Study Guide

Jane Campion

Jane Campion Essay - Critical Essays

Campion, Jane

Introduction

Jane, Campion 1955(?)–

New Zealander filmmaker.

The following entry provides an overview of Campion's career through 1994.

Campion is best known for films that feature strong, compelling female characters and realistic—while also somewhat oneiric—narratives. Her early works are characterized by highly stylized techniques and a nonlinear, experimental approach to storytelling. Her subsequent work—best exemplified by The Piano (1993)—rely less on technical flourishes and emphasize the development and subjective experiences of her protagonists.

Biographical Information

Campion was born in Wellington, New Zealand, to parents who were professionally involved in the theatre—her father was a director and her mother an actress and author. After unsuccessful attempts studying art in Venice and working with a documentary film producer in London, Campion attended the Sydney College of Arts in Australia. During her last year of study there she made her first short film, Tissues (1981). In 1984 she earned a diploma in directing from the prestigious Australian Film, Television, and Radio School. Campion's work first gained widespread critical attention at the 1986 Cannes International Film Festival, where her film Peel (1982)—made in her second year at the Australian Film, Television, and Radio School—won the Palme d'Or award in the short film category.

Major Works

Campion's early short works and the feature-length Sweetie (1989) are marked by what she has described as a maverick approach to filmmaking. Sweetie, considered Campion's first major work, blends the supernatural with the mundane, the comic with the tragic. The story focuses on the relationship between Kay—a somewhat emotionally disturbed young woman who is deathly afraid of trees—and her sister Sweetie—a loud, overweight, manic-depressive aspiring actress with a voracious appetite for drugs, alcohol, and sex. The theme of the tenuous distinction between sanity and insanity is explored when Kay's father, Sweetie, and Sweetie's boyfriend all move in with her. This theme is further developed in An Angel at My Table (1990), in which Campion fulfilled a long-held desire to make a film about novelist and fellow New Zealander Janet Frame. Based on Frame's three autobiographies—To the Is-Land (1982), An Angel at My Table (1984), and The Envoy from the Mirror City (1985)—the film features three actresses in the role of Frame from childhood through adulthood. The story follows Frame from her isolated and uneventful childhood, her culture shock and emotional troubles upon going away to school, through her endurance of shock therapy after an inaccurate diagnosis of schizophrenia, and her eventual marginal assimilation into society and maturation into a respected author. The Piano begins when the willfully mute mail-order bride Ada (Holly Hunter), her illegitimate daughter Flora (Anna Paquin), and their belongings—including Ada's full-sized piano—are delivered from England to a deserted beach in New Zealand and left to wait for the arrival of Ada's new husband, Stewart (Sam Neill). Ignorant of the piano's importance to Ada, Stewart orders it left behind when he arrives the next day. The piano is later retrieved by Stewart's assistant, Baines (Harvey Keitel), who suspects its significance. The themes of interpersonal communication and marital relationships are developed as Baines, not Stewart, recognizes and exploits the fact that Ada's piano-playing is her most important means of self-expression.

Critical Reception

Critical opinions about Campion's work vary. While she is generally recognized as a technically skilled filmmaker, some critics believe she emphasizes the purely stylistic aspects of her films at the expense of the cohesiveness of her stories. For example, Campion and the actresses from Sweetie were lambasted by critics at the Cannes film festival in 1989; later that year, however, the film received the Australian Film Critics' Circle awards for best film and best director. Noting the stylistic experimentation of her early work, several critics have stated that with An Angel at My Table Campion displayed a growing artistic maturity. The film received numerous awards in 1991, including the Toronto Film Festival Critics Award, the Otto Debelius Prize from the international jury at the Berlin Film Festival, the Elvira Notari Award for the best woman director, and eight awards from the Venice Film Festival. Critics observed that Campion was much more gentle in her treatment of the real-life Janet Frame than she had been toward her previous fictional characters, Sweetie in particular. Many reviewers of The Piano praised Campion's skill in accurately reproducing 19th-century period detail, acknowledged the artfully and technically impressive camera work in the film, and commended her ability to elicit impassioned performances from actors. Other commentators were made uncomfortable by her use of the camera, specifically the reliance on close-ups, and suggested that the film's narrative was too elliptical, requiring the viewer to draw connections and conclusions that the film should have depicted. The Piano was recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with an Oscar for best original screenplay and a nomination for best director.

∗Principal Works

Tissues (film) 1981
Peel: An Exercise in Discipline (film) 1982
A Girl's Own Story (film) 1983
After Hours (film) 1984
Passionless Moments (film) 1984
Two Friends (film) 1986
Sweetie [with Gerard Lee] (film) 1989
An Angel at My Table [with Laura Jones] (film) 1990
The Piano (film) 1993
Portrait of a Lady [with Jones; based on the novel The Portrait of a Lady (1881) by Henry James] (film) 1996

∗Campion directed all the films listed here. Bracketed information refers to screenwriting credit.

Criticism

Robert Seidenberg (review date January 1990)

SOURCE: "Sweetie: Jane Campion's Maverick Family," in American Film, Vol. XV, No. 4, January, 1990, pp. 59, 65.

[In the following review, Seidenberg examines Campion's treatment of family life in Sweetie.]

Dark, destructive forces simmer under the surface of everyday life, held at bay by repression and denial. Add a little pressure to the mix and those forces bubble over. In the offbeat comedy Sweetie, Jane Campion's feature debut, they erupt with volcanic force, bringing chaos to an Australian family.

"In families, like everything else, there's the good side and the sick side," explains Campion, a 35-year-old New Zealander living in Sydney. "In Sweetie, the family is in distress, and under stress things usually don't come out so well."

Fulfilling the prophecy of a fortune-teller, Kay (Karen Colston) falls for a man with "a question mark"—formed by a cowlick and mole—on his forehead. A year later, the road turns rocky. The brooding Kay turns frigid. Her romance dissolves. Even worse, she's visited by her manic sister, Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon).

Though she's an irresponsible, conniving adult, Sweetie still sees herself as daddy's little girl: a sweet, tap-dancing show-off with infinite potential. She'll stoop to anything to get attention, even barking and biting like an incensed hound. With her erratic behavior, she's detonated...

(The entire section is 542 words.)

Sheila Benson (review date 14 February 1990)

SOURCE: "Move Over David Lynch, Here Comes Australia's 'Sweetie,'" in Los Angeles Times, February 14, 1990, pp. F2-F3.

[In the following review of Sweetie, Benson focuses on the relationship between Kay and her sister, Sweetie.]

We haven't had a movie as profoundly unsettling as Sweetie since Blue Velvet. David Lynch's dark metaphor created the same reactions as Jane Campion's first feature; both of them have been called masterly and disgusting, by turns. But while Campion's vision is no less precise and no less bizarre than Lynch's and while both directors deal in manifestations of the unconscious, the comparisons stop there.

...

(The entire section is 905 words.)

Stuart Klawans (review date 19 February 1990)

SOURCE: A review of Sweetie, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 250, No. 7, February 19, 1990, p. 252.

[In the following review, Klawans praises the narrative structure and visual style of Sweetie.]

One of the first things you see in Sweetie is the muddy-hued, domestic equivalent of a Rorschach blot: the pattern in a carpet. The camera peers down on this floral invitation to daydreaming, which takes up most of the screen; to one side, a fragment of the narrator's body is visible. Kay (Karen Colston) begins to talk in voiceover about her fantasies, but you already know plenty about them from the image. Sweetie—the utterly distinctive and assured first...

(The entire section is 719 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 26 February 1990)

SOURCE: A review of Sweetie, in New Republic, Vol. 202, No. 3919, February 26, 1990, pp. 26-7.

[Kauffmann is an American playwright, actor, director, and critic. In the following excerpt, he contends that Campion is more interested in her film's visual impact than its narrative.]

Jane Campion is a newcomer, a New Zealander who works in Australia and is now loudly hailed in America. Sweetie is her first feature. She wrote it with Gerard Lee; but after the first five or six minutes, it's clear that her heart is not in the screenplay, it's in the pictures that she makes with her cinematographer Sally Bongers.

Still, there is a...

(The entire section is 586 words.)

Maitland McDonagh (review date 19 May 1991)

SOURCE: "Jane Campion's 'Angel' Is Another Quirky Soul," in New York Times, May 19, 1991, p. 22.

[In the following review, McDonagh draws comparisons between An Angel at My Table and Campion's previous works, arguing that the director is kinder to her subject in the film under review.]

"Just show me an ordinary person," says the director Jane Campion, "and I'll show you a troubled soul." And she should know; troubled souls are her stock in trade. Her first feature, Sweetie, revolved around two warring sisters: the dour Kay, who has nightmares about trees with human powers, and Sweetie, who is exuberant, impulsive and destructively out of control. The...

(The entire section is 1136 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 3 June 1991)

SOURCE: Review of An Angel at My Table, in New Republic, Vol. 204, No. 3985, June 3, 1991, pp. 28-9.

[In the following review, Kauffmann asserts that Campion "has moved forward healthily" with An Angel at My Table, eschewing the "precious camera work" of Sweetie to put "her (considerable) pictorial skill at the service of Janet Frame."]

Last year, reviewing Jane Campion's Sweetie, I said, "If Campion can accept that we now know about her [pictorial] eye and can concentrate on an integrated story, she might make a good traditional filmmaker." She hadn't waited for my advice: she was already almost finished with Angel at My Table, which...

(The entire section is 1153 words.)

Terrence Rafferty (review date 3 June 1991)

SOURCE: "Outlaw Princesses," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXVII, No. 15, June 3, 1991, pp. 86-8.

[In the following excerpt, Rafferty describes An Angel at My Table as a "perverse exercise in biographical filmmaking," faulting Campion for keeping viewers disoriented and withholding from them a sense of Frame's "inner life."]

An Angel at My Table is based on the autobiography of the New Zealand novelist and poet Janet Frame. It covers the first forty years or so of the writer's life—she was born in 1924—and takes close to three hours to tell the story. When it's all over, you feel that you know far too little about Janet Frame and far too much about the...

(The entire section is 839 words.)

Elizabeth Drucker (review date July 1991)

SOURCE: "An Angel at My Table: Jane Campion Throws a Curve," in American Film, Vol. XVI, No. 7, July, 1991, pp. 52-3.

[In the following review, Drucker finds An Angel at My Table "as subtle and straightforward as Sweetie was startling and stylized."]

Director Jane Campion woke up the film world in 1989 with the bizarre, darkly comic vision of Sweetie. A tale about the rivalry between two sisters—one neurotic, the other psychotic—Campion's feature debut boasted eerie dream sequences, flamboyant characters and altogether odd behavior.

Just when critics thought they had Campion pegged (many referred to her as a female...

(The entire section is 741 words.)

Mary Cantwell (essay date 19 September 1993)

SOURCE: "Jane Campion's Lunatic Women," in New York Times Magazine, September 19, 1993, pp. 40-1, 44, 51.

[Cantwell is an American editor, nonfiction writer, and critic. In the following essay, based on an interview with Campion, Cantwell surveys Campion's life and works, focusing on the female characters in Campion's films.]

This October, a romantic epic titled The Piano, written and directed by a New Zealander named Jane Campion, will be the grand finale of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. In November it will open all over the country. The Piano, which is set in 19th-century New Zealand, has already made Campion the first woman to win the...

(The entire section is 4616 words.)

Stella Bruzzi (essay date October 1993)

SOURCE: "Bodyscape," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 3, No. 10, October, 1993, pp. 6-10.

[In the following essay, Bruzzi compares The Piano to other dramatic works dealing with sexuality in the Victorian Age and argues that The Piano is a "cryptic and evocative exploration of how women's sexuality, clothes and lives interconnect."]

At the beginning of The Piano, Ada (Holly Hunter), a mute Scottish woman, arrives in New Zealand with her nine-year-old daughter Flora. They disembark on a remote beach, where they are left by the sailors who accompanied them to await Ada's new husband Stewart (Sam Neill), a rich local landowner. Their strung-out possessions...

(The entire section is 3784 words.)

Lizzie Francke (review date November 1993)

SOURCE: A review of The Piano, in Sight and Sound, Vol. 3, No. 11, November, 1993, pp. 50-1.

[In the following excerpt, Francke comments on theme in The Piano, noting that the film "demands as much a physical and emotional response as an intellectual one."]

For a while I could not think, let alone write, about The Piano without shaking. Precipitating a flood of feelings, The Piano demands as much a physical and emotional response as an intellectual one. As with the Maoris in the film who, believing the Bluebeard shadow play to be real, attempt to stop the old duke add another wife to his collection, I wanted to rush at the screen and shout...

(The entire section is 921 words.)

Brian D. Johnson (review date 22 November 1993)

SOURCE: "Rain Forest Rhapsody: The Piano Is a Work of Passion and Beauty," in Maclean's, Vol. 106, No. 47, November 22, 1993, pp. 72, 74.

[In the following review, Johnson praises The Piano on a number of counts, including its story and strong female leading role, and describes it as "a welcome antidote to almost everything that seems to be wrong with the movies."]

Every now and then, a movie comes along that restores faith in the visionary power of cinema. The Piano, a haunting fable about a mute mail-order bride caught between two men in the wilds of 19th-century New Zealand, is that kind of film. It arrives as a welcome antidote to almost...

(The entire section is 1458 words.)

Stuart Klawans (review date 6 December 1993)

SOURCE: Review of The Piano, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 257, No. 19, December 6, 1993, pp. 704-06.

[In the following mixed review, Klawans finds The Piano contrived and allegorized, but acknowledges that most viewers will admire the film's eroticism and formal inventiveness.]

A skeptic's notes on the most believed-in movie of the year:

No one will deny that Jane Campion's The Piano is a genuinely erotic picture. That alone would have made it stand out in any era; it glows all the brighter today, when screen couplings resemble either the Clash of the Titans (Basic Instinct) or a perfume ad (Henry and June). What a...

(The entire section is 1724 words.)

John Simon (review date 27 December 1993)

SOURCE: "Praise Jack, Shoot 'The Piano,'" in National Review, Vol. 45, No. 25, December 27, 1993, pp. 65-7.

[Simon is a Yugoslavian-born American film and theater critic. In the following excerpt, he argues that The Piano contains numerous logical inconsistencies that detract from its quality.]

At a New York Film Festival press conference, Jane Campion said she had originally intended to have the Cannes grand-prize-winning The Piano end with the drowning of the heroine. Instead, she has her going off to live happily ever after with her lover. I wonder about a writer-director who ends up making the opposite of what she set out to do.

The...

(The entire section is 993 words.)

Richard A. Blake (review date 15 January 1994)

SOURCE: "Sound Effects," in America, Vol. 170, No. 2, January 15, 1994, p. 14.

[Blake is an American educator, editor, film critic, and Roman Catholic priest. In the following review, he asserts that The Piano provides "a brilliant analysis" of human isolation and remarks on Campion's artistic development.]

Traditionally, the holiday season works violence on the emotions. It offers images of happy family gatherings, but the sad reality is that many people eat Thanksgiving dinner alone in cafeterias, neither give nor receive Christmas presents and play solitaire on New Year's Eve. At a time when need for communication becomes obsessive, loneliness weighs like a...

(The entire section is 1101 words.)

Sarah Kerr (review date 3 February 1994)

SOURCE: "Shoot the Piano Player," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLI, No. 3, February 3, 1994, pp. 29-30.

[In the following review, Kerr discusses the scenery, costumes, and narrative of The Piano, arguing that Campion creates an "immersion experience" rather than a dramatic narrative.]

Several reviewers of her latest film [The Piano] have called Jane Campion a fourth Brontë sister. Campion, too, has dropped hints that this is where she got her inspiration. Attached to the book version of her screenplay, there is an appendix entitled "The Making of The Piano" in which she is quoted comparing "the kind of romance that Emily Brontë...

(The entire section is 3075 words.)

Harvey Greenberg (review date Spring 1994)

SOURCE: A review of The Piano, in Film Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 3, Spring, 1994, pp. 46-50.

[Greenberg is an American educator, psychiatrist, nonfiction writer, and author of Screen Memories: Hollywood Cinema on the Psychoanalytic Couch (1993). In the following review, he discusses the themes of The Piano, focusing on sexuality and identity.]

Jane Campion's Sweetie (1989) described the calamitous impact of a raucous schizophrenic woman upon her relatives. An Angel at My Table (1990), based on the autobiography of Janet Frame, depicted the no less harrowing effects of institutionalization upon a female writer misdiagnosed as chronically...

(The entire section is 2649 words.)

Sara Halprin (review date July 1994)

SOURCE: "A Key to The Piano," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. XI, Nos. 10-11, July, 1994, pp. 35-6.

[In the following review, Halprin discusses The Piano in relation to the published screenplay and comments on the film's literary influences.]

I am frightened of my will, of what it might do, it is so strange and strong.

Jane Campion began writing the script for her acclaimed and controversial third feature film, The Piano, in 1984, nine years before it reached the screen. The published script, accompanied by production notes, monochrome stills and credits, is a literary oddity which owes...

(The entire section is 2042 words.)