Some critics credit Bongers with devising the aesthetic that would imbue Campion’s visual style for the entirety of her career, specifically with regard to the precise and bizarre compositions that limn her equally precise and bizarre films.
Her next several short films garnered international attention. An Exercise in Discipline: Peel (1983) was the first short film that Campion made at AFTRS. Tension emerges as a theme from the beginning, as the film depicts three family members, a brother and sister and the former’s son (all the actors play themselves), and their surly attitudes toward one another, based on the players’ real-life relationships. During a particularly fraught car ride, the son throws pieces of an orange peel out the window. The father stops and makes him retrieve all the pieces, angering his sister in the process. Bongers’ uneasy framing complements the discomfort beautifully. One also recognizes visual motifs that would come to punctuate Campion’s oeuvre on the whole: random cutaways to natural elements, a character urinating, and a close-up on the young boy’s finger probing the pit of an orange.
When three of Campion’s short films, as well as her TV film Two Sisters, were invited to screen at the Cannes Film Festival in 1986, Peel won the ​​Palme d'Or for Best Short Film. Among the films that screened at Cannes was Passionless Moments (1983), her first collaboration with fellow AFTRS student Gerard Lee. The two would be romantically involved for several years and continued working together even after they broke up, first on Sweetie and later on both seasons of Top of the Lake. Shot in black and white, Passionless Moments is a series of micro-vignettes centered on hyper-random junctures in the lives of Australian suburbanites.
Her next and final student film was A Girl’s Own Story (1984), set in the 1960s. Also shot in black and white (and again by Bongers), it interweaves the amusements and traumas of a few young girls to disconcerting effect. One of the girls, an obsessive Beatles fan, contends with familial strife, ostracization from her peers and, as hinted in dreamlike flashbacks, molestation at the hands of a stranger shown luring her into his car. Another of the girls becomes pregnant by her brother, the two having sex while playing as cats. Campion’s shorts are sometimes referred to as Lynchian (David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch being the contemporary filmmakers whom she has said are influences), with A Girl’s Own Story evincing a disturbing, psychosexual impulse that’s especially resonant.
After graduating from AFTRS and at the behest of a feminist action group called the Women’s Film Unit, Campion made After Hours (1985), which depicts a young woman dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace. Despite Campion having virtually disowned this project, elements of its style—the hazy linear structure, its observational approach, and an apparent sympathy for both the victim and the perpetrator—withstand the pressure of forces outside her authorial control.
In 1986, Campion directed an episode of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) mini-series Dancing Daze. It was here that she met producer Jan Chapman, who would go on to produce several of Campion’s later films. As with After Hours, the director doesn’t hold this effort in high esteem, though she does credit the project, which required her to make a 50-minute episode with several song-and-dance numbers, with giving her the confidence to make a feature film.
Two Friends
It was Chapman who approached Campion about making her first feature for ABC. The script was written by Australian author Helen Garner and employs an audacious nonlinear structure, conveying the gradual dissolution of two teenage girls’ friendship in reverse, beginning with their estrangement and ending with their relationship at its closest.
The girls of Two Friends (1986), Louise (Emma Coles) and Kelly (Kris Bidenko), could be younger versions of Kay and Sweetie, from Campion’s second feature. It’s revealed at the beginning that the two are no longer close and that Kelly is houseless, dating older men, and doing drugs. Going backward from this revelation in several-month increments, Two Friends artfully details the reasons for this schism.
Campion’s continued focus on two different people—whether friends, siblings or lovers—divulges a sense of bifurcation that exemplifies her uncommon pathos. In these twin portraits, one of the two characters is usually more reserved, even repressed, while the other is freer with their desires. Sometimes the inner conflicts of Campion’s more inhibited characters become external conflicts, as the actions of the more impetuous characters disturb those around them. Campion may see some of herself in these halved abstractions, and so might viewers.
Two Friends screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, along with the aforementioned shorts. This showcase announced Campion’s emergence on a world stage as an up-and-coming talent with newfound industry bonafides. She’d been working on a draft of what would eventually become The Piano, but, upon her success at Cannes, decided to pursue a more personal project. Sweetie would be her first theatrical feature.
Campion and Lee co-wrote the film, basing the characters on people they knew in real life. Though she identifies with Kay (Karen Colston), the severely restrained sister from whose viewpoint the film unfolds, Campion has said that Dawn a.k.a. Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon) is not her sister Anna, as many have assumed. Some of the film’s influences are more direct, such as the annoying neighbor boy, who was based on a kid Campion and Lee lived next to when they were together. The links between the characters and the writers’ lives aren’t explicit, but they nonetheless imbue the film with its stranger-than-fiction quality.
Kay is a superstitious young woman who enters into a relationship with Louis (Tom Lycos), the fiancé of one of her coworkers, after a psychic predicts as such. The film then jumps forward 13 months, to show that Kay and Louis’ sex life has stagnated. Sweetie’s arrival thus marks a turning point in the film, as the couples’ lives are turned upside down by the walking, talking id that is Kay’s sister. Soon the sisters’ parents (Jon Darling and Dorothy Barry), who are having relationship troubles of their own, also come to visit, and the bizarreness of the entire family unit is brought to the forefront.
Bongers’ inspired cinematography is crucial to the film. It’s with Sweetie that Campion fully realized the connection between her personal interests as a director and the aesthetic qualities that typify them, an equation to which Bongers is integral. Her work on the film has been described as “antirealist,” a term that aptly summarizes the deliberateness of its look. Sharply angled shots and off-center and wide-angle framing further suggest the deep-rooted abnormality of this suburban family.
During the production of Sweetie, Campion’s mother attempted suicide, and Anna went to help her while Jane was making the film. There’s a sad, sweet irony, then, that Jane’s next film (intended for television but also released theatrically) was a biopic of New Zealand author Janet Frame, who herself famously struggled with mental illness. An Angel at My Table (1990) is divided into three parts, each based on one of Frame’s three autobiographies. A different actress plays her in each part, with Kerry Fox appearing as Frame in her 20s and 30s.
Campion has said that the film, which was written by screenwriter Laura Jones, did not pose “an experimental or intellectual challenge” for her. Indeed, despite not being such a personal effort for Campion, it nevertheless ranks among her best films, an example of how, even when compelled to compromise, the result is something tinged with her singular filmic mien.
The Piano
Campion’s best known work, The Piano (1993), also has strong ties to her home country; whether Campion is more of a New Zealand or Australian filmmaker is a matter of theoretical debate, as both countries are ripe with qualities for her consideration. In The Piano, the filmmaker acknowledges a pernicious part of New Zealand’s history, as the Indigenous Māori people comprise many of the tertiary characters. Holly Hunter stars as Ada, a voluntarily mute Scotswoman who, along with her young daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin), is sent to live in New Zealand in the mid-1800s after she’s married off to land speculator Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill). Upon arrival in New Zealand, Ada’s beloved piano is left on the beach, too difficult to carry back through the forest.
Ada, in both her stubborn muteness and her ambivalence toward her husband, is almost childlike in nature; her only interest other than her daughter is playing the piano, which she does with unrestrained passion. Stewart’s colleague, George Baines (Harvey Keitel), is more attuned to the IIndigenous people. His face is marked by crude tā moko markings and his attitude toward the natives is one of familiarity rather than hostility. Stewart, however, exudes antipathy, and so do his sister (Kerry Walker) and a simpering, infantile woman (Genevieve Lemon) with designs on Baines. These characters represent the malignant gentility of colonial women, who sought to reform the natives’ culture while their menfolk endeavored to conquer their land.
A romance ensues between Ada and Baines—exteriorized by a now-famous scene in which Baines fingers a hole in Ada’s tights, a discretely sensual moment that recalls, inexplicably, the scene from Peel where the boy similarly probes an orange—a point of contention for viewers across all spheres of cinephilia. The film elicited both an intense fanbase and a highly critical contingent of critics and scholars. The pomp is epitomized by the effect of its searing emotional impact (compacted by Michael Nyman’s famous score), whereas detractors honed in on problematic depictions of women and Indigenous people (arguments for the latter ranging from naive appropriation to all-out misrepresentation).
The question of whether The Piano is a feminist film marks its legacy. Like many female filmmakers, Campion has been ambivalent about being labeled a feminist; her irresoluteness translates into the moral complexity of her films. Some believe the bartering between Ada and Baines and her subsequent retreat into proto-suburban domesticity is decidedly unfeminist, while others consider the incitement of Ada’s erotic self, and eventual reemergence of her literal voice, to be akin to a feminist awakening.
The Piano was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three: Hunter for Best Actress, Paquin for Best Supporting Actress, making her the second-youngest winner in Oscar history, and Campion for Best Original Screenplay. She lost the Best Director prize to Steven Spielberg for Schindler’s List.
Colin Englert worked on The Piano as a second unit director. He and Campion married in 1992; they had a son, Jasper, in 1993, but he lived only for 11 days. The couple had a daughter in 1994, Alice Englert, who’s now an actress and starred in Top of the Lake: China Girl (2017).
The Portrait of a Lady
Campion’s next film, The Portrait of a Lady (1996), adapted from Henry James’ classic novel and scripted again by Jones, explores what happens once an independent woman has capitulated to the supposition of love. Nicole Kidman plays Isabel Archer, a young American living abroad with her aunt and uncle (Shelley Winters and John Gielgud) in London. Several men are pursuing her, including her sickly cousin (Martin Donovan), who compels his father to leave Isabel his fortune when he dies.
With this newfound wealth, Isabel hopes to pursue a life of independence and faraway travel in lieu of marriage; however, after meeting another expatriate, the worldly Madame Serena Merle (Barbara Herhsey), she’s introduced to Merle’s friend, Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich). Osmond, with his relative lack of wealth, intrigues Isabel, and the two marry. The film jumps forward three years, revealing that Isabel had given birth to a son who died (in this aspect, it’s sadly relatable for the filmmaker; James’ book is one of Campion’s favorites) and that the relationship between the couple has soured immensely.
It’s evident by now that Osmond had married Isabel for her money, a pairing shrewdly arranged by Madame Merle, and seeks a similar partner for his daughter from a previous marriage. Osmond wants her to accept a wealthier suitor’s impending proposal, while Isabel wants her to be able to pursue her own desires.
It may not possess the crazed rapture of The Piano, but, as a more subdued exploration into a woman’s quest for independence, it’s quite effective. The cast is especially impactful and the part of the film many critics did laud; as Isabel, Kidman is ethereal, and Malkovich’s signature ferocity is chilling. Donovan and Hershey were likewise recognized for their performances. Shelley Duvall also features as Countess Gemini, the character who reveals the connection between Osmond and Merle to Isabel, setting into motion the climax.
Holy Smoke
Campion then collaborated with her sister on the script for Holy Smoke (1999), an audacious screwball comedy that pits a strong-willed Australian suburbanite, Ruth (Kate Winslet), against an older American exit counselor, P.J. (Harvey Keitel). Upon traveling to India, Ruth falls under the spell of a guru, opting to stay in India and wed him in a mass initiation ceremony. Fearing that she’s been manipulated, her family hires P.J. to deprogram her.
It’s a wacky battle of the sexes as Ruth and P.J. go head to head, and Ruth’s family is akin to Kay and her lot in Sweetie, nutty with an occasional insidious undercurrent. The dynamic between Ruth and P.J. soon turns sexual; similar to his character in The Piano, Keitel’s P.J. falls prey to Ruth’s profligate magnetism, to the extent that he becomes atypically emasculated by her.
Indeed, the qualities that make Ruth vulnerable to the cultists are those that threaten to destroy P.J. in his quest to unwill her. This crosscurrent of spirituality and sexuality is what the sisters Campion were hoping to explore; they also published a novelized version of the film’s story, something Campion had also done with The Piano.
Holy Smoke and her next film, In the Cut (2003) are from a particularly intrepid part of Campion’s career: neither was very well received (though In the Cut has since enjoyed a reappraisal among younger critics as a feminist cult classic) and for some they might be considered outliers within an oeuvre that up to then had been recognized primarily for its sweeping arthouse costume dramas.
Co-written by Campion and Susanna Moore, adapting the latter’s eponymous 1995 book, In the Cut is a shrewd erotic thriller in which the protoganist’s sexual exploration coincides with a grisly murder investigation. Meg Ryan stars as Frannie, an emotionally guarded New York City English teacher who finds refuge in words rather than people. But when a woman is brutally murdered and parts of her are found outside Frannie’s apartment—she’d also seen the woman at a nearby bar—she becomes enmeshed with the investigating officer, Detective Malloy (Mark Ruffalo).
The two enter into a heated affair (the film is noted for its explicit sex scenes), the intensity of which grows as the brutal slayings continue. Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), her beloved half-sister, is Frannie’s polar opposite: obsessive, impulsive, and preoccupied with sex. She eventually becomes the serial killer’s next victim, which exacerbates Frannie’s suspicion that Malloy may be the killer. It ends up being Malloy’s partner, however, and it’s revealed that he first asks his victims to marry him before disarticulating them.
This connection between engagement and disarticulation validates Frannie’s fear of romantic love. This is cemented by the recurrent exhibition, conveyed through sepia-toned sequences shot almost like a silent film, of how her parents met—a deceptively romantic scenario betrayed by the reality of what came after. It’s poignant, therefore, that Frannie ends up killing the engagement-obsessed killer herself, returning back to Malloy and accepting their growing intimacy.
Bright Star
The influence of literature in Campion’s filmography is subtle but poignant. An Angel at My Table, The Portrait of a Lady, and In the Cut are all adapted from novels, and each is thought of more as a Jane Campion film than it is a mere interpretation of its source material by a filmmaker.
Campion brought this zest for transformational similitude to Bright Star (2003), about the storied relationship between English poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). Storied, in part, because Keats died at 25 and the two never consummated their relationship. Thus, Bright Star is a film by a director known for her depiction of female sexuality, and the repression thereof, centered on the entirely romantic relationship between two people who never have sex.
The film endeavors to the heights of Keats’ own romanticism and largely achieves it. Like his poetry, their love thrives amidst natural beauty. The purity of the film’s setting and the light, diaphanous aesthetic transform whatever social rigidity may have been inherent to unmarried young men and women at the time.
The film was a success, lauded by critics and adored by audiences, likely the same viewers for whom The Piano had been such a romantic revelation. But Campion did not make another feature until last year’s The Power of the Dog. During that twelve-year hiatus, she made two seasons of Top of the Lake for the BBC. Co-created with Gerard Lee, both seasons of the show are compelling amalgamations of various themes explored throughout Campion’s career.
Elisabeth Moss plays a Sydney-based detective, Robin, who specializes in investigating crimes involving sexual assault against minors; she had been gang-raped as a teenager and gave birth to a daughter, whom she gave us for adoption. In the first season, Robin investigates the disappearance of a pregnant pre-teen in her rural hometown. In a tangential plotline, Holly Hunter appears as a charismatic spiritual leader who’s set up camp nearby. Sexuality and spirituality intersect again to disturbing and delirious effect.
The second series, Top of the Lake: China Girl, centers on the reuniting of Robin and her daughter, Mary (Alice Englert, Campion’s daughter), Nicole Kidman starring as Mary’s adoptive mother. The investigative aspect here concerns a pregnant Asian Jane Doe, nicknamed China Girl, who’s found murdered in a suitcase.
Campion created a minor controversy when, in a 2017 interview with the Guardian, she remarked that “[t]he really clever people used to do film. Now, the really clever people do television.” Going on to say that cinema in Australia and New Zealand has become more mainstream, one surmises that this foray in TV allowed her to continue pursuing oft-inaccessible stories and themes.
The Power of the Dog
Her latest, The Power of the Dog, marks a return to the cinema, in a way true to herself. Based on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, it follows two curiously intertwined brothers, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) Burbank, well-to-do Montana ranchers. The story finds George breaking from this connection and marrying a widow, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), with a teenage son named Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil despises Rose and Peter, the latter specifically because of gentle characteristics that he derides for their inherent queerness. But the brusque cowboy also has an obsession with his deceased mentor, whom it’s alluded to was his lover.
This focus on a male character as a vector through which to explore repression and desire is new for Campion, though Rose’s fear of him is likewise explored vis-à-vis her usual themes. Peter eventually takes it upon himself to deal with the situation, culminating in the ending that has confounded viewers so. The acting across the board is superb, and it all comes together with Ari Wegner’s stunning cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s incisive score.
The Power of the Dog received 12 Academy Award nominations, including nods for Campion for  Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Cumberbatch), Supporting Actor (Plemons and Smit-McPhee) and Actress (Dunst), Best Score (Greenwood) and Best Cinematography, making Wegner the second woman ever to be nominated in that category. It’s an exciting and well-deserved appreciation of Campion and her cohorts, but any acknowledgement of this film’s excellence should include recognition of her total skill as a filmmaker, whose brilliance supersedes marginalization. More than just the first of anything, she’s one of the best working today.


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