WOMEN IN FILM: Jane Campion

Last Updated: June 23, 2019By Tags: ,

A recipient of the Palme d’Or, the Silver Lion, and an Academy Award, Jane Campion is one of the most successful women directors in the history of cinema.

Campion’s first feature film, “Sweetie” premiered at Cannes in 1989 where it was greeted with boos but has since been claimed as a hallmark of the director’s iconoclastic style, with its black humor, striking visuals and its penetrating look at dysfunctional suburban family life. It truly is a fantastic film.

She followed with “An Angel At My Table,” a passionately-directed film about the life of New Zealand poet Janet Frame that explores the line between normality and true madness. Like Frame’s books, the movie is divided into three discrete sections, a division that may owe more to its origins as a work for television, but this doesn’t take away from the fact that “An Angel At My Table” is a fascinating work.

1993’s “The Piano” was Campion’s most successful film, both critically and commercially.

Most rightly praised the film for its exploration of female desire and sensibility (something Hollywood had always been skittish about doing) while others criticized it for aestheticizing female power and presenting a universal view of femininity at the expense of New Zealand’s indigenous population.

Whatever one thinks of “The Piano,” (I’m on the yea team) it cannot be denied that it powerfully demonstrated the potential for arthouse cinema to strike a chord with mainstream audiences and find commercial success, with its unprecedented box office results and several Oscar nominations (Best Original Screenplay for Campion, Best Actress for Holly Hunter and Best Supporting Actress for Anna Paquin). “The Piano” is truly one of its decade’s finest films.

Her 1996 adaptation of Henry James’s novel “The Portrait of a Lady” drew criticism for its modernizing of the story and characters. “Portrait” is adventurous in its presentation and resonates with modern sensibilities. Campion made some brave stylistic choices for a period film, which leavens “The Portrait Of a Lady” above the stuffiness of productions similar to it. The film, a unique and undervalued gem, is its own entity.

1999’s “Holy Smoke” is an emotionally-shattering look at sexuality and sexual politics that holds some of the finest performances Kate Winslet has ever given. It’s quite the unexpected film, turning a struggle to help someone find her true self into a battle of the sexes. Many viewers were turned off because of the film’s bluntness but “Holy Smoke” stands as a welcome antidote to the coyness of American cinema.

After 2003’s disastrous “In the Cut,” Campion was one of eight filmmakers who directed a short for the film “8.” Each story focused on issues regarding our planet. The film was largely successful overseas but didn’t make a much of an impression in the U.S.


Elisabeth Moss in “Top of the Lake: China Girl”

Following this, Campion created (with her longtime collaborator, Gerard Lee) “Top of the Lake”, a six-hour miniseries for the BBC and The Sundance Channel in 2013. This became the first television miniseries to screen at the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals, some of Campion’s finest writing to date.

Her most recent film was 2009’s “Bright Star,” a cinematic poem to poet John Keats and the majesty and heartbreak of true love. The film is a literate and relatable tale of love that is a rarity in today’s cinema.

Jane Campion was Jury President at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, the equivalent of being given the Medal of Honor, or the Légion d’Honneur, for the filmmaker. In 2015, Campion helped establish an annual scholarship program for women directors through the New Zealand Film Commission and was appointed a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to film in the Queen’s 2016 New Year Honors.

This completely unique filmmaker is a strong voice in cinema, one that should always be heard. Her films are persuasive and honest portrayals of women, be they sexual, political, or otherwise, in nature. Her style is unique and inventive from project to project.

Jane Campion is a filmmaker who has always been intrigued by the space that class and culture puts between lovers and the feelings they can’t bring themselves to express. She finds her voice in every piece and lends it to the work in unobtrusive yet potent ways.

I continually look forward to each and every project from this true artist.

Anthony Francis is contributor to Screen Comment. He is based in Washington, D.C. “Women in film” is a new series curated by him that looks at women of influence in the world of film.

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