Sweetie: Jane Campion’s Experiment

As it has evolved, Jane Campion’s body of work has come increasingly to exhibit a powerful unity, centered on a commitment to depicting the psychosexual realities of women’s lives. In her feature films, she homes in on the subjectivity of one woman, chronicling how, for better or worse, she finds  her life irrevocably changed by a strong (but ultimately sensitive) man. Most famous is The Piano (1993), with its gothic narrative of a woman trapped in an empty marriage who is given new direction in life through an intense erotic encounter. But all of Campion’s features offer versions of this story, as if each were a piece in an overall experiment in which Campion was testing how women wend their way through the thorny terrain of heterosexual desire and dread.

Elements of this story line appear even in Campion’s earliest shorts, although these works—An Exercise in Discipline: Peel (1982), Passionless Moments (1983), and A Girl’s Own Story (1983)—are also unique experiments, and not just in their form and youthfulness. Made while she was a student at the prestigious Australian Film Television and Radio School, they are marked by a distinctive, often wacky visual style, one that her first feature, Sweetie (1989), shares. Sweetie, in fact, can be seen as a bridge between Campion’s tentative, probing film school works and her subsequent features, anticipating the later films’ intense focus on single female characters in emotional crisis while retaining the visual inventiveness, and some of the narrative fragmentation, of the shorts.

On the one hand, looking forward to the later films, Sweetie appears to stay close to its protagonist, Kay, and narrates much of its action from her point of view. Moreover, like Campion’s other features, it begins with a sense of the inevitability—for this woman, at least—of a heterosexual encounter (a fortune-teller tells Kay that she is destined to find romance with a man with a question mark on his forehead). On the other hand, however, there is so much deliberate quirkiness in the look of Sweetie and in its narrative events that the viewer’s emotional investment in the character Kay is blocked in a way that isn’t the case with, most famously, Ada in The Piano. No rock of psychological surety, Kay gets drawn into a universe where everything is more than a bit off, where nothing is as it should be.

From the content of individual shots, which is often eccentric (for example, the meditation teacher at a skewed angle and in extreme close-up against a flat background), to the succession of shots, one to the next, which is often quite disjunctive (for instance, the sudden cut to two unidentified cowboys dancing silently in homoerotic unity on the jackaroo ranch), to the overall narrative trajectory, which constantly veers off in unexpected fashion (who are those
dancing cowboys anyway?), Sweetie moves from the realm of psychological depth to that of a flamboyant surface style to be appreciated in its own right: its insistent weirdness of tone, plot, and technique takes the tale that it seemed to be recounting—Kay’s voyage beyond her early neuroses—and makes it the stage on which a bold experimentation is performed. It is as if the deconstructive qualities of the short films persisted and contagiously took over Sweetie’s narrative universe, making this full-length film an avant-garde work too.

There is in those early shorts the sense of a free-floating investigation of styles that refuses to settle down into one singular mode of storytelling. Indeed, if the later features intensely marry style to a woman’s subjectivity (to such a degree that In?the Cut, from 2003, blurs the edges of the frame, as if to mimic its heroine’s fuzzy grasp of the morally ambiguous world around her), the earlier films operate more often by a multiplication of perspectives. Much raw emotion plays out in An Exercise in Discipline: Peel, for instance, but it is dispersed across a series of characters, so that there is no one narrative focus and, certainly, no attempt to give a woman’s point of view priority in the film’s conflictual universe. As the triangle on view in its credits suggests, Peel is rather about a psychodrama of interaction—life as conflict and duel, with each player in the emotional combat equal to the others and ready to shift allegiance at a moment’s notice. Likewise, despite its title, A Girl’s Own Story ultimately is about an aggregate of girls rather than just one central figure (similarly, Campion directed a made-for-TV film, Two Friends, that looks at two young women’s trajectories toward adulthood). And Passionless Moments, as its title implies, is concerned less with the gathering up of individual scenes into an overall narrative than with their dispersion. And these are moments without deep emotion, without the passion—erotic or otherwise—that characterizes the later feature films. Instead, here and in Sweetie, Campion engages in what we might term a surreality of everydayness, in which ordinary, even trivial, incidents from a variety of people’s lives receive comic evaluation.

This distinct style owes much to cinematographer Sally Bongers, whom Campion befriended in film school and collaborated with on Peel, A Girl’s Own Story, and Sweetie. (Campion also met screenwriting collaborator Gerard Lee, who worked on Passionless Moments and Sweetie, in film school.) One of Bongers’s signature compositions involves taking a filmed reality, however banal, and rendering it peculiar in look; often there is a dramatically striking contrast in scale between characters in extreme foreground and others in extreme background (accompanied sometimes by a cut that directly reverses the two). This compositional motif both expresses the conflictual interpersonal dynamics of the film’s characters, as the moment-to-moment overwhelming of one by another, and suggests the fragility of any such “victory,” since the relationship between those in the frame can always be reversed, the positions of power and submission mutated.

But the function of such dramatically framed and staged shots is not merely ­thematic. Campion and Bongers use these kinds of compositions not only for symbolism (of fraught family dynamics, for example, in the case of Peel and Sweetie) but quite simply and directly to create imagery that is bold and that the viewer is to notice and admire for its sheer visual qualities. (Think, for instance, of the shot in Sweetie where Louis, Kay, and her mom go swimming in the outback, each at a different distance from the lens—from extreme close-up to faraway view.) Striking composition is absolutely integral to the sometimes comic, sometimes disturbing quality of the early films: overhead shots (often at skewed angles) that gaze down on characters, extreme low angles that distort the image, sharp contrasts of color, framing that cuts off parts of the body, a fragmentary editing style that chops up narrative and disturbs unity of space, the staging of scenes in curious locales, narrative-breaking fantasy or animated sequences, rays of light (with a lyrical emphasis on the dust motes that float dreamily about), direct and obsessive looks at the camera, the staging of characters in awkwardly mechanical positions (often against stark or kitsch-colored backgrounds), and so on. These are traits that Sweetie also displays, in ways that work against our emotional investment, turning us more into bemused, if not dismayed, voyeurs peeking in on very strange behavior, in a very strange universe.

Even the title of the film points to this disruption of our involvement in Kay’s story: it refers not to Kay but to her sister, Dawn, nicknamed Sweetie by their father. And from the title on, Sweetie is both with Kay and looking beyond her to other characters and to other concerns than her emotional conundrums alone. Sweetie herself is a contagious force of disruption. Her arrival on the scene sends the film in new directions, as she derails Kay’s narrative and threatens to overwhelm all logic, all propriety, all emotions other than her sheer animalistic appetite and obsessive demand for attention. Ultimately, it is appropriate that it is this character whose name is given to the film, for the experience of Sweetie is in the end indistinguishable from that of the film itself, which takes us places that are sometimes comical but as often strangely disturbing and even painful. One might even compare Sweetie to another film of female subjectivity wherein the title character is not the protagonist but a force from the past that she must struggle with: Hitchcock’s Rebecca, which likewise pictures its heroine as a somewhat repressed figure who is haunted, she thinks, by a rival for attention and must try to affirm herself and define her own future with the man in her life.

In terms of this narrative fragmentation, it is worth noting that Sweetie’s last scene is not the one in which Kay and Louis come together for lovemaking. Rather, that moment of romantic reconciliation gives way to a coda in which the father, Gordon, sees a fantasy image of his “Sweetie.” To the very end, Kay’s story is exceeded by other forces and other stories. And even as Kay seems to be progressing, other characters—and the film itself—regress into a fixation on an idyllic past. Campion’s next film, An Angel at My Table (1990), would be the first in which a singular female protagonist marches forward resolutely to her destiny. By the end of that film, and all the subsequent ones, the heroine has seemingly fully overcome the adversities of her past to make a break into a new, autonomous life. In the shorts, and to a large extent in Sweetie, on the other hand, characters and scenes cycle back, and no one seems to get anywhere. In Peel, the family seems stuck in its primal dynamics of stunted interaction; in Passionless Moments, each anecdote starts anew, showing us people caught in obsessions and quandaries they appear unable to transcend. Sweetie shows the woman making hesitant moves toward establishing her subjectivity but frames that quest for selfhood within a larger context of chaos and confusion, loss of control, obsession, and regression.

Kay herself is perhaps no less obsessive and no less in a state of regression than the other characters. After all, she is fixated both on the porcelain ponies she’s had since childhood and, more disturbingly, on a menacing image of trees, which she lives with as a veritable phobia. The female subjectivity that Sweetie bears witness to is sometimes forward moving—Kay decides what she wants at the beginning of the film and goes after it—but it is also stunted, thwarted, caught in its own cycles of dread and doubt.

In this respect, Sweetie is not only a culmination of the disruptive and experimental narrative and stylistic tendencies of the short films; it pushes us to look for traces of those tendencies in the later works as well. For example, if Sweetie’s penultimate romance scene is qualified by the fantasy Sweetie sequence that follows, we may note that Campion’s later films also do not always wrap things up as tidily and well for their female protagonists as they first appear to do: in The Piano, Ada may escape to civilization with her sensitive but manly lover, yet here, too, there is a troubling epilogue, in which we see Ada floating in the murky fatality of the sea; in The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Isabel is frozen in indecision in the final shot, and the story remains open-ended. As a transitional film, then, Sweetie ultimately suggests potential links between Jane Campion’s early and late work, and encourages us to understand her entire oeuvre as an extended experiment—which may still have some surprises in store for us.

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