30 Apr 2014

The films of Jane Campion (part I)

    Jane Campion (April 30, 1954) is one of my favorite directors. Her films and tv series have a unique beauty, poetic imagery with amazing landscapes and settings. But she does not care only about the exteriors, she also has a magnificent ability and sensibility to portray the souls of the characters. There are few directors with these skills. She manages to make me empathize with the characters in a deep and powerful way. I think about her filmography and not only the images and the wonderful soundtracks come to mind, but also the atmosphere and the overwhelming feelings of passion, loss, love and everything that's important in life. She's considered to be one of the most influential female filmmakers around the world, and she surely is. She has given a voice to many different female characters, creating some of the best leading female performances I've seen on film/tv. It is hard to forget the compelling work that Kerry Fox did in An Angel at My TableHolly Hunter in The Piano — same with the by then little Anna Paquin , Kate Winslet in Holy Smoke, Abbie Cornish in Bright Star or recently Elisabeth Moss in Top of the Lake. She is one of four women in the world of film that has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, and the first woman to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival where she is going to preside the Jury in this year edition, which will take place from 14 to 25 May. 

Once upon a time there was an unknown young director from Down Under who was no doubt proud enough that the Festival de Cannes was going to present even one of the three short films she had just finished. But they were shot through with such courage and humanity and captured such a unique world that the Festival refused to choose and – in a masterstroke – screened all three, marking the advent of a true master. 
Jane Campion had arrived, and she brought a whole new style with her. That led to Sweetie, The Piano and more recently Bright Star – that marvellous film, shot through, as ever, with poetry. You’ll hardly be surprised that amid such a welter of emotions, I’ve taken to calling her ‘My Lady Jane.’”  Gilles JacobPresident of the Cannes Film Festival.

I would love to see more women directors because they represent half of the population – 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. 
I think women don’t grow up with the harsh world of criticism that men grow up with, we are more sensitively treated, and when you first experience the world of film-making you have to develop a very tough skin.” — Jane Campion

    She was born in Wellington, New Zealand. The second daughter of theater director and producer Richard Campion — described by historians as a “giant of New Zealand theater” —, and writer and actress Edith Campion. Her older sister, Anna, is also a film director. Coming from this background,   she didn't want to end up doing the same as her parents, so she totally avoided it. Inspired by Levi-Strauss she decided she wanted to study anthropology and she graduated from Victoria University in Wellington with a bachelor’s degree in structural arts in 1975.
What interested me about anthropology was to be able to “officially” study what I was curious about anyway: how our thoughts function, their mythic content which has nothing to do with logic, human behaviors. I believe, moreover, that I have an anthropological eye, a sense of observation. I think that humans believe themselves to be rational beings when they are not, they are governed by something completely different. And that’s what interests me. But I realized if I continued in that field I would have to express myself in a way that would only be understood by other anthropologists.— Jane Campion 

    She left New Zealand for Italy and then England to pursue an education in painting at the Chelsea School of Arts in London. Neither Venice nor London suited her, so she moved to Australia, where she matriculated at the Sydney School of the Arts, graduating in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in painting. Mexican surrealist painter Frida Kahlo and German sculptor Joseph Beuys were particularly formative and important influences on her.
Art school is where all the learning I did took place.— Jane Campion
    It was during that time that she realized she wanted to become a filmmaker. Regarding her cinema influences and inspiration, you can check her comments on her Top - 9 film list at Criterion, which features some of my favorite filmmakers: Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (1954), The Night Porter (dir. Liliana Cavani, 1974), The Firemen's Ball (dir. Milos Forman, 1967), Buñuel's That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), Godard's Contempt (1963)Tokyo Story (dir. Yasujiro Ozu, 1953), Fellini's La Strada (1954), Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage (1973) and Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (dir. Hiroshi Inagaki, 1954). She included one of Fellini's films, as he is one of her favorite filmmakers, probably even her top-favorite: 
Fellini is a deep, deep master of film. As time goes by I adore him more and more. La strada is quite perfect. It is like “The Ancient Mariner.” A haunting film for all time; one cannot insult innocence without a lifetime of cost. I don’t know why it is, but it is so, a spiritual truth, that both Coleridge and Fellini knew and tell in their respective stories. Fellini is the most fluent filmmaker of them all. His shots and storytelling are so at ease and elegant, it’s as if he’s thinking his shots through a camera in his mind and straight onto a screen. I went to his funeral in Rome in 1993, where people in the crammed huge Piazza Republica gathered to salute farewell. It was also a time when no one wanted to see a Fellini film. Every year since then his legacy appears more remarkable and more incomparable.— Jane Campion

(Cinematographer Laurie Mcinnes and Campion on the set of After Hours, 1981)

The films of Jane Campion: Part I - 1980-1993

    Her first student short Tissues (1980) led to her getting a chance to study at the prestigious Australian Film, Television, and Radio School a year later where she made another student film called Mishaps: Seduction and Conquest. She graduated in 1984. During her time there she made three other short films: Peel: An Exercise in Discipline (1982); Passionless Moments (1983); and A Girl’s Own Story (1984). These shorts are edgy and explicit, focus on power, violence, and emotional pain in dysfunctional sexual, familial and social relationships. Campion has said, “As a very young filmmaker I was particularly committed to what was nasty, what isn’t spoken about in life.

    She was also committed to stylistic experimentation, readily evidenced in the innovative techniques and visual quality of these early works. Campion employs cinematic techniques that both represent and blur the differences between objective and subjective narrative states. Dramatically synthesizing documentary or ethnographic with subjective, often surreal cinematic modes, the films convey a sense of astute psychological realism shot through with an ironic, perverse, and highly visual wit.  In her first student film, Campion explores a theme to which she returns again and again, one that tends to subsume romance and emotions as priorities in her features: the importance of women’s work, their creative expression, and of sexual desire as a powerful, necessary, and compelling threat to that expression.

Still from A Girl’s Own Story (1984) 
that you can watch below:

A Girl’s Own Story, along with Campion’s two previous shorts, was well-received by the film school and got the chance to play in the Un Certain Regard section of the 1986 Cannes Film Festival. The three shorts were major hits at the festival with Peel winning the Short Film Palme d’Or that year.

(The stars of the film on set by photographer Gerald Jenkins.)
You can watch it below:

Short films are not inferior, just different. I think the short gives a freedom to film-makers. What's appealing is that you don't have as much responsibility for storytelling and plot. They can be more like a portrait, or a poem.” — Jane Campion
    The success she gained with those works, including another short called After Hours, lead her to an opportunity to shot work in Australian television. After this decided to go on her own with the help of Gerard Lee an Australian novelist, screenwriter and director. The two decided to collaborate on a project that Campion had in mind for some time, called Sweetie. This would become her first feature-length film.

Sweetie (1989) 

Excuse me, but I don’t feel anything.
    As you can see in the images above this is the magic of cinema and Campion did an amazing artistic debut. I couldn't find better words than the ones from the Criterion team to describe my feelings towards this film:

Though she went on to create a string of brilliant films, Jane Campion will always be remembered for her stunning debut feature, Sweetie, which focuses on the hazardous relationship between the buttoned-down, superstitious Kay and her rampaging, devil-may-care sister, Sweetie—and on their family’s profoundly rotten roots. A feast of colorful photography and captivating, idiosyncratic characters, the tough and tender Sweetie heralded the emergence of this gifted director, as well as a renaissance of Australian cinema, which would take the film world by storm in the nineties. ”
If you watch the great trailer with the 3 reasons why you need to watch this 
unique piece of filmmaking, you'd understand it even better:  

    Some critics said it was a bit Lynchian. If you don't already know it, I'm one of the biggest fans of David Lynch. Proof, the posts about his filmography on the blog (Part I / Part II). The truth is that Campion owns her unique style, but there is a similar vibe on this film, and Jonathan Rosenbaum explained it quite well on his Sweetie review: 
Campion and Lynch are both figurative painters-turned-filmmakers who favor odd camera angles, painterly compositions, and bold colors; they also share a certain poker-faced black humor and a morbid, poetic fascination with the aberrant. Campion, moreover, has acknowledged some feelings of kinship with Lynch as a filmmaker, particularly with his desire to explore mental states.” — Jonathan Rosenbaum

    With that said, I found something rewatching Sweetie. The first shots reminded me a lot of a scene from  Fire Walk with Me

Sweetie (1989) /  Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

    There is also a beautiful detail on this film, the pottery figures, which seem to be a clear influence on the Australian director Cate Shortland second film, Lore (2012, highly recommended). We have broken horses on Sweetie, and broken deers on Lore which are shot in an almost identical scene:

Sweetie (1989) / Lore (2012)

Sweetie screened in Competition at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival.

(Actresses Geneviève Lemon and Karen Colston, stars of the film, with Campion at Cannes)

Colston would work again with Campion with a little role in The Piano, same with Lemon, who would have little roles in Holy Smoke and Top of the Lake as well.

(Geneviève Lemon on the set of Sweetie)

Here is a short video of Campion talking about her experience 
studying cinema and Sweetie:

An Angel at My Table (1990)

Always lost in your poetic world of imagination.

    With An Angel at My Table, Jane Campion brings to the screen the harrowing true-life story of Janet Frame (super Kerry Fox plays the adult Frame), New Zealand’s most distinguished author. The film follows Frame along her inspiring journey, from a poverty-stricken childhood to a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia and electroshock therapy to, finally, international literary fame. 

    Beautifully capturing the color and power of the New Zealand landscape, the film earned Campion a sweep of her country’s film awards, the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival and the Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film. It also was the breakthrough role for the talented Kerry Fox, who worked again with Campion in Bright Star as Mrs. Brawne. Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film 4 stars out of 4 and described it as: “quietly but completely absorbing.” 

The Piano (1993)

I think of my piano in its ocean grave, and sometimes of myself floating above it. Down there everything is so still and silent that it lulls me to sleep. It is a weird lullaby and so it is; it is mine.

    The Piano is Campion's most famous film. It was internationaly acclaimed. Here there are some of the reactions to the film: 

The Piano is as peculiar and haunting as any film I've seen. It is one of those rare movies that is not just about a story, or some characters, but about a whole universe of feeling. — Roger Ebert 
[An] evocative, powerful, extraordinarily beautiful film. ”  — Hal Hinson of The Washington Post
(Promotional still with Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin)

    Campion decided to retrieve a script she had been working on since the late 80s. Set in the mid-19th Century, the story revolves around Ada, a mute Scotswoman who goes to a New Zealand coast to meet her new husband. While there she finds herself falling for a forester who asks her to teach him to play the piano as she's a great pianist. Campion wanted it to take place in the New Zealand west coast landscape. Surrounded by jungle and murky waters, the region helped her to convey striking Gothic imagery that was also poetic.

The bush has got an enchanted, complex, even frightening quality to it, unlike anything that you see anywhere else. It’s mossy and very intimate, and there’s an underwater look that’s always charmed me. I was after the vivid, subconscious imagery of the bush, its dark, inner world. 
Landscape suggest the romantic genre, but at the same time the people seem very real —so that you’re never quite let out by any sense that the action is taking place in a fairy tale or romantic world. One of the cliches of romance is that the heroines are classic beauties, but I wanted there to be a reality to our actors that counters pure romanticism. 
We’re all dealing with fiction here, but the sensation of authenticity around the look is really important. That sensation can be created in a lot of ways—one of which was to give our heroine greasy hair. Whereas many actresses would feel it was going to make them look hard, Holly was game and went along with it. ” — Jane Campion
(Holly Hunter as Ada)

    Holly Hunter was perfectly cast. She did one of the most powerful performances I've ever seen. In imagining her character, Ada, Campion devised a composite of the women artists who inspired her, giving her character Emily Brontë’s silence, Emily Dickinson’s secrecy, and Frida Kahlo’s fierce gaze. Campion originally wanted Sigourney Weaver for the lead role, but Weaver turned it down as she wanted to take a break from acting. Then French actress Isabelle Huppert and Holly Hunter both wanted the role. Funny how Huppert would eventually play  a pianist — another brilliant performance  in Haneke's La Pianiste (2001). But Hunter’s audition tape was just stupendous. 
For Hunter, the script had one ingredient that almost every script I read does not have: a vast dimension of things being unexplained to the audience or even to the characters themselves — and that’s just a real, haunting part of the story, very, very haunting.

    Hunter also brought to the role of Ada a talent unhoped for: she is an accomplished pianist, so she was able to perform all the piano pieces attributed to her. Music is essential in this film. Everybody remembers The Piano for its music. And that's one of the elements that makes me love this film. Michael Nyman, the extraordinarly talented English pianist and composer, one of my top favorite musicians  that I've had the opportunity to see playing live in first row a few years ago, one of the most beautiful experiences ever  was the composer of Ada's pieces. Nyman met Hunter in New York in the pre-production period, and this is how he describes his experience creating the iconic soundtrack that you can listen to below, a true masterpiece:

I had noticed from the tape she sent me - Hunter - that she was much more adept at powerful, emotional pieces than very precise, rhythmic things. I had to find music which she, Holly, the pianist and the actress, rather than her character, was emotionally attracted to, so that she could really be engaged by it and give it passion. 
I had to establish not only a repertoire of music for the film, but a repertoire of piano music that would have been Ada’s repertoire as a pianist, almost as if she had been the composer of it. Since Ada was from Scotland, it was logical to use Scottish folk and popular songs as the basis for our music. Once I hit on that idea the whole thing fell into place. It’s as though I’ve been writing the music of another composer who happened to live in Scotland, then New Zealand in the mid 1850s. Someone who was obviously not a professional composer or pianist, so there had to be a modesty to it. 
Music is absolutely crucial to the film. Since Ada doesn’t speak, the piano music doesn’t simply have the expressive role but becomes a substitute for her voice. The sound of the piano becomes her character, her mood, her expressions, her unspoken dialogue. It has to convey the messages she it putting across about her feelings towards Baines during the piano lessons. I’ve had to create a kind of aural scenography which is as important as the locations, as important as the costumes.” — Michael Nyman

    Another essential element from the film it's the captivating romance between Ada and George Baines. The great and fierce Harvey Keitel plays Baines in another brilliant role from his amazing career. He would work again with Campion in Holy Smoke, with another brave and unforgettable performance.

(Keitel and Hunter on The Piano)

    This is what Campion said about her inspiration on writing this peculiar story:

I feel a kinship between the kind of romance that Emily Brontë portrayed in Wuthering Heights and this film. Hers is not the notion of romance that we’ve come to use, it’s very harsh and extreme, a gothic exploration of the romantic impulse. I wanted to respond to those ideas in my own century. My not writing in Emily’s time means that I can look at a side of relationship that wasn’t possible to do then. My exploration can be a lot more sexual, a lot more investigative of the power of eroticism, which can add another dimension. Because then you get involved in the bodyscape of it as well, because the body has certain effects, like a drug almost, certain desires for erotic satisfaction which are very strong forces too.” — Jane Campion

Ada and Baines are on of the most unique romances: 

Ada, I'm unhappy. 'Cause I want you. 'Cause my mind has seized on you and can think of nothing else. This is why I've suffered. I am sick with longing. I don't eat, I don't sleep. So, if you have come with no feeling for me, then go.” — Baines to Ada.

(Anna Paquin, Campion and Sam Neill on set)

    The other highlight of the film was Anna Paquin's witty and moving performance. She was living in New Zealand, when in 1991 her sister saw a newspaper advertisement announcing an open audition.Paquin's sister went to try out with a friend, which inspired Paquin to also audition. She impressed Campion and that's why she was chosen to play the lovely Flora. 

(9 years old Anna Paquin as Flora)

I remember when I first saw the audition tape. Anna came on and there was this tiny little girl, probably the smallest of all I’d seen—and extremely shy. I almost turned it off. I thought this girl was never going to be able to cope with this huge speech. I just about fell off my chair when she began. She just looked into the camera and never blinked. She told this long, extremely impassioned story of how Ada lost her voice, and you totally believed her. It’s a remarkable experience to see someone so young with such an instinct for performance. — Jane Campion

I think the great thing was that she had Holly—and they adored each other from the first. They were an incredible team Anna would use all Holly’s mannerisms of performance. — Jane Campion

    The film made its premiere at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival where it was a massive hit. Holly Hunter won the festival’s Best Actress prize and Campion made history becoming the first woman to win the Palme d’Or. Campion shared the festival’s top prize with Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige and his film Farewell, My Concubine

(Holly Hunter receives from the great French actor Michel Piccoli
the Best Actress Award for The Piano. Cannes, 24 May 1993)

    The film would garner many accolades including France’s Cesar Award for Best Foreign Film, a slew of awards from the Australian Film Institute, various critics’ prizes in the U.S. and Britain. The film was also nominated for 10 BAFTA awards, where it won three awards in the Production Design, Costume Design, and Best Actress categories.

(Hunter, Paquin and Campion with their well-deserved Oscars)

    At the Academy Awards, The Piano garnered eight nominations including Best Picture. Campion’s directing nod made her the second female filmmaker to be nominated in that category. The film won three Oscars with Holly Hunter winning Best Actress, Anna Paquin taking Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Screenplay - the award they keep giving to the independent filmmakers - going to Jane Campion.

I feel that directors at times are like the janitors on the set. I am the secretary, I am the organizer, I am the maid, and I ask if they have eaten or rested. The best things are always out of your control. It's those moments that surpass the imagination that are thrilling. — Jane Campion

    Here, there is a short video interview with Jane, which is quite funny - you can tell the woman has a great sense of humor - and she shares some ideas about her filmmaking and the things she finds interesting:

     Today is her 60th birthday and I thought she deserved a tribute on this blog 
as I did with Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch. So,

Happy Birthday to Jane Campion!

Part II will feature the next five projects of her career from 1996 to 2013. 
It will be published on the following days.


Info and photos: the80srevisitedThe Buffalo Film Seminars dossier (April 8, 2008 (XVI:12), Festival de Cannes, CinemaaxisStraynotions, Lylybye, Roger Ebert.com, Filmcaptures, Criterion, lolitasclassics.