A stylish indie film with plenty of attitude and some
particularly fine moments, featuring strong performances from an excellent
cast, especially from the best friend leads Rusty (Shawn Hatosy) and
Dallas 362 Mike D’Angelo
Near the end of
Scott Caan's improbably electrifying directorial debut, the main character,
Rusty (Shawn Hatosy), sits talking to his mother, Mary (Kelly Lynch), about
some impending upheavals in their lives — her sudden engagement to her
psychiatrist boyfriend, his desire to return to Texas and pursue a career as a
rodeo cowboy. It's a fairly straightforward heart-to-heart, sharply written and
beautifully acted but still potentially something of a Hallmark moment. As
mother and son converse in the foreground, however, quiet magic unfolds in the
background, out of focus: About halfway through the scene, Mary's fiancé, Bob
(Jeff Goldblum), who's been doing double duty as Rusty's shrink, wanders out to
greet them, but stops dead upon sensing that he's about to intrude upon The Big
Talk. He watches briefly from afar, then turns and beats a hasty, positively
giddy retreat — all of this conveyed solely via Goldblum's gangly body
language. Tender and goofy, it's the kind of detail that most novice filmmakers
would underline with a close-up or a focus pull; Caan simply lets it happen,
and has the confidence never to refer to it again.
Limping into a handful of theaters some two years after its festival
Dallas 362 Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack
Here's a film that no one really gives two shits about in the
larger world -- it won at CineVegas 03, played Toronto, and slumped into
theatres two years later -- but a lot of people in my immediate circle are
pretty high on it. I first tried to watch it late last year but turned the disc
off at the 30-minute mark. It struck me as way too smug, and its seeming
celebration of thick-necked dumbass thuggery turned me off like, well, like a
family reunion, if you catch my drift. In fact, the opening minutes were a bit
The 26-year-old actor Scott Caan likely grew up watching films his father James made during the late-1960s/early-1970s, and the influence shows in his debut as writer-director, "Dallas 362." Set and shot, like last year's "Spun" and "The Salton Sea," in grimy flophouses and back alleys of Los Angeles, Caan's picture refreshingly refrains from borrowing from those films' stylistic handbook. Rather, it has a relaxed poeticism to it; it's a sweetly naive, adolescent Hemingway fantasy with a star-making performance by Shawn Hatosy and good ones from everyone else (including Caan). The recipient of the critics' jury prize at Cinevegas, this low-key but accomplished pic definitely has a future as a festival item and a specialized theatrical release.
The story of two longtime friends, Rusty (Hatosy) and Dallas (Caan), who ramble aimlessly from bar fight to bar fight, always getting bailed out by Rusty's understanding mom (Kelly Lynch), "Dallas 362" has a first-time-filmmaker's tendency to overplay its hand. At times, Caan (like Hemingway or Sam Shepard at their worst) gets a bit too seduced by the notion of angry young men working out their frustrations physically when that's exactly the thing pic purports to be rallying against. (There's one scene, in which Dallas stares at his split-open and bleeding head in the mirror and seems turned-on by it.) Rusty, who's supposed to be the one with the bright future in this doomed, "Scarecrow"-esque friendship, occasionally smacks of bad Will Hunting-isms. He's a loner-rebel caricature: the toughest, most sensitive and most misunderstood kid on the block.
But this shaggy dog of a movie (decked out in work boots and blasted blue jeans), is also involving and surprisingly mature. There's something sweetly appealing about Caan's near-fetishization of adolescent angst. Despite his indulgence in cliches, Caan connects to his characters on a deep, meaningful level; auds will care about Rusty and Dallas, even if they don't quite believe they exist. Caan lets their situations -- Rusty is looking for a way back to the Texas of his youth; Dallas is plotting a robbery to set him up for life -- play out in unpredictable ways, even if too much time is spent on the Dallas subplot.
Caan stages some lovely scenes, like one early on where a beautiful girl (Marley Shelton) walks into the diner where Rusty is eating and he tells her, without batting an eye, that he loves her, that instinctively he ought to sweep her off her feet and "rescue" her, but that he can't at the moment, because "it's a thing."
Caan also gives ample chunks of the movie over to the very honest relationship between Rusty and his mom. Lynch is very good as the mother -- it's the biggest mother role in recent memory in a movie ostensibly aimed at Generation Y -- and she even gets her own tender, unhurried romance with a shrink played by an enjoyably goofy Jeff Goldblum.
But the movie belongs to Hatosy, in his best role to date, whose Rusty is by turns child-like and wise-beyond-his-years, imploding with sadness and rage.
"Dallas 362" overstays its welcome by a bit, but keeps introducing new characters along the way to keep things fresh. (Freddy Rodriguez's turn as a Cuban shyster with a "Scarface" accent is particularly memorable.) And in pic's final moments, there's an unexpected emotional pull.
Widescreen cinematography by Phil Parmet has a day-dreamy haze that captures L.A. very well. The superb opening titles (by Howie Nourmand) are further proof that such sequences are the true renaissance art at the movies nowadays.
The Onion A.V. Club review Scott Tobias
Slant Magazine review Akiva Gottlieb
Film-Forward.com Deborah Lynn Blumberg
A Scattered Homage to Guillermo Cabrera Infante Victor Fowler Calzada from Rouge
Cacoyannis, Michael from World Cinema
Cypriot film director, also theatre director, editor and producer. After law
— Thomas Nedelkos, Encylopedia of European Cinema
Based on the play Stella with the Red Gloves by Iakovos
Kambanellis, and noted as the first Greek film to gain international attention,
Michael Cacoyannis' (Zorba The Greek) 1955 feature Stella follows the passions
of a popular young bouzouki café performer who refuses her traditional role as
a woman in Greek society.
We are introduced to the main character, Stella (Melina Mercouri), as a woman who enjoys the effect she has on men. Her opening scene displays a performance at the club where she works, as she prances about while singing a seductive song to the backing of a bouzouki ensemble. Her current boyfriend Aleko (Alekos Alexandrakis) is seen getting a warning from a young girl who objects to Stella's treatment of men—discarding them as she moves on to newer territories. Aleko will do anything for Stella, including buying her the piano she wants. When Aleko tries to get Stella to commit to him, she instead sets her sights on a soccer star name Milto (George Foundas—Never On Sunday, Zorba The Greek), spurning her lover's affections, and driving him to illness with tragic consequences.
As her heated relationship with Milto progresses, Stella eventually falls in love, but when faced with the ultimatum of a marriage proposal, she must decide between her love for Milto, the freedom she loves so much and the imprisonment she fears in marriage. Her decision ultimately seals the fate of both herself and her new lover, as the consequences of love, pride and freedom fall into place.
The film itself is frequented by high energy musical pieces, fueled by the frantic bouzouki music (written by Manos Hatzidakis) that provides much of the soundtrack. Shot in and around
This was Mercouri's (Never On Sunday) first feature film in an emotionally charged role written expressly for her. Following Oscar® and BAFTA nominations and the Cannes prize for Best Actress for her role in Pote tin Kyriaki (1960), Mercouri would go on to become the Greek Minister of Culture responsible for the return of artifacts to her homeland. Here we have her first screen appearance, that featured realistic and passionate love scenes that would have been highly controversial for their time.
Wade Major from Boxoffice magazine (link lost):
Best known for 1964's "Zorba The Greek," director Michael Cacoyannis stands tall among the many great European auteurs to emerge in wake of such seminal 1950s movements as the French New Wave and Italian Neo-realism. Clearly influenced by the likes of Truffaut and Rossellini, Cacoyannis' pastoral, character-driven glimpses into the lives and loves of average Greeks remain striking examples of a poetically realistic national cinema that sadly never failed to spark beyond the contributions of its most famous practitioner. Four of Cacoyannis' most renowned works comprise Winstar's "Michael Cacoyannis Collection" on DVD, beginning with 1955's strikingly realistic "Stella," the story of a fiercely independent singer and the two lovers who cannot live without her. In 1956, Cacoyannis' international reputation grew with "A Girl In Black," in which a hard-luck writer finds the small-town atmosphere on a small island to be markedly less than idyllic after he becomes involved with a scorned family. The myth of the wealthy Greek bourgeois is attacked in 1958's "A Matter of Dignity," in which the daughter of a wealthy industrialist finds herself forced to choose between status and love. Having made many of his films on a shoestring budget and with limited resources, Cacoyannis was well-suited to the demands of guerilla documentary filmmaking when, in 1974, he and a crew of two arrived on the island of Cyprus to document the Turkish invasion which resulted in the division that continues to this day. Many consider the resulting film, "Attilla '74: The Rape of Cyprus," to be Cacoyannis' most heartfelt and heart-breaking work. As a set, the four DVDs represent an important piece of post-war European cinema's complex tapestry of styles and subjects, all the more compelling in view of how few films from the period deal with Greek culture and politics in any way at all. In fact, choosing any single one of them for distinction is virtually impossible. Considering the age and condition of many of the original elements, all four films feature impressive sound and video, and should really be purchased and viewed as a set.
from the New York Times (link lost):
If Saturday's new import at the Cameo is any criterion, Greek films have
taken a decided turn for the better. At any rate, the pleasant, if trifling,
little romantic comedy called "Windfall in
The distributors, Arista Films, announce it as the first Greek entry ever accepted in a European screen festival. Even more interesting is the fact that a 29-year-old stripling named Michael Cacoyanis, who bears watching, both wrote and directed it.
Equipped with rather tentative English titles, the result is pretty reasonable lightweight fun. In a head-on dispute over a winning lottery ticket, a nice young girl and a young musician meet, square off and, to nobody's surprise, we hope, fall in love.
As the warring but smitten protagonists, Elli Lambetti and Dimitri Horn are natural and all too human. But it is the suave charm of Georges Pappas, as a lonely, middleaged lawyer infatuated with Miss Lambetti, that steadies the picture, and redeems some coy, dawdling stretches.
Even so, it's nice to have a good-natured Greek picture with a little technical finesse. Judging by the opening and closing scenes, Athenian sleepers certainly take their time about hitting the floor in the morning. But they do get up.
At long last, a worthy screen rendering of a classic Greek drama has been achieved in the film of Euripides' "Electra," which opened at the Beekman yesterday.
Indeed, this pictorial translation of one of the greatest Greek tragedies,
produced and directed by Michael Cacoyannis in ancient dress and on locations
Where previous attempts to make movies from the Greek classics have generally mired in the heavy going of too much declamation of the original poetic dialogue, this film avoids that dangerous pitfall by going to the other extreme and swinging wide of a form of presentation that is physically hitched to the structure of the stage.
Clearly, Mr. Cacoyannis knows you can't photograph words, that a medium as visual as motion pictures must not put too much dependence on the ear. Also, he sees that the contours of the drama in the Greek tragedies are so massive and elemental that they may be suggested and impressed upon the eye with a proper and tasteful presentation of graphic images.
Thus, he has made this "Electra" a powerful address to the eyes. He has taken his company outdoors and set it against the countryside, against great sweeping vistas of rugged landscape and eloquent stretches of sky.
The episode of Agamemnon's murder, engineered by his faithless wife in league with her lover, Aegisthus, is played beneath the great empty vault of heaven, so that base immensity of it is awesomely implied. And the torments of their daughter, Electra as she lives with the horror of this deed and her inevitable passion for vengeance, are graphically communicated in the harsh and barren aspects of her home in exile in a peasant's hut.
The inner fires of Electra are also made eloquent by the heroic appearance and performance of Irene Papas in this role. Seldom has a face or conveyance of the human figure so beautifully depicted the nature and the passion of a character as do Miss Papas here. Her eyes and the gestures say quite as much as the few words—the comparatively few words—she has to utter in expressing her grief and pain.
Aleka Catselli as Clytemnestra, the faithless mother, is a graphic figure of poetic contours, too—a glittering, soulless creature, who, in her confrontation scene with Electra, is a strong sense of frigid majesty. And Yannis Fertis, as Orestes, and others complete the superlative performance of the classic role.
A brilliant musical score by Mikis Catodorakis and the camera work of Walter Lassally contributes to what undoubtedly is to be a screen classic.
Chicago Reader (capsule) Dave Kehr
How is it possible that Anthony Quinn is not really Greek? His
performance in the title role here is iconic, and not just in movie terms—Zorba
has become an emblem for all things Hellenic in many respects, the very
personification of the modern Greek nation. That's quite a mantle for an actor
of even Quinn's charisma to carry, and if Michael Cacoyannis's film of Nikos
Kazantzakis's novel occasionally seems a little fleshy and overblown, at its
heart is Quinn, in a career-defining role as a character who transcends the
very movie in which he appears.
In many respects, Zorba the Greek is structured as a classic coming-of-age story, focusing on Basil, a young Englishman, a bookish sort, returning to his father's land in
But if you do, it's a fine old time, and not just because of Quinn. A young Alan Bates plays Basil, an underwritten part that's almost more type than human being; Bates invests him with a gentle soul. And let us not give short shrift to the women of the picture, either. Lila Kedrova is probably the most notable, as Madame Hortense, the patently absurd widow who has buried four husbands; she still holds out hope for love, for Zorba, and can preen a giggle like a coquette when overcome with emotion. Her clothes are ratty in a Blanche Du Bois sort of way and she's severely overrouged; it's easy to make fun of Madame Hortense, and many do. But there's something genuinely moving here, toward the end of the picture especially, and the character's last scenes may put you in mind of Falstaff, or Don Quixote, the comic figure confronting the great mystery of life.
Equally compelling, in a more understated and downright smoldering performance, is Irene Papas as the unnamed local widow, dangerously alluring to the men of the village, with a special energy between her and the young Englishman. With not many words or scenes, Papas conveys the emotional wounds of the character, in a performance in the manner of Anna Magnani. Zorba wants to school Basil in the lessons of courtship, and knows in his heart that the widow is the proper object of his student's amorous advances; no good comes of this, however, and we soon realize that we don't know very much about the ways of the village; neither does Basil; and, apparently, neither does Cacoyannis, which is a major deficiency in the filmmaking.
The man-as-force-of-nature thing is a favorite motif here (Zorba rails at the topography: "You bastard mountain!"), but it's forgivable if only for the spectacle of Zorba dancing. He's not graceful, exactly, but his dance is some sort of primal expression, combining athleticism, power, drive, sexuality, clumsiness. Zorba admits himself that there's nothing delicate about him, and there isn't much delicate about his movie, either—but when Quinn dances with ferocity, and even teaches the buttoned-down Bates some of his steps, the scenes can be transporting.
Turner Classic Movies Jeremy Arnold
eFilmCritic Reviews Slyder
DVD Verdict Bill Treadway
Needcoffee.com - DVD Review Scott C
Cacoyannis' documentary Attila '74: The Rape of Cyprus chronicles the 1974
Turkish invasion of
Cacoyannis gained an impressive level of access to political figures for his film, who share their recollections of and theories about the invasion. Archbishop Makarios, onetime President of Cyprus, tells of the junta's efforts to reduce his influence by falsely announcing his death, and an interview with a member of the junta government poses some pointed questions. Political background is discussed—the junta apparently planned to split
But the political aspects of the situation do not dominate Attila '74. This is an intensely personal documentary—native Cypriot Cacoyannis made it his mission to document the human cost of the brief war in his homeland. Unflinching interviews describe families destroyed and homes lost, and the camera records refugees' grief and desperate searches for lost and missing family members.
As a documentary, Attila '74 provides enough historical background to set the stage, but its chief strength is its "you are there" quality. Shot while the tragedy was still unfolding, the film is free of academic distance, diagrams, and "expert" overanalysis. Instead, Cacoyannis provides a disturbing, vivid look at how one nation's politics nearly destroyed its own population and culture.
PEOPLE SAY I’M CRAZY B 85
At the urging of his film-oriented sister, the director uses film as therapy to document his own attempts to recover from schizophrenia, including acute catatonic episodes where he is frozen and can’t move, too fearful of the paranoia which envelops him, rarely able to leave his own home. After several institutionalizations and unsuccessful electro-shock treatments, the realization that he may never recover and may have to spend the rest of his life in a dreary group home leaves him hopeless and emotionally devastated. We see sessions with his therapist, interactions with his brother and two sisters, as well as his mother, all of whom try to be supportive, but they can’t penetrate his wall of delusions where he constantly feels people are out to get him and do him harm. Despite moments of clarity where he happily works in an art studio, we see his horrible daily struggle of always believing the worst, filled with violent mental images that continuously haunt him, especially during his morning dread, where he feels he may lose the battle and may actually cause others harm, then tries to convince himself that what he’s thinking is not true, yet he feels exasperated and suicidal at what continually passes through his mind, worn down from the futility of trying to control these thoughts. His life improves somewhat with new medicine, which offers him small hopes, but he gains 100 pounds as a side effect. While the film is raw, amateurish, and cinematically uneven, sometimes feeling overly clinical, it does present an ultimately frank and honest portrait of living with schizophrenia, sharing views and experiences we don’t normally see, capturing some extraordinarily personal moments, where bleakness is balanced with upbeat, almost tribal music written by Evelyn Glennie that matches the imagery in some of his artwork.
Caetano, Israel Adrián
aka: Buenos Aires, 1977
Using oblique camera angles, bleached out colors, and extreme close ups to heighten the sense of disorientation, there is a documentary style gritty realism to this adaptation of the autobiographical novel, Pase Libre, which tells the real life story of the 1977-78 kidnapping and torture of Argentinean professional soccer goalie Claudio Tamburinni (played by Rodrigo De la Serna) by ultra-right Argentinean para-military troops that rounded up suspected leftist citizens, blindfolded and secretly shackled them in captivity for months at a time in urban detention centers, basically abandoned homes in out of the way locations, interrogating and torturing them in a brutal attempt to gain access to any opposition network.
Though not a political activist, Tamburinni was suspected and held captive anyway. The film is a searing depiction of the daily psychological trauma inflicted on these young lives, attempting to break them down into compliant confessors, promising if they cooperate they will be freed quickly, yet they are held for months at a time, then one by one, individuals are “transferred” to unspecified locations, and a new round of prisoners are brought in. Told they will be freed, we see lines of prisoners tied together who are given injections before they are led away to waiting cars never to be seen again. Some 30,000 citizens went missing during this time period, and most if not all were presumably killed.
We come to realize one house is filled with rooms of captives, each isolated and alone, until eventually all have been disposed of but four remaining prisoners. This film closely follows those four prisoners who were blindfolded, beaten, stripped naked and chained to beds, yet somehow managed to escape through a locked window, which, once opened, changes the entire texture of the film, creating an extreme degree of tautly constructed tension. To its credit, the film never shows acts of physical mutilation, but we see the cuts, burned scars and black marks that riddle their bodies, leaving them looking like near corpses when they finally run naked into the streets, where strangers peer at them like they’re the problem. The final images of the film are hauntingly beautiful, adding a poetic release to this pressurized, tightly constricted work, cinematography by Julián Apezteguia and music by Iván Wyszogrod. Three of these prisoners eventually testified in the 1985 National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, which led to the sentencing of five retired generals and admirals to prison terms for human rights abuses committed during the so-called "Dirty War."
Chronicle of an Escape Nick Pinkerton from the Village Voice
A Soccer Player’s Ordeal in an Argentine Prison Stephen Holden from The New York Times
ANOTHER EARTH B- 82
USA (92 mi) 2011
This is another example of once you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen too much, as nearly the entire story is revealed in a highly condensed two minutes, leaving little suspense left in the theater, as you already know what to expect. From the outset, however, it should be said that the high definition look leaves something to be desired, as the colors and focus aren’t there, while the jiggling camera movement suggests unsteady hands, all contributing to a grainy, somewhat washed out look of video, making it look very much like it was made on a shoestring budget of $150,000. However, it does try to make the most with the least, using a minimum of plot development, continually using the power of suggestion to keep the appetites whetted. Basically it’s a one note effort, as the entire film is about the initial premise, the mysterious arrival of an identical mirror planet Earth right next to our own, called Earth 2, where duplicate versions of ourselves live their lives exactly as we’ve lived our own, where they have the exact same thoughts and lives as we’ve had. While the story is slow getting started, and is a bit preposterous to buy into, knowing the gravitational effect that the moon has on our planet, so imagine the effects of a planet as large as our own staring back at us in the sky? Instead, the filmmaker shows multiple shots of people walking down the streets, or on the sidewalks in front of their homes, or next to the ocean, projecting Earth 2 in the sky as our constant companion. Often people stop and literally stare into the sky to express their newly discovered interest. Years after this happens, yes, one must repeat, as it takes literally years for the two planets to make contact and realize they are mirror planets, where another version of ourselves lives up there. One wonders if their lives are any better than our own?
There is a secondary story that is told simultaneously, one that involves actors instead of planets, where Brit Marling plays 17-year old Rhoda, a high school senior who has just been accepted into the M.I.T astrophysics program on the night the new planet is discovered, staring into the sky while driving, causing a horrific accident, killing a pregnant wife and her children, leaving the husband in a lengthy coma. Rather than go to college, Rhoda is sent to prison for 4 years, where our earth is just making contact with the new planet by the time she gets out. Instead of filling a position designed to utilize her attributes, Rhoda wants little social contact, where she is still burying her head in the sand after the accident, and decides to get a job working as the high school janitor. Again, where there would likely be close to a dozen janitors or more, this school only has two, where she can be seen hiding her face under her hood and wearing a wool cap, where one imagines she may be too attractive to fit the role, but she’s also a co-writer along with the director, so she can do what she wants with the part. She googles articles about the accident and learns the address of the surviving father, now out of his coma, and decides to confront him, expressing her sympathy for his loss, but instead offers herself as available maid service, showing up weekly to clean his house which is mostly filled with empty liquor bottles. What she expects to accomplish from this can’t lead to anything good, but that issue is set aside for nearly the entire film, just waiting to appear again at some point. So there is something of a cringe factor involved at seeing her return to the scene of the crime week after week and lie about her presence, becoming something of a stalker, taking advantage of a man she doesn’t even know.
Of course, the movie sees it somewhat differently, overlooking all of the previous history, including the jail time, where there are no therapists, no parole officers, no help offered from any source except a single corporation that is offering one lucky winner the chance to fly free to the other planet based on an essay contest. Rhoda, of course, sends in an essay before she ever meets John (William Mapither), who slowly takes an interest in his new maid, eventually sobering up and realizing she even has a name. Quite surprised at her intelligence, he immediately falls for her, no surprise there, yet she’s still the stalker woman lying about her reasons for being there, even after they enter into a sexual liaison, where for many in the audience, this has really gone on too far. The film seems to take pleasure in overlooking the credibility factor, thinking Marling can sell the story, which for the most part she does, as she’s excellent in the role, especially in the way she never comes to terms with this single event in her life, something perhaps many can relate to. She gets a lot of mileage with her hangdog, sheepish expression, using little dialogue, just solitary images of her with Earth 2 hovering just overhead. But it all has to come to a head some way, some day. There’s no way anyone could predict the outcome, as the multitude of possibilities coming in contact with a duplicate of everything that exists on Earth is simply mind boggling, so there’s a lot to play with. The film offers a series of radio and TV broadcasts announcing the latest developments with this new planet, where one wonders if Rhoda being offered the chance at a new life there would do her any good, as that’s a long way to go to run away from the problems that exist here, suggesting there’s a duality that exists in all our feelings, good and bad, where every impulse generates a little bit of both. All these questions and more are asked by the film which does a good job keeping the audience guessing. Perhaps the most positive effect is the upbeat electronic music from the electro-rock band Fall On Your Sword, which brings the end credits down in style.
It's certainly not difficult to envision certain viewers walking away from Another Earth frustrated and annoyed, as the movie, which is essentially being marketed as a sci-fi fantasy, primarily comes off as a low-key drama revolving around two thoroughly damaged characters. Brit Marling, in a revelatory performance, stars as Rhoda Williams, an aspiring scientist whose life changes drastically after she's sent to prison for vehicular manslaughter - with the film subsequently detailing Rhoda's efforts at atoning for the deaths by helping William Mapother's John Burroughs, who lost his wife and child in the crash, get his life back together. (There is, of course, also a subplot revolving around the discovery of a second, seemingly identical Earth in our atmosphere.) It's clear right from the outset that director Mike Cahill, working from a script co-written with Marling, has virtually no interest in exploring the narrative's science-fiction-oriented elements, as the filmmaker places a predominant (and continuous) emphasis on Rhoda's almost extraordinarily subdued exploits - from her day job as a high-school janitor to her ongoing visits with Mapother's unbalanced character. There's little doubt, then, that Another Earth owes its mild success primarily to the riveting performances from its two leads, as both Marling and Mapother manage to transform their admittedly familiar characters into fully-developed and consistently-compelling figures. The sporadic inclusion of otherworldly elements - eg an engrossing, goosebump-inducing sequence involving first contact with the title locale - goes a long way towards compensating for the screenplay's pervasively uneventful sensibilities, and though the payoff for the Earth 2 subplot is, to put it mildly, far from spectacular (ie what does that final shot mean, exactly?), Another Earth ultimately establishes itself as a perfectly watchable indie that benefits from the stellar efforts of its stars.
Another Earth poses a hypothetical with philosophical
overtones. Suppose in the variety of universes that are theorized, there is one
that has an Earth just like ours. Would things play out there the same way they
have played out here? Would all things have evolved the same? Would all the
decisions be made exactly the same? Basically, would the causes always bring
the same effect? Is everything determined?
In the film Rhoda Williams has just finished high school and will be headed to MIT since she has always been fascinated with the heavens. While driving home after a night of partying she hears a report on the radio about the discovery of a new planet very close by. As she tries to locate it, she causes a terrible accident. In a moment her dreams are gone, and she has destroyed the life of John Burroughs, who survived the crash but lost his son and pregnant wife.
A few years later when Rhoda gets out of jail, she seeks out a life of solitude, taking a job as a school janitor. She lives joylessly, as if she had vowed to never let happiness into her life again. She seeks John out to apologize, but loses her courage and creates a story of providing a trial housecleaning. Soon she is cleaning his house each week, forming a relationship with him, but one that is built on a lie that she cannot reveal. There is a sense of penance in her work cleaning the mess of his house, even though she cannot clean up the mess she has made of his life.
In the meantime, it has become clear that this new planets—getting closer and closers—is another earth. When radio contact is made, the people who talk to each other have the same name and same life storys—down to minute details. So here is a world that is a mirror of our own. What would it be like to meet your counterpart on Earth 2? Would he/she be the same as you? Would they have made the same mistakes? Might Rhoda find some redemption if she could go to Earth 2? When a billionaire runs a contest for someone to be included on the first commercial trip to Earth 2, Rhoda enters.
While the film falls under the category of science fiction, it is much more about the relationship that develops between John and Rhoda. We know it is doomed because of the lie it is based on, but is there a way that these two broken lives can find healing? Will the possibility of a mirror world provide the deliverance they both so badly need?
This film is dark and brooding, reflecting what Rhoda's life has become. She is burdened by the weight of her mistake. She yearns for forgiveness, but may not believe it is really possible. Certainly she is unwilling to forgive herself, which may be one reason she is unwilling to tell John the truth. Maybe Earth 2 offers her a chance to run from the guilt, but if it is a mirror, will she discover that her Earth 2 self is just as broken as she is?
We are asked to consider some of the repercussions of having a mirror world. What happens when the two intersect? Does knowing there is a mirror world affect the two worlds the same? Plato's parable of the cave is referenced in the film as a warning, but is knowing the truth ever wrong? Is that the issue with Earth 2 or with John and Rhoda? The film works itself to a conclusion that creates more questions than answers. We are left with the freedom to consider what that conclusion means.
Another Earth | Captain America | Sarah's Key | Another Earth ... Joe Morgenstern from The Wall Street Journal
If you want to be literal-minded about it—I don't—here's the most obvious problem with "Another Earth": The planet of the title, an apparent duplicate of our own, has suddenly appeared in the sky and just floats there serenely at a safe remove, as if the law of gravity had been repealed. Other far-fetched notions turn up regularly; this small-scale film has more outsize ideas than it could possibly manage. Yet Mike Cahill's debut feature exerts a gravitational pull out of proportion to its size through powerful performances, a lyrical spirit, a succession of arresting images and a depth of conviction that sweeps logic aside.
Exactly what that extraterrestrial Terra represents is hard to pin down—a way of looking at ourselves, a chance to rerun our lives with different outcomes. String theory suggests the existence of infinite numbers of movies inspired by the notion of alternate universes, and this is one of them. Still, the presence of what comes to be called Earth 2 is incidental to a human story that plays out on Earth 1, and the cosmic overtones are less impressive than the emergence of a startlingly fine young actress named Brit Marling.
Ms. Marling, who wrote the script with Mr. Cahill and served as one of the producers, has not been widely known on this planet until now, but that's about to change. She plays Rhoda Williams, a former student of great intelligence and boundless promise who buries herself in menial labor to atone for having done something dreadful and presumably irreversible. William Mapother—he made a relatively small role memorable in "In the Bedroom"—is John Burroughs, a composer whose life has been devastated by something dreadful and presumably irreversible. Does this sound dreadfully formulaic? It is, but it also isn't, because the actors and their director invest almost every moment with spellbinding urgency, even when Rhoda and John are having spontaneous fun—a lively interlude turns on video boxing—or starting to light up each others' lives.
Until now Mr. Cahill has been mainly a cinematographer on nature films and a director of documentaries. Like Ms. Marling, who has co-directed documentaries with him, he studied economics at Georgetown. (She was also an investment-banking analyst at Goldman Sachs, which proves the infinite unpredictability of career paths.) I don't know where either of them learned their spare, specific approach to drama, but it's a pleasure to see how the acting anchors a tale that might otherwise have spun off, weightless, into realms celebrated by Carl Sagan.
Take the scene in which Ms. Marling tells a story, in her musical voice, about a Russian cosmonaut. It's only a story, and a slender one at that, but it becomes a demonstration of the storyteller's art that starts slowly and intimately, pulls you in, picks up speed and ends in a blaze of elation. In one of Mr. Mapother's surprising turns, he plays a soul-filling solo on a musical saw. The tones may have been electronically enhanced, but the scene, like so many others, keeps you watching intently.
I don't want to oversell "Another Earth." A few passages, like one involving a venerable janitor, feel downright pretentious, while the mysterious apparition of Earth 2 promises a profundity that doesn't pay off. (And when Rhoda and John peer at the nearby planet through an amateur telescope, why in this world don't they open the window to see it more clearly?) All the same, a small, smart movie that keeps you watching intently is a big deal.
Can Brit Marling Shine Bright Enough to Carry ... - Village Voice Karina Longworth
REVIEW: Another Earth Isn't One You'd Want to Visit | Movieline S.T. VanAirsdale from Movieline
Another Earth | Film | Movie Review | The A.V. Club Tasha Robinson, including an interview with the director July 22, 2011 here: Mike Cahill | Film | Interview | The A.V. Club
Another Earth Review | The Recipe to Getting Sundance to ... - Pajiba Seth Freilich at Sundance
Filmcritic.com Chris Cabin
Fantasia 2011: ANOTHER EARTH Review Kurt Halfyard
Another Earth : DVD Talk Review of the Theatrical Tyler Foster from DVD Talk
notcoming.com | Another Earth - Not Coming to a Theater Near You Katherine Follett
Another Earth : DVD Talk Review of the Theatrical Brian Orndorf from DVD Talk
Movie Review - Another Earth - eFilmCritic Jay Seaver
Another Earth | Review | Screen John Hazelton from Screendaily
'Another Earth': A Thoughtful Sci-Fi Romance -- Without Aliens Leah Rozen from The Wrap
'Another Earth' review: Quiet film, big questions Amy Biancolli from The SF Chronicle
Another Earth - Movies - New York Times Manohla Dargis
AGAINST THE CURRENT B 87
USA Netherlands (99 mi) 2009 click here
A small little American indie film that’s a bit off the beaten track, that thrives in its own eccentricities, and that is ultimately a road journey with potentially exasperating consequences. With a notable cast that continually finds humor and something altogether refreshing in the poignancy of small moments, this might be described as the anti-Huck Finn adventure, as much of it is spent with two friends trailing in a boat behind a swimmer who is attempting to swim the length of the Hudson River from Troy to the New York City harbor. While his rationale eventually unfolds, initially Paul (Joseph Fiennes) convinces two friends in a bar that it would make a nice, picturesque vacation, from his bartender best friend Jeff, the phenomenal Justin Kirk, who sees it as an excuse to get away from his nagging wife, and Liz, Elizabeth Reaser, who simply happened to be sitting at the bar at the time, thinking it would be a good opportunity for all to visit her family for one evening along the way. Unlike David Lynch’s STRAIGHT STORY (1999) which taps into the unusual rhythms and patterns of ordinary life, offering wisdom through a myriad of diverse characters, for most of the way this film pretty much sticks with the three people, where over time we come to know them intimately.
Downbeat Joseph Fiennes couldn’t be more different than the enlivened and invigorated character he played in SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998) where he was, well…in love and in the flush of life. Here he’s still immersed in the grief of losing his wife and child in an accident that occurred five years ago, where after indulging in shrinks and therapy and after the passage of time, he still feels mortified at the thought of losing them (Of note – the director lost the mother of his child the day after giving birth). Swimming the Hudson is a goal he always had in the back of his mind, but he approaches this as if it will be the major accomplishment of his life. Still, with little or no preparation, and a guy who continues to chain smoke throughout the ordeal, one might find some of this questionable. But their methods might surprise, as they spend the evenings on shore and occasionally take breaks, so it’s not a true marathon, extending the 150 miles to several weeks. The true hero of this trio appears to be Jeff, the wise-cracking friend who is just shockingly good in the role, a self-deprecating failed actor whose deep-seeded sarcasm offers up some of the best quips in the movie, a highly entertaining role that continually keeps the audience off guard. Liz on the other hand is quieter and more comforting, playing the nurturing female role in a much more indirect manner, but it’s her dysfunctional family that they eventually visit.
In her most exhilarating performance in decades, probably since her dour appearance in ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980), Mary Tyler Moore is off-the-wall hilarious in this film as Liz’s prying mother, who offers motherly advice to everyone while pointing out the scandalous gossip about all the people who live in the grand mansions they are passing on the drive to her home. Their dinner together is atypically brief, not a long drawn out affair, but what happens after dinner is when things start to get interesting. Michelle Trachtenberg’s little sister role is memorable, as her sardonically dry sense of humor seems to blend well with Jeff’s increasingly morose mood, a perfect compliment to Moore’s incredibly bubbly mood, where she’s like a wind up doll that’s continually wound up, cocktail in hand, always in such good spirits, even in the morning as she drives them back to the water. There’s a bit of goofball comedy here, but also a few quiet intimate moments that register with the audience, opening up a few doors of possibilities. Using a nice mixture of pathos and humor, the film dances around the big questions about friendship and love through evasion and dark humor, where the spaces between people (and the audience) can be a good thing or a weight crushing down, where sometimes it’s hard to gauge. This film seems to have found the right note.
Special Note – supporting actor Justin Kirk, supporting actress Mary Tyler Moore
This under-the-radar film about a guy who swims a good length of
The reason behind his swim I won't divulge here, but it makes for some powerful moments. As he swims, his 2 friends go along with him in a guide boat, and they come to shore for breaks, which leads to some great moments in the film. It's not all on the water. But when it is, it's riveting. As a viewer, I felt like I was swimming right there with him at times.
And the swimming scenes show off the wonderful
Zoom-In Online [Jim Rohner] at Sundance
Everyone deals with grief differently. Responses are relative to the people who experience it: some people push through it, some people repress it, some people let it consume them, and some people, well, some people honor it. We may all have different views on which way is right and which ways are wrong and that's all well and good when it comes to how we respond when the grief hits us. But, what happens when we're just spectators? How are we supposed to respond when grief hits those closest to us and we find ourselves at odds with those we care about? Suddenly, that which we held to be true and immovable is shaken by the love and dedication we feel towards a friend who is in turn immovable. This is the dilemma that arises in Peter Callahan's Against the Current, the writer/director's second-time feature, which asks us how far our loyalties to our friends will go. Though the film deals with some dark subject matter, Callahan ensures that it never gets bogged down in melancholy or insensitivity. Instead, his luscious cinematography and the gallows humor enacted through leads Joseph Fiennes and Justin Kirk add an unexpected light-heartedness and tranquility to a film that would otherwise be irrevocably bleak and morally black and white.
Paul Thompson (Fiennes) has been struggling with the death of his wife and child for years, overcome with a grief he can't shake. Apathetic about his job and unable to feel anything but numb in relationships, he decides it's time to come to terms with his loss the only way he knows how. To honor and remember the five year anniversary of his wife's death, he decides to swim the length of the Hudson River, all 315 miles of it from Troy, New York to the New York Harbor, planning to reach his goal exactly five years to the day. To accomplish this task he enlists the help of his best friend Jeff Kane (Kirk), a bartender who'll take any excuse to get away from his crumbling marriage, and new friend Liz Clarke (Elizabeth Reaser), a school teacher looking to waste some time before the new semester starts. Purchasing a rickety boat, the three coast down the Hudson one day at a time, sleeping on the river's banks and trying to avoid the rain. Everything is going swimmingly, literally and figuratively, until Jeff suddenly remembers why Paul has chosen now to honor the death of his wife and Liz gradually begins to realize her feelings for him. As the journey commences, Jeff and Liz both attempt to re-convince Paul of the decision he has made, struggling to reconcile the idea that to love Paul is to both try and protect him and also to respect his decisions and appreciate his situation.
What kind of sacrifices would friends make for other friends? Would or should friends forego their own moral convictions to respect the wishes of someone they love so much? These are the questions that Against the Current poses and allows the audience to answer. Though the film presents one possible answer, Callahan avoids pretentious preachiness in favor of one viewpoint or another and this allows healthy discussion to flourish. Part of what makes the exploration of grief and tragedy a worthwhile one is the gallows humor within the script. Though the tone of the film is markedly mellow and often morose, the comedy neither detracts from nor interrupts the solemn meditation. Instead, it helps create a healthy rapport between the main characters, played to a dry perfection by both Fiennes and Kirk. Beneath the sarcastic banter and straight-faced quips is a rational dialogue about life and death that asks for nothing but an open and understanding ear from all listeners.
Tying the film and the cast together is the character that goes mostly unnamed, but cannot be ignored: the Hudson River. As diverse in landscape, scope, and aesthetics as the country in which it flows, the views from the river are breath-takingly beautiful. Whether at golden hour, brightest noon, or rainy morning, the cinematography of Sean Kirby is tranquil like the water and is celebratory of the beauty of the life that surrounds the characters, whether that beauty opens the eyes of those who have never noticed it before or acts as a welcome end note for those who have forgotten it.
Screen International review Tim Grierson
The Hollywood Reporter Kirk Honeycutt
aka: The Senator’s Bargain
USA (100 mi) 2010 Official site
Part of a 12 segment piece of television journalism called How Democracy Works Now, this is a film largely for history buffs only, people who are interested in seeing the legislative process develop through a series of closed door, offscreen, backroom Senate sessions of supposedly bipartisan horse trading from the perspective of those who are just outside the legislative chambers, who spend all their time analyzing and evaluating discussions of which they were not a part, and then having to devise various national strategies on what to do next. As seen through the eyes of a group of lobbyists working to provide justice reforms for immigrants, who work closely with Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, this material is entirely outdated and consists exclusively of 4-year old news, following the proceedings of an attempt at Immigration reform in 2006 during the Bush Administration, where initially Arizona Republican Senator John McCain and Kennedy worked out a bipartisan outline of a restructuring of the Immigration Act, which was Senator Kennedy’s first piece of legislation that he helped pass during his initial year in the Senate in 1965, a reform that opened up the doors and allowed a much more diverse population to enter the country legally, mostly consisting of lower wage scale workers and their families. Since 9/11, however, the Bush Administration was pushing to shift the priorities to border enforcement, where more money would be spent to prevent immigrants from coming in and on deportation proceedings, while Kennedy was recognizing the worth of those 12 million working families who were undocumented, attempting to offer them a path to legalization, where they would not have to hide in the shadows any more subject to the wrenching family divisions where U.S. born children are separated from their undocumented parents, who could at any moment be whisked away on a plane out of the country. Many of these kinds of cases were making headlines as the Bush Administration was stepping up more raids both at places of employment and in the family homes, where getting tough on immigration was the latest Republican strategy.
Since all of this takes place four years before the film was released, there’s an odd sense of time displacement, as the shape of the world has changed considerably since this was filmed, even as it was being filmed, so while the issues being outlined are certainly relevant, the arguments have shifted away from Kennedy’s views, where since his death, there is no one left to champion his position. With a Democrat in the White House, the tone on Federal immigration raids is considerably more low key. However, when McCain chose to run for the White House in 2007, his views on Immigration became more partisan, all but taking the bill off the table. But the White House brought it back along with another Republican co-sponsor, the other Arizona Republican Senator, Jon Kyl, who pushed the border enforcement issue and also a radical change in the point system, where immigrants already speaking English were given as much as 5 times higher priority, basically excluding the African and Latin American populations, where the unspoken word of race creeps back into the picture. While the Latino leaders are eloquently seen attempting to raise the tone of the argument above racial divisions, they got hammered by the Republican right on Talk Radio and Fox News who labeled the path to citizenship amnesty, which they defined as a get out of jail free card. On Bill Reilly’s show, conservative pundit Ann Coulter could be seen leveling her denunciating claim: “Who cares if they’re living in the shadows? They’re illegal!!”
While the film does follow the behind-the-scenes actions of well intentioned people who are staunch admirers of Kennedy, who are visibly moved when he makes one of his great oratories on the floor of the Senate in support of the bill, resorting to his “Now is the time, this is the moment” theme, but even as he spoke, the mood of the nation was shifting farther and farther to the right, where non-English speaking immigrants were being associated with terrorists and derogatory stereotypes became the talking points of the Republican Party. The film all but ignores this changing face of Republicans, where Tea Party advocates don’t even exist yet, but xenophobia is rampant within the foul-mouthed bigots of the nation, heard daily spouting off their venom on Talk Radio, or even at Presidential candidate town hall meetings. Not to be ignored is the progressive wing of the Democratic Party who continue to believe they are being outflanked by the right, and that’s because they are, as they continue to advocate for positions that have dried up long ago and where they simply don’t have the votes anymore even within their own party. When Kennedy attempts to navigate intact a compromise bill to passage by cutting off the debate, where those wishing to kill the bill keep offering amendments that are designed to strip the heart of the provisions, history always seems to have the last word. There’s something terribly sad about seeing Kennedy in such a deteriorating medical state in the latter stages of his life, as his death is not even mentioned. While the film wears its heart on its sleeve, barely ever enunciating opposing views, instead relying exclusively on advocates focusing on a very narrow field of what would today be seen as progressive social issues. The movie is depicted as an ascending picture of one more great climb of the mountain, where instead of reaching the mountain top, these little back door discussions that attempt to shape the social fabric of the nation are mere footnotes of an idealized dream that never happened.
The 9th Annual HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH FILM FESTIVAL Facets Multi Media
Last Best Chance brilliantly presents a political legend, Senator Edward Kennedy, in his final battle for comprehensive immigration reform in the US. Seeking legislation that he believes would best serve US interests and provide greater security and dignity to many of the 20 million people currently living in the shadows, Senator Kennedy joins forces with talented allies on the outside to marshal fellow Senators, including Obama, Clinton, and McCain toward a "Grand Bargain." However, below the level of strategy and protocol, we find a moral tale of modern American politics. Ted Kennedy, one of a handful of people who through his personal efforts truly changed the face of America, is forced to decide how much he wants this deal and what he is willing to trade for his greatest legacy.
Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2010: Last Best Chance Elise Nakhnikian from The House Next Door, also seen here at Girls Can Play, June 21, 2010: A Movie a Day, day 36: Last Best Chance
Another documentary about the foiled fight for U.S. immigration reform from How Democracy Works Now, Last Best Chance delivers the message that was missing from the other film from this series that's playing at the Human Rights Watch festival. Mountains and Clouds zooms in so tightly on the macro view of the fight to pass or derail a relatively small piece of legislation that we never learn what motivates the fighters, but Last Best Chance takes the wide-angle view.
Directors Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini and editor Jane Rizzo lay out the stakes this time with admirable clarity and impact, starting with a prologue that explains the need for immigration reform. The filmmakers aren't above using PowerPoint-style lists or that honeyed, voice-of-reason voiceover that I found so annoying in both films, but they don't resort to those often. For the most part, they stitch together powerful snippets of conversation, speeches, and lectures by eloquent and impassioned people.
The bill being debated this time around is the mother of them all: comprehensive immigration reform. The film starts with the debate over the film introduced by senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain in May 2007, then follows the fight as it gets really down and dirty after the right-wing Republican talk-radio and TV talking-points machine shreds its basic premises. (Sneering at the bill's effort to bring undocumented immigrants "out of the shadows" on Bill O'Reilly's show, Ann Coulter says: "Who cares if they're living in the shadows? They're illegal!")
We also hear from political heavy-hitters like then-Senator Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Lou Dobbs, and a kinder, gentler McCain, who reads from a newspaper account about the terrible deaths suffered by undocumented workers in the Arizona desert. But the star of this show is Kennedy. Visibly weakening as shooting progresses, though no mention is made of his illness, he's the white-haired knight credited with having "made us a multi-ethnic, multicultural society" with the immigration bill he championed in 1965, an effort he is determined to build on now.
Kennedy is everywhere, cajoling and praising his staff, telling them war stories, and explaining the art of riding the Senate's ever-changing political tides. He also makes some of the most stirring and eloquent speeches in a film that brims with heartfelt and moving oratory. The best is the one he reads on the Senate floor just before the bill goes up for a vote. Framing the fight for immigration reform as the latest great civil-rights issue, he reminds the Senate that this is about "the family values of people who want to work hard, men and women of faith, people that care about this country and want to be a part of the American dream...Now is the time, this is the place," he thunders. "Are we going to vote for our hopes or are we going to vote for our fears? Are we going to vote for our future or are we going to vote for our past?"
As in Mountains and Clouds, the filmmakers are good at detailing the politics involved, making even wonky stuff like cloture and "killer amendments" easy to understand. And once again, they get excellent access to key people, though only on the pro-immigration side. I got a little backstage thrill from listening to one of the activists, whose constituency gives him some clout, though he has no official role in the debate, telling Karl Rove "you have kicked our ass from one side of the room to the other" before trying to win back some of the ground the outnumbered Republicans have stolen out from under the Democrats. I'd say that's a pretty vivid lesson in how democracy works now.
They also capture a few small-scale moments that hint at the toll the fight takes on the people involved, like when one of the activists puts her very young-sounding daughter on speaker phone to talk about when she'll get home. "Um, well, there's another big vote at tonight," says the mom. "Okay. Well, do you think you can maybe watch it from home?" asks the daughter, who's clearly an old hand at this negotiation. By this point in Last Best Chance, there's no question why a mother would sacrifice dinners with her daughters for the fight over immigration reform, which the filmmakers and their subjects see as nothing less than a fight for the soul and the future of our nation. The directors couldn't resist ending with one of their pious voiceover comments, but I think they could have ended with New York Senator Chuck Schumer. Speaking to the press after the bill was defeated, he says: "When you study why great countries fail, it's because they're unable to deal with the problems facing them. They devolve into petty little disputes and appeals to the lowest common denominator, and those prevail."
The 'Amazing' James Cameron Page official website
All-Movie Guide bio from Nathan Southern
TCMDB bio from Turner Classic Movies
Film Reference profile by Chris Routledge
Academy of Achievement another brief profile
Optimus Films Profile yet another
real daddy | Features | Guardian Unlimited Film a tribute to Stan Winston
by James Cameron in the Guardian,
3-D | The New York Observer Sigourney in 3-D, by Sara Vilkomerson
Cameron, James They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They
James Cameron Adrian Wootton interviews Cameron for the Guardian, April 13, 2003
Cameron: part II Adrian Wootton
interviews Cameron for the Guardian,
Interview (2007) by Sean Smith from
Chicago Reader on Film Dave Kehr (earlier version, now re-edited online)
The Terminator takes the old paradox of what would happen if you could travel back in time and murder your own grandparents and gives it a new twist as Arnold Schwarzenegger stars in the title role as a cyborg sent back to kill the mother of an important resistance leader of the man-machine wars being fought in the future. Confused? Well even if you don't follow the plot you can marvel at the bravado of director James Cameron who creates an entirely believable, and yet utterly fantastic, battle for the survival of the human race.
As the mother, Linda Hamilton defines a new female film role model - strong, decisive and yet occasionally vulnerable. She is helped by a human sent back in time by the resistance to aid her (the dishy Michael Biehn) but even together they seem to be no match for the awesome killing machine portrayed by Arnie. He is perfectly suited to this role which requires him to be menacing, flex his muscles and say the occasional syllable.
Based (like Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys) on the short experimental film La
Jetée, it is a warning to those in power today not to forget that our children
will inherit our mistakes. It's also extremely good, testosterone-toting fun,
as Arnie demolishes buildings etc. in his pursuit of
"A blazing, cinematic comic book, full of virtuoso moviemaking, terrific momentum, solid performances, and a compelling story" - Variety
DVD Journal Alexandra DuPont Special Edition
The SF, Horror and Fantasy Film Review Richard Scheib
Kamera.co.uk John Atkinson
digitallyOBSESSED.com (Dan Heaton) Special Edition
The Digital Bits Todd Doogan Special Edition
Sci-Fi Weekly John Sullivan Special Edition
DVD Verdict Mike Jackson Special Edition
DVDTown [John J. Puccio] Special Edition
The Sci-Fi Movie Page James O’Ehley
Classic Horror Nate Yapp
Movie Reviews UK Damian Cannon
DVD Talk (John Sinnott) Blue-Ray
DVDBeaver dvd review Gary W. Tooze
Chicago Reader On Line Dave Kehr
Everything a sequel should be, James Cameron took his slam-bang Aliens in an entirely different direction from Ridley Scott's moody 1979 chamber piece, Alien, with an amazingly simple idea: more aliens. Sigourney Weaver returns (and earned an Oscar nomination) as Ripley, who reluctantly agrees to consult on a new mission. This time, she rides with a band of gung-ho military nuts (Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, etc.) and a nerdy pencil pusher (Paul Reiser) with an alternate agenda. Lance Henriksen returns as the android Bishop. Cameron plays with several motherhood themes, showing the mother alien laying her eggs, while Ripley rescues a little girl, Newt (Carrie Henn), and becomes her surrogate mother. Cameron's dialogue has never been better, with plenty of snappy, quotable lines. The film was released in theaters in a 137-minute cut, but Cameron's preferred 154-minute director's cut is even better; he keeps the suspense slowly building until it becomes almost unbearable in the final, tense minutes, with Ripley racing against the clock to rescue Newt from the endless green-blue fortress. Aliens has a strange, mid-80s Rambo-like physicality to it, but it's couched in a reasonable and forgivable context. It's one of the best sequels ever made. Paxton, Goldstein and Henriksen reunited the following year in Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark.
Slant Magazine Ed Gonzalez, also reviewing the Quadrilogy with Jeremiah Kipp here:
After Piranha Part Two: The Spawning, James Cameron scored a major hit with the nihilist action flick The Terminator, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and girl-power queen Linda Hamilton. It made sense then that Cameron was brought on to direct the sequel to Alien. Cruder than the original, Aliens is a distinctly greedy mega-production. There's only so many times you can tell the same story and rewrite the same set pieces. Because the film's human melodramas play second fiddle to the kick-ass action sequences, it's obvious that 20th Century Fox wanted to bank on the success of the original film. Some seven years after its release, Alien had developed a significant following in feminist circles. Back in film school, a professor frequently referenced the set design's phallic and vaginal imagery, but it's Ripley's battle to be heard by the film's alpha males and mother ship that truly resonates today. This mostly subtextual war of the sexes is on whorish display throughout Aliens: the mother alien is referred to as a "badass" by Bill Paxton's insufferable Hudson; Ripley's cigar-chomping sergeant doesn't think she can do anything; and the tough, eager-to-please Latina lesbian who calls Ripley "Snow White" is teased for looking like a man. After floating in space for 57 years, Ripley is picked up by a salvage ship and is treated like a rape victim by a money-minded conglomerate. After her feminine insight gets the better of everyone, she helps spearhead a mission back to the alien planet after the ship loses contact with its colonists. Logic betrays the film from the start (after 20 years on the alien planet, the colonists discover the aliens at the same time Ripley is rescued), as does the occasional plot hole, but more tragic is the sorry lot of archetypical characters a fierce Weaver has to rub shoulders with—you can tell exactly in what order everyone will die depending on how nondescript, polite, hysterical or evil the characterization. Aliens is a "guy movie" through and through, right down to the "get away from her, you bitch" female-on-female violence (Cameron, David Giler and Walter Hill must have been watching "Dynasty" while writing their screenplay). The Director's Cut of the film hauntingly amplifies Ripley's disconnect from her dead daughter and her relationship to the young Newt (essentially a substitute for her creepy pet cat). Otherwise, the film's human interactions are nowhere near as interesting as Cameron's deft direction of action and use of non-alien space (the "Remote Sentry Weapons" killing spree may be Cameron's finest moment).
James Cameron's "Aliens" is, in my humble opinion, the definitive Humans vs. Aliens movie. As far as I'm concern, every film that has come after "Aliens" are inferior clones. Even the animated "Final Fantasy", for all of its cinematic breakthroughs, was nothing more than a rich man's "Aliens." It's no surprise then that "Aliens" is the film by which I measure all Humans vs. Aliens movies.
What makes "Aliens" a classic is how it brilliantly lulls you into its world with a sense of security before assaulting your senses with a barrage of American firepower, acid-spewing aliens, and claustrophobic tension. In fact, the movie doesn't even kick into high gear until well after the 50-minute mark, but as soon as that happens, the film never relents. The way the film manages to sustain its high-octane power, while never compromising on its quiet, personal moments, is just incredible.
"Aliens" is James Cameron's sequel to Ridley Scott's 1979 "Alien", a cerebral experience that attempted to scare with atmosphere and paranoia. "Aliens," on the other hand, is content to thrill with firepower. The film brings back Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the only survivor from the first film, who has been frozen in cryo sleep for the last half century or so. Awaken into a new world she is ill-prepared for, Ripley is informed that the alien planet where the alien creature that terrorized her commercial vessel (from the first film) came from has since been colonized by humans. Oh, and it just so happens that said colony has gone off the radar, and the colonists are believed...in trouble.
Ripley is asked to return to the alien planet as a guide to check up on the colonists. She is hesitant at first, but eventually agrees out of a need to resolve unfinished business (of the personal and alien-killing variety, natch). The bulk of the rescue crew consists of Marines, including the easygoing Hicks (Michael Biehn), the loudmouth Hudson (Bill Paxton), and the inexperienced commander, Gorman (William Hope). No sooner does the crew land on the planet that it becomes apparent things have gone terribly wrong. In fact the colonists are either all dead, fed on, or are being used as breeding apparatus by the aliens!
"Aliens" is the perfect title for this movie. Whereas part one was called "Alien", properly denoting the single alien creature in that movie, "Aliens" is literally crawling with the alien creatures. They are everywhere -- on the ceiling, along the walls, and in the shadows. Under Cameron's direction, the aliens are frighteningly real, physical, and in your face. They move with the speed of snakes and kills with the ferocity of tigers, but what really makes them a formidable foe is their cunning. These bastards are smart, has mastered organization, and there are a lot of them.
Once the first mini-gun opens fire, "Aliens" shifts into action mode. At nearly two hours and 20 minutes, the movie lives up to the original film and, in my opinion, surpasses it. This is no cerebral experience, this is full-tilt action at its finest. Best of all, Cameron and his crew has the cast and the budget to pull off everything they wanted. Even more impressive is that this is only Cameron's second movie, the first being "The Terminator". (Cameron actually shot, edited, and released "The Terminator" and "Aliens" back-to-back. He was also the writer of 1986's "First Blood," the first "Rambo" movie. How's that for a banner year?)
Besides making a star out of Sigourney Weaver as one of the first woman in cinematic history to kick ass and take names on an epic scale, the film features perhaps the finest and most memorable character to sci-fi fans everywhere. Bill Paxton ("Frailty") is Hudson, the loudmouth who utters some of the most memorable lines in all of sci-fi, including but not limited to his mantra of, "Game over, man! Game over!" after the alien army has all but destroyed his unit.
"Aliens" is good stuff. No, let me rephrase that. "Aliens" is great stuff.
Turner Classic Movies Pablo Kjolseth
The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review Richard Scheib
Aliens Mother and the Teeming Hordes, by Jim Naureckas from Jump Cut
Conspicuous Force and Verminization Mark at K-Punk, August 2, 2006
Aliens: Vermin, always Vermin zunguzungu, October 20, 2008
Classic-Horror.com Brandt Sponseller
Ruthless Reviews ("potentially offensive") Jonny Lieberman
Q Network Film Desk (James Kendrick) Director’s Cut
DVD Verdict - Collector's Edition Adam Arseneau
AboutFilm.com (Carlo Cavagna) including Special Edition review
Sci-Fi Movie Page (James O'Ehley) Special Edition
DVD Journal Clarence Beaks reviews the Quadrilogy
Turner Classic Movies The Alien Saga from Scott McGee
The Onion A.V. Club [Keith Phipps] reviews the Quadrilogy
filmcritic.com [Blake French] reviews the Quadrilogy
Sci-Fi Weekly Victor Lucas reviews the Quadrilogy
DVDBeaver Gary W. Tooze
The Abyss Jonathan Rosenbaum from the Reader
Inspired by the 1992 re-release of Blade Runner, which restored excised footage to Ridley Scott's groundbreaking 1982 film while eliminating additions dictated by Warner Bros., the early '90s saw a boom in "director's cut" re-releases, a trend that spotlighted the creative tension in big-budget filmmaking. The term quickly became meaningless—does a few extra seconds of nudity in Basic Instinct make a significant artistic difference?—but raised provocative questions. As revealing in its own way as Blade Runner and Brazil is the case of James Cameron's The Abyss, a strangely personal underwater adventure released in 1989 at 140 minutes, then reissued a few years later expanded by 31 minutes cut at the studio's suggestion for time considerations. What difference does half an hour make? A lot, and not always in ways that might be expected. In both versions, Ed Harris plays a deep-sea expert whose commercially employed drillers come to investigate a nuclear-sub accident. The mission reunites him with estranged wife Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and forces both to put their lives in danger to thwart a deranged nuclear-warhead-toting Navy SEAL (Michael Biehn) who threatens to destroy a recently unearthed species of intelligent extra-terrestrials. Almost every restoration can unreservedly be called an improvement upon the original—making the story more well-rounded, fleshing out the underwater environment, and better setting up the unexpectedly moving relationship between Harris and Mastrantonio—until a conclusion that relies on an audience's tolerance for a New Age by way of The Day The Earth Stood Still message of peace and love. All of which raises interesting questions: Who was right? Cameron's instincts seem dead-on for most of the picture, but they abandon him in the end. The clipped original ending may have been unsatisfying, but it at least seemed to match the rest of the picture. And what to make of the fact that Cameron himself doesn't seem particularly resistant to the changes? This new DVD edition presents both versions of the film, letting viewers judge for themselves and raising questions of its own. An hour-long making- of documentary, an array of behind-the-scenes details, and a running subtitled commentary reveal just how torturous the making of The Abyss—much of it done underwater for up to 12 hours at a time in an abandoned nuclear reactor—was for everyone involved. Which did that work better serve, a presentable commercial compromise or an ultimately wacky work of artistic integrity? Whatever the answer, this version of The Abyss presents an exciting, often beautiful film in the best possible setting, allowing a full examination of the paradox of attempting to make a blockbuster-sized film with vision.
Like the Titanic, "The Abyss" was a deluxe cruise till it went down. Deemed unsinkable, the undersea thriller had a budget that would choke a beluga. Director Jim Cameron and producer Gale Anne Hurd, creators of "The Terminator" and "Aliens," seemed unstoppable. And then they met their waterlulu.
The movie is a veritable chowder of chills. Like Red Lobster's seafood sampler, it offers a taste of everything from psychotic aquanauts to psychedelic jellyfish. When it comes to calamity, Cameron doesn't discriminate, confronting his heroic divers with marital problems, missile crises, leaky valves, WWIII and hurricanes. And then there are the NTIs (non-terrestrial intelligences), which "The Abyss" needs like a rowboat needs tires.
Nevertheless, it gets off to a quick start with the foundering of a nuclear submarine. Swept off course by some mysterious force, the sub comes to rest on the brink of the Cayman Trough, a four-mile-deep Caribbean canyon. A rowdy-but-lovable team of oil drillers stationed in Deepcore, a nearby underwater habitat, reluctantly joins a rescue mission led by a spit-and-polish team of Navy SEALs. As the clunky Deepcore, a claustrophobic's nightmare, is towed to the wreck, a hurricane cuts off its umbilical line to the mother ship and the roustabouts are as alone as newborn tadpoles.
Ed Harris plays Bud Brigman, the courageous rig foreman whose mellow style grates on Deepcore's project engineer -- Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as his almost ex-wife, Lindsey. Dubbed "the queen bitch of the universe," Lindsey is the terror of the tightly knit nine-person crew. Like Ripley in "Aliens," she is a Fembo, an unfeeling, and therefore unnatural, female.
She rebukes a colleague for calling her Mrs. Brigman. "I didn't like being called that even when it meant something." Like Scotty on the Starship Enterprise, she's always muttering and puttering about her habitat.
"I've got four years invested in this rig. And three in the marriage. You've got to have priorities," she says to the honey-cup Bud, who won't give up on love and still wears his wedding ring. Inevitably, close encounters and shared dangers will bring the couple back together (inevitably because the plot, with its deus ex machina, is laid out like Hansel and Gretel's bread-crumb trail).
The Brigmans must not only shore up the flooding Deepcore but also stave off Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn), the SEAL leader who succumbs to PIP (pressure-induced psychosis), takes a ballistic missile from the downed sub and starts waving it around like a handgun. Then, mistaking the friendly NTIs for Russians, he decides to nuke 'em.
Torn between fantasy and fear-baiting, "The Abyss" flounders between the creepy corridors inside and the godlike critters -- "Cocoon" fledglings? -- outside in their giant Melmac saucer. (How many times can we be awestruck by Day-Glo Gumbies? And why do these creatures always travel with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir?)
About 40 percent of the movie, persuasively soggy, was shot underwater. But to their credit, Cameron and Hurd (his producer and ex-wife) always focus on the humanity, not the hardware, wedding emotions and effects, tears and brine.
So the neatly designed Deepcore boasts an ingratiating crew, an eclectic platoon of scruffy guys and gal. Standouts are Hippy (Todd Graff), the clowning paranoid; Catfish (Leo Burmester), the countrified welder; and One Night (Kimberly Scott), the best dang submersible pilot in the whole dang ocean. You know them, you love them, they're gonna get killed.
Now for the acting: With cheekbones like oar blades, Harris is the handsomely chiseled hero with a heart of gold. He proves that he still has the right stuff for a romantic lead.
The naturally evocative Mastrantonio at first seems burdened by her cast-iron role but then pets an NTI and is transformed. When Coffey insists the NTI ship is a Russian bogy and Brigman seems persuaded, the former bitch queen coos, "He sees with hate and fear. You have to look with better eyes than that." Next thing you know she is plumb proud to be Mrs. Brigman.
Cameron says he thought the yarn up while attending high school in
Images Journal A.R. Ferguson
DVD Journal J. Jordan Burke
The Abyss Like a Fish Out of Water, Jody Lyle from Jump Cut, June 1993
The Abyss and Star Trek 4: With Friends Like These zunguzungu, November 3, 2008
Film Freak Central Bill Chambers
The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review Richard Scheib
The Sci-Fi Movie Page James O’Ehley
DVD Verdict Harold Gervais
digitallyOBSESSED.com (Dan Lopez) Special Edition
DVDTown [John J. Puccio] Special Edition
TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY
Terminator 2: Judgment Day Jonathan Rosenbaum from the Reader
James Cameron's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" is a lustrous machine, all gleaming steel and burnished gunmetal, with state-of-the-art nuts and bolts. You relate to it the way you might relate to any overpowering machine, a little dispassionately but with a respect bordering on awe.
It's a tank of a movie, big, powerful and hard to resist. But it's a tank with lightning treads and jaguar agility. The stunning special effects show something that's rare these days -- technical stunts that evoke a true sense of wonder; it's real jaw-to-the-floor stuff.
As a sequel, "Terminator 2" is more imposing than its predecessor, and it lacks the B-movie modesty of the original. The original "Terminator" was science fiction with an element of shaggy poetry; this "Terminator" strives more for the mythic. It's heroic pulp.
The circumstances of the two are similar. Once again, two warriors have been beamed from the future back to our time, and once again, one warrior must protect the subject that the other was sent to destroy. In this case, the Terminator's mission is to kill John Connor (Edward Furlong), the young son of Sarah (Linda Hamilton), so that he cannot grow up to become the great leader of the resistance that he would after the world has been blown to bits in a nuclear conflagration. The boy's protector in this second film is another T-800 Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), like the cyborg that combined machine and living tissue that was sent to kill his mother 10 years ago.
The T-800's adversary this time out is a more sophisticated version of himself, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), which is made from a kind of liquid metal -- a "mimetic polyalloy," it's called -- that allows it to change shape at will and renders it virtually indestructible. The T-1000 is a sleeker, faster version of the earlier Terminator -- it plays cat to Schwarzenegger's raging bull -- but it has its predecessor's single-mindedness. The movie exists on a very basic level; it's one long chase in which the new Terminator tries to get the boy away from the older one.
The film sets up a monumental battle of the Titans, and it doesn't disappoint. The confrontations between these two unstoppable forces are thrilling death bouts between equally matched gladiators. As they hammer each other, the outcome of the fight seems genuinely uncertain.
But the film's real virtues emerge in its quieter moments when the characters are given a chance to interact. The subtext here is much richer than in the first; it's a movie about family and finding a father. When the Terminator is on the run with Sarah and John, he becomes the strong patriarchal figure at the center of their makeshift nuclear family. The roles in this family-during-wartime, though, are hilariously reversed. It's the kid who teaches the father how to cope in the world, how to use slang like "chill" and "no problemo," how to "give five" and, more important, how to feel.
John also teaches his surrogate dad a grudging respect for human life, which further contributes to the film's new age spirit. It's this element that is most unique and most satisfying -- that and the richness Schwarzenegger brings to his character. It's comical, perhaps, but Schwarzenegger expresses more of his own humanity when playing a machine than he does when playing real people. He's a hopelessly wooden actor, but that artificiality and his "Fun With Phonics" style of delivery is perfect for his character here, and perfect for the film's deadpan sense of humor. For once, he's ideally cast, and he brings the kind of delicacy of feeling that Boris Karloff showed as the Frankenstein monster. As a machine, he has soul.
Unfortunately, the other Terminator doesn't, and that's one of this movie's biggest problems. Unlike in the first film, there's no one to identify with on the other side. The effects for this character, however, are smashing too.
Cameron manages to create a neat balance between the technical and the human here; so much so that this surfaces as one of the movie's themes. Most of the actors make strong statements, including Hamilton, who's Nautilused herself into the form of a modern-day Diana, and Furlong, who gives one of the loosest performances for a child actor ever filmed. As the brain behind SkyNet, the computer that goes out of control and causes the nuclear nightmare, Joe Morton also makes the most of a few minutes on screen.
No one in the movies today can match Cameron's talent for this kind of hyperbolic, big-screen action. Cameron, who directed the first "Terminator" and "Aliens," doesn't just slam us over the head with the action. In staging the movie's gigantic set pieces, he has an eye for both grandeur and beauty; he possesses that rare director's gift for transforming the objects he shoots so that we see, for example, the lyrical muscularity of an 18-wheel truck. Because of Cameron, the movie is the opposite of its Terminator character; it's a machine with a human heart.
The Greatest Films - comprehensive analysis of classic US film Tim Dirks attention to detail
The SF, Horror and Fantasy Film Review Richard Scheib
Ruthless Reviews ("potentially offensive") Mike from Hobart
filmcritic.com reaches Judgment Day Christopher Null
EyeForFilm.co.uk Angus Wolfe Murray
Terminator 2: Judgment Day Sean Fitzgibbons from DVD Verdict
The Sci-Fi Movie Page James O’Ehley
Reel.com DVD review [Marina Chavez] Ultimate Edition
Terminator 2: Judgment Day Ultimate Edition Mike Jackson from DVD Verdict
DVDTown [John J. Puccio] Ultimate Edition
Digital Monkey Box DVD Review Paul, Ultimate Edition
DVD Talk (Jason Bovberg) Ultimate Edition
digitallyOBSESSED.com (Mark Zimmer) Ultimate Edition
Movielocity Movie Reviews (Blake Kunisch) Ultimate Edition
Blogcritics - DVD review [Matt Paprocki] DTS ES Remix
DVD Talk (Joshua Zyber) HD DVD Edition
Terminator 2: Judgment Day: Extreme Edition Elizabeth Skipper from DVD Verdict
DVD Talk (Jason Bovberg) Extreme Edition
TITANIC C 75
Waiting for the
$1.50 show at the
But I digress, a lone woman’s voice opens the film as underwater cameras go snooping into the deep, searching the depths two and a half miles below the surface, scavenging the Titanic, considered the ship of dreams, until they find a safe, but no diamonds, only a nude drawing of a woman named Rose with the date 4-14-12. A woman watches herself being shown on TV and remarks, “I’ll be damned,” which begins a flashback to an arrogant class of rich who believed they and their ship were invincible. Thus begins the story of Jack and Rose, matinee idol Leonard DiCaprio and the sumptuous Kate Winslet, he won his 3rd class passage in a poker game from a guy named Sven (“Where’s Sven?”) and is a penniless artist while she is engaged to one of the richest men on earth, but has doubts, feeling her life would be an endless parade of parties and cotillion and polo and yachts, the same mindless chatter, and no one would ever listen to her. Her mother forbids her from seeing Jack, but when did that ever stop anyone? A romance ensues.
Jack whisks her down to the lower decks which resembles an energetic, neverending party, dancing to bagpipe music. Jack tries to convince her that in a world full of stuffed shirts, they’d only be stifling her spirit. Later, in her private boudoir, she disrobes and asks him to draw her wearing only a 56 carat diamond, La Coeur de la Mer, the Heart of the Ocean, once owned by royalty, Louis XVI. As she describes this moment in voiceover 84 years later, she describes it as the most erotic moment of her life. Rose decides when the ship docks, she’ll be getting off with Jack, but of course, that is not to be, as the rest of the film turns into THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972), turning a barely breathing interior chamber drama into an overwrought romantic spectacle of special effects and computer graphics. Wowee Zowee. Well, there went all interest.
After the ship hits an iceberg, in what feels like an eternity, everyone continues to act like nothing happened, as the 5 lower decks slowly fill with water, supposedly building the tension until chaos ensues when it becomes apparent the ship is going down, when the lower decks are locked in order to escort the first class passengers to the lifeboats. There were only enough lifeboats for half the passengers, more would have cluttered the decks, so eventually in the melee that followed, the crew attempts to control the situation with threats and gunfire, eventually murdering several of the passengers. As the water level rises higher and higher, in slow motion, to strobe light effects, event torrents of floods, a string quartet plays a mournful adagio on the deck, while Jack and Rose promise to trust one another and never let go. But they do eventually let go, as the ocean is awash with floating bodies in a sea of ice, most all frozen corpses, where only 6 were captured from the sea. Rose was one of those 6, heard 84 years later to recall, “Jack exists now only in my memory.”
A sappy song plays over the credits, “My Heart Will Go On,” but of course, it is the credits that go on and on. The amount of people listed in the credits was obscene. When the film finally ended, there was a sound scrunch and the Coasters chimed in with “Yakety Yak, Don’t Talk Back,” and from behind a curtain, a garbage can on wheels was rolled down the aisles by one of the ushers. In a film marked by enormous excess and non-existent editing, where the depiction of the upper crust society couldn’t have been more artificial and uninspiring, Kate Winslet’s performance provided at least some level of fresh air in the central role, which held the audience’s attention up until the crash. Afterwards, the film was a repetitive, monotonous bore.
It's nothing short of a religious paradox that a subculture so morally bereft and artistically exhausted and worshipful of nothing but capital...that Hollywood in the late 20th century could produce such a monumental and poetic testimony to love. The visuals are incredible, the textures and shapes and contrasts, the epic scale of mighty ship and sense of height involved throughout. The blue shading is beyond the potentialities of film; the purples, the rich turqoise, the aquas. Beyond that it must also be one of the greatest films in history for blind people, with the groaning engines and the splintering planks, running of feet along the deck, the rush of the water, the fireworks, the rollicking rhythm of a party in third class. The musical cards are beautiful and diverse, revealed spontaneously with a crazy gypsy genius. There's a fair share of Hollywood manipulation sure, but in circumstances of such grandeur these characteristics can only be considered additional virtues. Leonardo DiCaprio is a red-blooded American artist with an extraordinary sense of situational ethics who lives in the heartland of the garden of catalysis. Kate Winslet is nothing less than an existential heroine for the ages-flapping her butterfly wings with Promethean determination against the gravity of a fate more powerful than ten thousand suns. In a film shot on a boat what could happen when the magnetic poles of two such American characters finally touch and spark? Only one thing is possible: they do it in the backseat of a car. James Cameron gives us way too many memorable shots: Victor Garber as the ship's builder striding through the festive dining room, the only man on board aware that the ship is going down....Winslet's materialistic mother silently watching the Titanic go under from her seat on a lifeboat, she can only be wondering what kind of person she is that her daughter would rather go down with the ship than share her safety. Several of the secondary characters are perfect: Garber, Winslet's fiancee' Billy Zane is one of the biggest assholes in history-I know that I would have killed him; Jonathan Evans-Jones the bandleader. Bewitched's Dr. Bombay (Bernard Fox) may be the most sensible and philosophical of them all. As the boat goes under he refuses a life vest, but says he'll take a brandy.
Titanic (1997) Bryant Frazer from Deep Focus
From the underwater opening scenes, which are as neon-blue as anything from James Cameron's science fiction opus The Abyss, it's clear that Titanic will be a technophile's delight.
Oh, I suppose it's a historian's delight, too, with its labor-intensive recreations of the state rooms, hallways, dining halls and decks of that doomed ship. But it's the cash-intensive rendering of an impossible image -- the Titanic, full-size, setting sail from its dock with Leonardo DiCaprio the figurehead at its prow -- that makes this one for the history books. Titanic turns the ship itself into a gargantuan fetish object.
Those opening scenes (well, most of them) are deep-sea shots of the real Titanic, which Cameron insisted on photographing if the project were to proceed. Repeatedly throughout the film, Cameron offers match dissolves from Titanic's ghost-ship remains to his own shiny creation, as if the film's verisimillitude is somehow profound in itself. Accordingly, he is loath to simply photograph his actors walking on the deck of his scale recreation of the original boat. Rather, the camera must swoop backward alongside the railing, keeping the performers on one side of the widescreen frame while we see the ship's hull cutting through ocean water on the other. For the first half of the movie, every other shot seems giddy with the understandable satisfaction of depicting the impossible. It's like the Edwardian version of Jurassic Park.
Of course, the ship must be populated with people, and it's here that Cameron's vision falters. He's on solid ground when he envisions Titanic as a big, floating metaphor for the Edwardian class struggle (as the sinking began, the folks in the lower class accomodations were locked inside while the well-to-do boarded their lifeboats), but gets waterlogged as he uses the thinnest of characters and most routine of love stories to make his point and jerk his tears. OK -- point made, tears jerked. But it's fortunate for Cameron that the human story here has the weight of terrible history behind it, since it's lacking in all but the most rudimentary drama.
DiCaprio is Jack Dawson, a lovably scruffy American abroad who wins a steerage-class ticket back to his homeland in a poker game. Across a crowded boat, he spies Kate Winslet's very first-class Rose DeWitt Bukater. Even though Jack and Rose should, by all rights, never come into contact on Titanic (where classes of passengers are kept rigidly segregated), an odd turn of events results in Jack's saving Rose's life and thus being invited to dinner on the upper decks. Jack is revealed as a tasteful vulgarian who shares Rose's predilection for modern art (she brings aboard canvases by Monet and Picasso) and teaches her how to spit. Rose, meanwhile, is reluctantly betrothed to the snarling Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), an unremittingly villainous upper-cruster whose affection for her is based on vanity rather than on love. He's even got a callous henchman named Spicer Lovejoy (David Warner) to teach Jack a lesson in keeping his hands off what doesn't belong to him.
Although there are a wealth of stories on Titanic, it's this cobwebbed melodrama that Cameron has brushed off and made the narrative focus of his film. Ever the jaded critic, I found myself wincing at each mawkish plot twist -- this melodrama is as old as the ship itself. Even so, it would be churlish to claim that it doesn't work -- it works all right, just barely well enough for Cameron to draw his audience into and through the tragedy to come. But it's the easy way out, and the film suffers from a lack of narrative invention to match its visual wizardry. (The cloying score by James Horner, which rummages inexplicably through Enya's sad sack of new age tricks, doesn't help.)
And for a 195-minute film, Titanic seems awfully rushed, as though Cameron sat in the cutting room, jabbing the other film editors with a cattle prod. On those rare occasions when Cameron does finally strike a gold vein of pathos -- I'm thinking of the ship's stoic musicians, refusing to let silence have its way with the ongoing disaster, or the elderly couple who have returned to bed, holding one another as a river of sea water washes the world away beneath them -- he cuts away impatiently, his camera once again searching out the tedious melodrama of Jack, Rose and their tormentors. And lots of rushing water. In every aspect but the special effects, Titanic takes the easy way out. There are so many tales that can be told on this ship, but Cameron opts to concentrate -- almost exclusively -- on his star-crossed lovers.
So I reserve the right to interpret this pedestrian tale as a succession of missed opportunites, at least until Cameron gets the chance to trot out the inevitable "director's cut" on home video (he promised Charlie Rose a copy of the extended version on laserdisc). Such characters as Molly Brown (Kathie Bates), Captain E.J. Smith (Bernard Hill) and the ship's regretful designer, Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber), drift through the proceedings in what amount to little more than cameos, yet they add some welcome heft to the narrative. Meanwhile, Cameron deploys jokes and cliches like so many helium balloons. (Some of the dustiest lines are given to Gloria Stuart, the 82-year-old actress who gamely portrays the decagenarian Rose in an irritating framing device that pulls the action into the present day and keeps interrupting the movie's primary story with dopey narration.)
The biggest asset to the story, aside from the special effects, is no doubt DiCaprio, who is anachronistic as all get-out, but without whom the romance would be not only creaky but dull. And, miraculously, it's not dull. I never really got DiCaprio -- arguably the most potent young heartthrob in American movies today -- before Titanic. But in this film he rises to the occasion with potent charisma and enough charm to make these lines play leagues better than they must have read on paper. He and Cameron must be some kind of soul mates, because DiCaprio seems to understand instinctively exactly what the director is going for. Winslet, of whom I'm a big fan, fits snugly into her own role but never seems at ease. Inhabiting his character neatly, DiCaprio helps her out.
By the time Leo and Kate have made it in the back of an automobile in storage on the ship, you may be thinking, "Enough already." And sure enough, Cameron fails to disappoint -- how could the consummation of their affection not be a signal that something terrible is literally on the horizon?
Once the ship hits that iceberg, it becomes clear that Cameron is in his element, and not a moment too soon. More, there's our palpable fascination with a disaster in the making, especially one that unfolds at such a measured pace as the slow sinking of the biggest seagoing craft ever built. Cameron tightens the cinematic screws like the expert he is, and builds this disaster to a smashing, grinding climax. As the ship cracks in two and goes perpindicular before sinking below the water's surface, the ensuing apocalypse is one-of-a-kind. And when Cameron cuts away to a lifeboat full of survivors, giving us their vantage on the wreck (complete with roller-coaster-ride screaming and tiny bodies tumbling to their deaths like insects), it's a moment of flamboyant spectacle. It's hard to know whether to be thrilled, appalled, or merely appreciative of such an appropriately Grand Guignol vision. It's almost genius -- Cameron starts with a simplistic portrait of an Edwardian lovers' paradise, and transforms it with feverish, needling strokes into a circle of Hell populated by 1,500 frozen corpses and another 700 lost souls waiting in their half-empty lifeboats for what old Rose calls (gack) "an absolution that would never come." (As usual, Cameron feels the need to spell everything out for us. And for the purposes of this review, I won't tackle the utterly schmaltzy final shots.)
So here's the problem: every potentially stunning moment in Titanic is negated by another that's merely numbing; for every image that comes close to bearing the force of truth, there are a half-dozen more that are trite and self-conscious. Meaning is cluttered by explanation.
It adds up, I found, to a depressingly flat experience. Titanic the ship is exquisitely rendered, but Cameron didn't have such exacting blueprints for the human beings who go down with her, and the result is cardboard characters with bleakly formulaic lives -- certain lines of dialogue and twists of plot are such hokum that it's actually distracting. If only the damned ship weren't obviously so much more important to Titanic the film than were the people on board.
And the ship is inarguably alive and exciting. It pops off the screen. Through the magic of computer graphics, it's realer than real, a modern-day Lazarus roused from the dead by a SFX messiah. And that's at least part of the problem. The film's elaborate concentration on a picture-perfect Titanic can only draw attention to its status as artifice unless there's one hell of a storyline to entrance us. But the bulk of Titanic contains no surprises and few delights. Marooned in the here and now, it's impossible to forget that this is James Cameron's impossibly expansive Titanic, rather than the real thing.
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World Socialist Web Site David Walsh
Bright Lights Film Journal T.L. Putterman
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Movie Reviews UK Damian Cannon
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Movie House Commentary Johnny Web
Movie Vault [Friday and Saturday Night Critic] Cameron gives in to almost blinding pomposity
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James Cameron on Titanic interview with the director by Rick Schultz
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AVATAR 3D B 86
USA Great Britain (162 mi) 2009 Extended cut: (178 mi)
I didn’t sign up for this shit. —Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez)
Most of the 3D movies released this year were animated ventures, where at least in my view, CORALINE (2009) stood out above all others, not only because it had a knock out story, including a parallel universe with a monstrous evil villain, but because the use of 3D was clever, humorous, and always added a wonderment factor to an already richly imaginative children’s universe. But AVATAR is something else again, because like George Miller’s post-apocalyptic MAD MAX adventures from the late 70’s and early 80’s, this requires nothing less than the invention of an entirely new futuristic landscape that never existed before, that takes one’s breath away by the stunning originality of the concept. Ridley Scott also comes to mind with his brilliant set designs for futuristic films like ALIEN (1979) and BLADE RUNNER (1982). But none of these classic sci-fi films were shot in 3D, so while they remain etched in our imaginations for memorable visual designs, AVATAR brings to the table a futuristic sci-fi action adventure story shot using the most transforming 3D technology ever invented. That and a $230 million dollar budget, once more the largest for any film in history at the time it was made, suggest this is a film that offers a multitude of possibilities. And it delivers. While the early look of the film is a hi-tech computer universe that resembles Spielberg’s MINORITY REPORT (2002), where in the year 2154, instead of telepathic pre-cogs that remain submerged in a water tank transmitting the future, science has invented floating avatars in water tanks, genetically engineered humanoids that people can inhabit while plugged into think tanks, where their thoughts guide the avatars every move during waking hours, but no connection exists when they sleep. This takes on the idea similar to time traveling into different worlds, as once they step into the time machine, they are instantly transported to another world, in this case, the planet Pandora, where the title says it all, as it’s a planet just waiting for the disasters to be unleashed.
Much like Captain John Smith’s arrival to Terrence Malick’s THE NEW WORLD (2005), Pandora is a kind of planetary Eden, a lush, unspoiled tropical world filled with exotic plants, strange prehistoric looking creatures, and a race of 12-foot tall blue people called the Na’vi that resemble Native American Indians, as they live off the land, take only what they need, and have an intensely close cosmic relationship with the world they inhabit, where they have sacred grounds and refuse to create an imbalance on their planet. Enter the American business interests, where in a mission right out of ALIEN, a fleet of space cargo and military ships target a precious mineral that exists on the planet which they intend to harvest, with or without the Na’vi’s permission, so Stephen Lang is the gun ho ex-Marine military commander, Sigourney Weaver (amusingly, from ALIEN) is the science officer, and John Worthington as former Marine Jake Sulley steps in at the last minute to take the place of his recently deceased twin brother to complete a mission on the planet, using an avatar that was built for his brother, which fortunately matches his own DNA. Despite his lack of preparation or familiarity with the actual conditions on the planet, Sulley’s real motivation is to inhabit an avatar, which offers him full use of his extremities, as his own legs are paralyzed. The exhilaration he feels once he’s transported takes even himself by surprise, as his physical transformation leaves him liberated beyond belief. But being a Marine, he believes he has no limits, that his training allows him to adapt to anything. And immediately, on his first mission, he gets a chance to prove it, as he gets separated from his unit and has to spend a night alone on the planet, a sure death sentence, which turns into one of the better sequences in the film, as it’s impossible to anticipate what he’ll encounter next, where it’s like he was transported back to the island that King Kong inhabited.
At this point, once transported to the world of the planet, the look of the film is nothing less than spectacular. In fact it’s so extraordinary that we barely notice the story development as it takes on a mish-mosh of other familiar stories, where Sulley is saved inexplicably from savage beasts by a Na’vi woman Neytiri (Zoë Saldana), who could just as easily killed him as a foreign invader, a threat to her world, but she decides to bring this outsider home to her People and let them decide. As her parents are the King and Queen, they decide their daughter should train him in the ways of their People, which leads us to our first moral crisis, as the military wants to use Sulley as a spy before they move in for the kill, never for a moment doubting what their first priority of business is, which is to take what they came for. If Sulley can facilitate that mission, so much the better. But like DANCE WITH WOLVES (1990), he develops a romantic relationship with the King’s daughter, where Sulley eventually proves himself to be accepted by the Na’vi People. The flying sequence where he learns to fly on the back of a winged creature is among the most awe-inspiring in the film. But when the military moves in and starts destroying the planet surface in order to excavate what they’re looking for, the Na’vi feel betrayed by their new foreign brother. When the Army reduces a race of people to racist and derogatory insults before firing a single shot - - therein lies the problem. The people on this planet are perceived as backwards savages where a few casualties are within the acceptable guidelines. But when they realize Sulley has taken up their cause, it turns into Miyazaki’s PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997), where humans are waging a battle against the sacred forests, where the creatures of the forest must unite to stand their ground, where a half human, half animal (like an avatar), a human raised by wolves takes up their cause.
When it turns into an all out assault against the people and their
planet, there is the spectacle of battle sequences in 3D, but this endless
sense of waste and destruction destroys the purpose of the film. At some point, wouldn’t the corporate brass
get the idea that perhaps this full blown invasion of the planet was unwise, as
even the Star Trek TV series had a
better reason for space exploration than planet invasion, which violates every
known concept of the word justice? When
did our mission in space change from discovering to destroying new worlds? This shift to planet destroyers should make
the entire audience uncomfortable, as it doesn’t wash with our concept of
Americans as bearers of peace and democracy.
While this may have been designed to parallel the Bush invasion in
There is not a single frame in Avatar that doesn’t look stunning and authentic: from the heavily militarised human mining colony to the beautiful forest planet Pandora that contains a rare mineral that the humans want, to Pandora’s indigenous Na’vi population who aren’t too happy about the human’s presence. In order to better understand the Na’vi, the humans have developed the means to mentally occupy specially grown avatar bodies that look like the giant, wide-eyed, opaque-skinned Na’vi locals. Sam Worthington (Terminator Salvation) plays Jake Sully, a paraplegic marine who adopts one of the avatar bodies in order to infiltrate and gain the trust of the Na’vi.
Describing Avatar as “Pocahontas in Space” would not be too far off the mark as Jake’s relationship with the Na’vi people follows the white-man-assimilates-into-Native-American-Indian-culture narrative of many post-colonial films. However, Avatar is more in tune with Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990) rather than films such as Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992) or Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005), which both contained a slightly more complex exploration of racial and cultural identity.
Avatar is still a white-man-saves-the-day film and it is occasionally guilty of some rather naff moments when depicting the Na’vi as noble-savage types. However, at the core of Avatar is a very simple yet sincere environmental and anti-colonial message that removes all doubt about the film’s good intentions. Besides, such gripes are just so incredibly minor compared to the sheer beauty and exhilarating visuals at the forefront of Avatar. The scenes depicting the forests and floating mountains of Pandora are truly wondrous, the Na’vi and the avatars look incredibly realistic, and the action is exactly the sort of thing audiences have come to expect from writer/director James Cameron.
Cameron has long been at the forefront of setting new standards for high quality spectacle cinema with films such as The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) rightly regarded as classics of the science-fiction/action genre. With Avatar Cameron not only sets new standards for the use of computer-generated imagery special effects but also the use of 3D photography, which has a full depth-of-field and is integral to the texture and sensory impact of Avatar. Cameron has made no compromises with Avatar from a technical point-of-view and in time it will come to be regarded as a benchmark film.
The money is on the screen in Avatar, James Cameron's mega-3-D, mondo-CGI, more-than-a-quarter-billion-dollar baby, and, like the Hope Diamond waved in front of your nose, the bling is almost blinding. For the first 45 minutes, I'm thinking: Metropolis!—and wondering how to amend ballots already cast in polls of the year's best movies. Then the 3-D wears off, and the long second act kicks in.
Avatar is a technological wonder, 15 years percolating in King Cameron's imagination and inarguably the greatest 3-D cavalry western ever made. Too bad that western is Dances With Wolves. The movie opens brilliantly with an assembly line of weightless mercenaries disembarking at planet Pandora's earthling (that is, American) base—a fantastic military hustle, with the paraplegic volunteer Jake (Australian actor Sam Worthington) wheeling through a sea of Jeeps, trucks, and galumphing robots. Every shot is a fascinating study, thanks to the plethora of depth-complicated transparent monitors, Kindle-like devices, and rearview mirrors that Cameron has positioned throughout the frame.
The Sky People, as the native Pandorans or Na'vis call them, are on a mission to strip-mine this lushly verdant planet to save their own despoiled world. As preparation, the Sky People are attempting to infiltrate the Na'vis by linking human consciousness to Pandoran avatars. Thus, an all-American jarhead like Jake finds himself inside a 12-foot-tall, blue-striped, yellow-eyed, flat-nosed humanoid with an elegant tail and cute little goat ears—and he can walk!
Beside himself with joy, Jake bursts out of the hospital and, before too long, finds himself alone in a mad jungle surrounded by six-armed neon tetra lemurs, flying purple people eaters, hammer-headed triceratopses, and nasty leather demon dogs. Jake is saved by the jungle girl Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), known in pidgin English as Pocahontas, and brought back to the Na'vi village to meet her father, the king (full-blooded Cherokee Wes Studi, here playing a good Indian). The Na'vis think that investigating Jake will allow them to understand the Sky People. (Little do they know . . . heh, heh, heh.)
The Sky People are divided into hawks and doves, with Jake as a sort of double double-agent, simultaneously reporting back to the most militant Marine meanie (Stephen Lang) as well as the tough but tender biologist (Sigourney Weaver, in full Ripley mode). The former wants him to find out "what the blue monkeys want." The latter knows that the Na'vi are ultra-green—a New Age matriarchal eco-friendly culture spiritually connected to Every Living Thing. (This capacity is better imagined than demonstrated to judge from the mass swaying transubstantiation ceremony held several times beneath a cosmic weeping willow.)
Avatar seamlessly synthesizes live action, animation, performance-capture, and CGI to create what is essentially a non-participatory computer game: Jurassic Park's menagerie running wild in The Matrix's double eXistenZ. When, waking up back in the lab, Jake realizes that "out there is the true world and in here is the dream," you know that it's time for him to go native, complete with tender blue-monkey sex ("We are mated for life"). As in a Jack Kirby comic book, the muscular, coming-atcha visuals trump the movie's camp dialogue and corny conception, but only up to a point. Jake's initiation rites notwithstanding, Avatar itself doesn't reawaken until the bang-up final battle—aerial cavalry incinerating holy sites and bombing the bejesus out of the blue-monkey redskin slopes, Jake uniting the Na'vi clans with inspirational martial music. (The requisite Celtic keening is withheld until the end credits, accompanied by a Celine Dion clone singing in Na'vish.)
Long before the third act, however, the ideologically sensitive will realize that 20th Century Fox has taken a half-billion-dollar risk (counting PR) that perhaps only Rupert Murdoch's studio could afford to take. The rampaging Sky People are heavy-handedly associated with the Bush administration. They chortle over the failure of diplomacy, wage what is referred to as "some sort of shock-and-awe campaign" against the Na'vis, and goad each other with Cheney one-liners like, "We will blast a crater in their racial memory so deep they won't come within a thousand clicks of here ever again!" Worse, the viewer is encouraged to cheer when uniformed American soldiers are blown out of the sky and instead root for a bunch of naked, tree-hugging aborigines led by a renegade white man on a humongous orange polka-dot bat.
Let no one call so spectacular an instance of political correctness run amok "entertaining." I look forward to the Limbaugh-Hannity take on this grimly engaging development—which will perhaps be roguishly interpreted by Sarah Palin as the last stand of indigenous peoples (like Todd!) and women warriors against Washington bureaucrats. At least Avatar won't win James Cameron a Nobel Peace Prize—but, then again, it just might.
James Cameron's "Avatar" takes place on a planet called Pandora, where American corporations and their military mercenaries have set up bases to mine a surpassingly precious mineral called unobtanium. The vein of awe mined by the movie is nothing short of unbelievium. This is a new way of coming to your senses—put those 3-D glasses on your face and you come to a sense of delight that quickly gives way to a sense of astonishment. The planetary high doesn't last. The closer the story comes to a lumbering parable of colonialist aggression in the jungles of an extragalactic Vietnam, the more the enchantment fizzles. Much of the time, though, you're transfixed by the beauty of a spectacle that seems all of a piece. Special effects have been abolished, in effect, since the whole thing is so special.
The word "avatar" wasn't invented by Mr. Cameron, though everything else in the production seems to have been. (With the help, that is, of a few thousand colleagues around our own planet.) In Hindu myth, an avatar is a deity descended to earth in human form. In computer parlance it's an icon that represents a person in virtual reality or cyberspace. In the movie it's a manufactured body that's remotely controlled—not by some hand-held clicker but through brain waves generated by a human being who functions as the body's driver.
If this sounds technobabbly in the description, it's dazzling in the execution. The main driver-to-be—or, rather, animating spirit-to-be—is an ex-Marine, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) whose combat injuries have left him confined to a wheelchair. He's part of a scientific program run by a tough cookie named Grace Augustine; she's played by Sigourney Weaver. The program has begun to explore Pandora, whose atmosphere is toxic to earthlings, using avatars with recombinant DNA—part human, part alien—constructed along the lines of the planet's dominant species; they're very tall, very blue, Giacometti-slender and Superman-agile. The movie offers several lyrical passages, but one of the best belongs to Jake. It's when he inhabits his avatar for the first time and discovers that his new legs can take his lithe new body through some of the most sublime scenery on not-Earth.
No description of that scenery will spoil the experience of the 3-D process (which dispenses with the usual eye-catching tricks) or the seamless integration of live action, motion-capture, animation, computer-generated images and whatever other techniques went into the mix—maybe witchcraft or black magic. (I haven't seen the IMAX version; that's for my next viewing.) Some of the flora suggest an anhydrous Great Barrier Reef (airborne jellyfish, coral-colored conical plants that spiral down to almost-nothingness when touched) or, in the case of Pandora's floating mountains, represent an homage to the Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki. As for the fauna, they're not only prodigiously varied—flamboyant dragons, six-legged steeds, elephantine chargers with heads like battering rams, nature-blue in tooth and claw—but creatures with convincing lives of their own, unlike the cheerfully bizarre creations that filled the Mos Eisley cantina in "Star Wars."
Then there are the indigènes, the French term for natives being appropriate because Pandora evokes the Indochina that existed before France's doomed war against an indigenous insurgency, as well as the Vietnam that became a battleground for American troops. They're called the Na'vi, and to describe them as humanoid may be to defame them, inasmuch as they, unlike most of the film's Americans, revere their planet and live in harmony with their surroundings. The most beautiful of the Na'vis—at least the one with the most obvious star quality—is a female warrior named Neytiri. As most of our planet already knows from the publicity, Jake falls for her in a big but complicated way.
Big because Neytiri, as played by Zoë Saldana, is so alluring—cerulean-skinned, lemon-eyed, wasp-waisted, long-tailed, anvil-nosed, wiggly-eared (trust me, it's all seductive) and given to feral snarls in the heat of battle. But complicated because Jake is secretly working both sides of the jungle. He's in love with Neytiri, and soon embraces her people's values. (Yes, there's circumstantial evidence that Mr. Cameron knows about "Dances With Wolves," along with "Tarzan," "Green Mansions," "Frankenstein," "Princess Mononoke," "South Pacific," "Spartacus" and "Top Gun.") At the same time, Jake is spying for a gimlet-eyed military commander, Col. Miles Quaritch. (Stephen Lang proves that broad, cartoony acting can also be good acting.) The evil colonel has promised the ex-Marine a procedure that will restore the use of his paralyzed legs in exchange for information that will help chase the Na'vi from their sacred land, which happens to be the only place where unobtainium can be obtained.
It's no reflection on Mr. Worthington or Ms. Saldana, both of whom are impressive—though how, exactly, do you judge such high-tech hybrid performances?—that their interspecies love story lacks the heat of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet clinging to each other on the storm-swept decks of "Titanic." Teenage girls will not return to see this film half a dozen times or more unless they possess a rogue gene for wigglable ears. But then "Avatar" revises the relationship between everyone in the audience and the characters on screen. Actors have always been avatars; they've always represented our hopes and fears in the virtual reality of motion pictures. In much of this film, however, they've been transformed by technology into a new and ambiguous breed of entertainment icon—not the quasihuman denizens of "The Wizard of Oz," or the overgrown glove puppets of "The Polar Express," but nearly palpable fantasy figures that inhabit a world just beyond our reach.
The fantasy quotient of "Avatar" takes its first major hit when the Na'vi take their first hit from the American military. Mr. Cameron has devoted a significant chunk of his movie to a dark, didactic and altogether horrific evocation of Vietnam, complete with napalm, Agent Orange and helicopter gunships (one of which is named Valkyrie in a tip of the helmet to "Apocalypse Now.") Whatever one may think of the politics of this antiwar section, two things can be said with certainty: it provokes an adrenalin rush (what that says of our species is another matter), and it feels a lot better when it's over.
Other narrative problems intrude. For all its political correctness about the goodness of the Na'vis, "Avatar" lapses into lurid savage rituals, complete with jungle drums, that would not have seemed out of place in the first "King Kong." While Ms. Weaver's performance is a strong one, it isn't clear what her character is doing as an avatar, or how the Na'vi perceive her. What couldn't be clearer, though, is that Mr. Cameron's singular vision has upped the ante for filmed entertainment, and given us a travelogue unlike any other. I wouldn't want to live on Pandora, mainly because of the bad air, but I'm glad to have paid it a visit.
Going Na'vi: Why Avatar's politics are more revolutionary than its images Sam Adams from The Onion A.V. Club
and the American Man-child
and American Imperialism
Slant Magazine review [2/4] Nick Schager
The Onion A.V. Club review [C] Scott Tobias
Film Freak Central review Walter Chaw
AVATAR Ken Rudolph’s Movie Page
Screenjabber.com Justin Bateman
Conservative backlash against "Avatar" Andrew Leonard from Salon, January 5, 2010
Entertainment Weekly review [B] Owen Gleiberman
Peter Bradshaw reviews Avatar The Guardian, December 17, 2009
Avatar: review of reviews of James Cameron's 3D space opera Catherine Shoard from The Guardian, December 11, 2009
Avatar shows cinema's weakness, not its strength David Cox from The Guardian, December 21, 2009
James Cameron says Avatar a message to stop damaging environment brief comments from The Daily Telegraph, December 11, 2009
Cameron sees metaphor for Earth in 'Avatar' a brief chat with the director from The Independent, December 11, 2009
Sinking in $380 million on 'Titanic's' director Michael White from The Washington Post, December 18, 2009
Austin Chronicle review [4/5] Marc Savlov
The New York Times (Manohla Dargis) review December 18, 2009
Fan Fever Is Rising for Debut of ‘Avatar’ Michael Cieply from The New York Times, April 24, 2009
Blockbuster Trailer: The Selling of ‘Avatar’ Michael Cieply and Dave Itzkoff from The New York Times, August 21, 2009
The ‘Avatar’ Trailer: What Did We Just See? Dave Itzkoff from The New York Times, August 21, 2009
A Movie’s Budget Pops From the Screen Michael Cieply from The New York Times, November 8, 2009
Campanella, Juan José
Hard to fathom how any jury of film-goers would pick this
film over the lyrical grace and sinister happenings in Michael Haneke’s
chilling THE WHITE RIBBON, or the pulsating energy and ultimately transforming
prison drama of Jacques Audiard’s intensely riveting THE PROPHET, or even the
generational violence confronting mixed Arab and Jewish neighborhoods from
Israel in Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani’s AJAMI, each of which addresses
incendiary hot button issues with much more flair than this conventional DR.
ZHIVAGO-like love story set against a police procedural murder investigation
during the rise of the fascist military dictatorship in Argentina’s Dirty War
in the mid 70’s, historical themes that barely scratch the surface and instead
relies upon the familiarity of the viewer.
It came as a complete surprise to me that the director of the Academy
Award winning foreign film category this year had already directed 16 episodes
& Order: Special Victims Unit on American television, paying his dues, so to
speak, in the crime genre before adapting an Eduardo Sacheri novel and then
directing, editing and even producing the film. Ricardo Darín plays Benjamín
Espósito, a criminal
investigator who works out of the office of the court rather than a police
station, establishing the evidence needed for the district attorneys, but his
position is viewed more like a legal aide or clerk, where there’s a distinctive
social divide and pay scale between the two classes. Told through a series of flashbacks, the film
moves back and forth in time from the present in 2000, where a retired Espósito is attempting to write a novel
about an old murder case, to
at first staggered by the degree of brutality associated with a vicious rape
and murder case of Liliana Coloto (Carla Quevedo), a young newlywed whose
husband Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago) impresses him with his steadfast devotion,
even after her death, as after the police beat the confessions out of a few
innocent laborers, immediately exposed as fraudulent by Espósito himself who comes to blows with
the judge on the case, the police simply drop their interest leaving the case
unsolved and leaving Espósito
and Morales alone as the only two in the world who still care. Espósito’s
assistant, Pablo Sandoval, colorfully played by Guillermo Francella, spends
more time in local bars than at his desk, but he and his drunkard associates
have a brilliant
Soon afterwards, however, Gómez is seen free on the streets
as part of the Presidential security detail, a stunning turn of events,
released by the same judge Espósito
fought with earlier in the film who reveals with blunt arrogance the new facts
of life to an astonished Espósito,
whose life is suddenly turned upside down by a miscarriage of justice on a
national scale where sociopathic thugs and murderers are recruited by the
secret police to do the nation’s dirty work in tracking down and interrogating
suspected rebel terrorists, almost all of whom simply disappear without a
trace. In the creepiest scene of the
film, one right out of the horror genre, Gómez, brandishing his gun, gets on an
elevator with Espósito and the
district attorney, a scene that exposes just how vulnerable they are without
protection and how impotent justice has become, a fitting metaphor for their
extinguished romantic notions that play out like an old-fashioned Hollywood
melodrama in a prolonged scene at the train station where parting is such sweet
sorrow. People led such different lives
then, so much so that now, when they look in the mirror at their reflection,
they don’t recognize themselves anymore.
It’s as if there was a memory fissure in their past reality that has
SECRET IN THEIR EYES, THE (El secreto de sus ojos) (d. Juan José Campanella; Argentina) *** 3/4 Ken Rudolph’s Movie Site
A retired prosecutor revisits an unsatisfactorily closed 25 year old rape-murder case by writing a novel. This is the set-up for an intriguing cold case procedural which exposes layers of past Argentinian government corruption through flashbacks to the time of the case itself. This is another in a long series of great roles for star Ricardo Durín, who, with just a little make-up and subtle changes in posture, successfully plays his character at two different ages. It's an altogether fascinating puzzle of a film which kept me on tenterhooks throughout.
Time Out New York review [3/5] Keith Uhlich
Winner of the 2010 Best Foreign Film Oscar, this decade-hopping,
tone-shifting mystery-thriller-romance from
Director Juan José Campanella—who recently put a butchtastic Kathy Griffin through her paces on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit—does yeoman’s work, save for a faux single-take in a packed sports stadium that’s clearly devised to impress. The camera swoops in from above, settles among the crowd, and switches points of view with “look, Ma, no hands!” effortlessness as Esposito chases down a suspect. But it’s so enamored with its own brilliance that the people get lost in the swirl.
Not that there’s much to these characters to begin with, since they bow to the story mechanics rather than drive them. Everyone is more or less defined by their hair…or lack of it. (There are fake baldpates in this film that would make Telly Savalas sue for defamation.) Darín and Villamil make for an attractive couple, no matter what age-aiding prosthetics the makeup department throws at them. And the resolution of the murder plot—part O. Henry, part EC Comics—is an ironic lip-smacker that concludes the mostly rote proceedings on a giddy high note.
The Onion A.V. Club review [B-] Scott Tobias
It was considered surprising when this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film went to the Argentinean thriller The Secret In Their Eyes, which bested the higher-profile likes of A Prophet and The White Ribbon. But Secret turns out to be exactly the type of film the Academy traditionally honors: intelligent but conventional, an actor’s showcase with glossy production values, and a little too polite. To be fair, The Secret In Their Eyes lands higher than most on the prestige-o-meter; it turns the mysteries surrounding a graphic rape and murder into an ambitious, gratifyingly adult puzzle about love and loss, the perversions of the justice system, and how memory can illuminate and distort the truth. What it lacks is the passion and vision to bring all those ideas across. The film sprawls across two decades and 127 minutes, but there isn’t a memorable image in it.
Based on the novel by Eduardo Sacheri, The Secret In Their Eyes opens with Ricardo Darín, a retired criminal-court employee, struck by a sudden compulsion to write a novel about an unsolved rape and murder from 20 years earlier. He enlists the help of former colleague (and now judge) Soledad Villamil, for whom he still harbors romantic feelings, though she isn’t entirely enthusiastic about the project. Flashing back to the late ’70s, when the crime was committed, the film details how Darín and co-worker Guillermo Francella were originally involved in the case, and how sweeping political changes at the time fatally corrupted the investigation.
Writer-director Juan José Campanella (Son Of The Bride) has a lot of experience helming American TV procedurals like House and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and The Secret In Their Eyes wends smoothly through the complexities of the case and the political and romantic histories that inform it. Though unimpeachably intelligent and sophisticated, the film nonetheless has no grit under its fingernails: Here’s a story about a crime of passion, unrequited love, and political upheaval, yet Campanella keeps it all at arm’s length. Like his haunted lead character, he tries to tell a personal tale from a novelist’s distanced perspective, and in that, he’s successful to a fault.
An old Olivetti typewriter provides a running joke in "The Secret in Their Eyes," the Argentine drama that won a foreign-language Oscar last month—the machine can't type the letter 'A.' And the letter 'A' makes all the difference in the world when the hero inserts it in the middle of a one-word note, 'temo,' that he has written to himself. Then 'I fear' becomes 'I love you.' These are clever details in a drama that transcends cleverness. This beautiful film, directed with subtlety and grace by Juan José Campanella, really is about moving from fear to love.
The story begins in contemporary Buenos Aires, when Benjamin Espósito, a retired criminal investigator played by Ricardo Darín, decides to revisit a cold case—the brutal murder of a young woman—by writing a novel about it. In doing so he revisits his still-warm case of love for Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil), a Cornell-educated lawyer, now a judge with a husband and children, who was a beautiful young prosecutor when they worked together a quarter of a century ago.
If you were diagramming the script, which the director and Eduardo Sacheri adapted from Mr. Sacheri's novel, you might divide it between these two elements, an unsolved murder and unresolved love. No movie in memory, though, is less schematic. Elements intertwine. Feelings emerge, recede, resurface. Wit and humor—and remnants of hope—sustain lives burdened with regret. The movie is very much a murder mystery, and very much a love story—in fact a pair of stories about obsessive love lived out by two men with ostensibly different attitudes toward the past, and very different outcomes. It's also a meditation on the passage of time and the uses of memory, an argument for never looking back—"You'll have a thousand pasts and no future," the murder victim's husband tells Benjamin (with what turns out to be startling irony)—and, in a romantic vein, an advertisement for acting on love at whatever time of life.
Exceptional movies are often about many things, and that's certainly the case with this one. I can't recall a more dramatic interrogation than the scene in which a suddenly ferocious Irene tries, to Benjamin's astonishment, to break an implacable suspect. Or a more engagingly odd couple than Benjamin and his colleague Sandoval, an investigator with a fondness for wry jokes and booze. Or a more poignant leave-taking, when Irene and Benjamin embrace but don't kiss, and fear trumps love. (All of it is enhanced by Félix Monti's burnished, sometimes brooding cinematography.)
Of the two previous films I've seen starring Ricardo Darín, "Son of the Bride," which was also directed by Mr. Campanella, is out of print on DVD—please, Sony Pictures Classics, reissue it—but "Nine Queens" remains available, and I've discussed it in more detail elsewhere on this page. A formidable actor with commanding star quality, Mr. Darín, who is in his sixties, plays Benjamin in his thirties persuasively—the actor's vitality is more important than his young-age makeup. In the present-day passages he makes the hero an aging sophisticate whose urbane demeanor conceals suppressed but far from extinguished passion. Ms. Villamil's Irene is quick-witted and alluring in the past and present alike. In a film of impeccable performances, three other standouts are Guillermo Francella, who plays Sandoval; Pablo Rago as Morales, the bereaved husband whose love was almost unfathomably pure; and Javier Godino as the prime suspect, Isidoro Gómez, a figure of pure malevolence at a time in the 1970s when Argentina's military dictatorship was bringing evil back into style.
The movie opens in 2000, and Espósito, gray-bearded, is at his desk,
writing. It is twenty-five years after the murder, and the investigator,
retired yet still fascinated by the case, is assembling his recollections of
it. What he writes is played out by the actors, but he angrily throws away each
recollection as an inadequate first draft, and that scene disappears from the
screen. Campanella is seriously teasing us: Espósito may be dissatisfied with
his prose, but what he depicts in these first-draft attempts actually happened
(we see the scenes again later, in their proper place in the story). Back in
1974, Espósito chases the killer with the aid of his antic partner, Pablo
Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), and their cautious superior, Irene Menéndez
Hastings (Soledad Villamil), a judge’s assistant. (In
The murderer is a furtive creep named Gomez (Javier Godino), and what
follows his capture is altogether startling. When Espósito, interrogating him,
doesn’t get anywhere, Irene takes over. She turns the questioning into a sexual
duel, taunting Gomez’s manhood, her words more wounding and more effective than
a beating with brass knuckles. Campanella, who works in both the
From scene to scene, the movie has an enormously vital swing to it. Espósito is a knight-errant of the law who seeks justice, and Sandoval is his Sancho Panza, while the judges (apart from Irene) are profane and corrupt political hacks; the back-and-forth among the court workers is juicy and explicit, sometimes hilarious, sometimes sinister, while the atmosphere outside the courts is savage. The dictator Juan Perón dies in 1974, and is succeeded by his wife, Isabel; it’s the time of the death squads, the disappearances, and legal anarchy. Gomez is freed by one of the judges and becomes a bully boy for the new fascist regime. He’s a serious threat to Espósito (Irene is protected by her wealthy family), and a provocation to Morales, the dead woman’s husband. Years go by, and, for most Argentineans, the time between the rule of the Peróns and the rise of democracy may be lost in a way that goes deeper than the lost love of two colleagues. Yet Campanella does no more than hint at the anguished political background of the story; he mostly sticks to his principal players, who are woven together in an increasingly intricate structure, revealed by an inventive and flexible camera. Campanella moves in for prolonged, emotionally wrenching closeups, as in a Garbo drama from the nineteen-thirties. He also does fluent and muscular sweeps: when Espósito and Sandoval first discover Gomez, in a soccer stadium, the camera, exploding with animal energy, pursues him, loses him as he ducks down a ramp, picks him up again. There may be no “signature” shot here, as in the work of an established auteur, but there’s an effortless mastery, from moment to moment, of whatever the dramatic situation requires.
The Oscar-Winning Ridiculousness of The Secret in Their Eyes Nicolas Rapold from The Village Voice
Entertainment Weekly review [B] Lisa Schwarzbaum
Argentina Dirty War 1976 - 1983 Global Security
The Dirty War in Argentina National Security Archive
Argentina: Secret U.S. Documents Declassified on Dirty War Atrocities National Security Archive
BEYOND BORDERS C- 69
A film that supposedly travels into Ethiopia, Cambodia, and Chechnya can't be all bad, and there was a relevant story to be told about the difficulties of getting humanitarian aid to those that need it. Unfortunately, it's not told in this film, which is instead filled with too many clichés, sometimes resembling the Christian Missionary Television Network, with a truly bad performance by Angelina Jolie who just seemed too immature and way over her head in this film.
Beyond Borders David Denby from the New Yorker
High-minded romantic drama set against "strife-torn" (there is
no other phrase) backgrounds. The sensationally charismatic Clive Owen is Nick
Callahan, a fiery
EDGE OF DARKNESS B 88
Like the recently released British TV drama, The Red Riding Trilogy (2009), which is
a set of 3 movies written by the same man but directed by 3 different
directors, all having a common serial killing storyline as well as corruption
within the Yorkshire police force, this American film is based on a 6-part 1985
British TV mini-series, each just under an hour in length, where both just
happen to be directed by the same man.
This gives him particular insight into the material where he transplants
British nuclear fears of the 80’s into the American present, using a murky
governmental cover up to add special interest.
This is like a trip into those 1970’s paranoid thrillers of THREE DAYS
OF THE CONDOR (1975) or
Of course, none of this is known right away, but takes
extensive investigative visits to various people involved, some who fear for
their lives, usually company employees, most of whom believe they are being
followed or under surveillance, and the corporate executives (Danny Huston) who
prefer lying to his face, hiding behind the ambigious phrase, “That’s
classified information.” Risking his own
life several times over, but hell bent on solving his daughter’s murder, he
soon learns she was placed on a terrorist watch group, probably by the same
company she worked for, making her an easy scapegoat in the event they incurred
problems they couldn’t publicly explain.
Making this even more murky are the Deep Throat visits to Craven by Ray
Winstone, the burly, no nonsense professional fixer who was hired by the
company (off the books) to sort this mess out.
But interestingly, his allegiance is not necessarily with the company,
as he’s a strange and mysterious figure who seems to operate under his own rules. The scenes between he and Gibson are among
the best in the film due to their undisputed credibility for cutting through
the bullshit. They are a pleasure to
watch. But meanwhile, he discovers his
daughter was poisoned by radioactive milk that’s been sitting in his
refrigerator, probably infecting him as well.
But since he doesn’t go see anyone about it, it’s an open question that
Mel Gibson in revenge fantasies have been poetry in motion since he broke into the business in MAD MAX (1975), and despite not having acted in a movie in 8 years, preferring instead to direct several controversial films, he hasn’t missed a beat. One of the visually spectacular images in this film is the picture of Northmoor itself, which like a planetarium is a concrete structure that noticeably sits atop a rolling, tree-lined hill overlooking a sleepy river that snakes its way through the Berkshires, where through the floor to ceiling glass windows of the building one can gaze at the pastoral beauty for miles in very direction. It’s curiously ironic that such a conspicuous modern architectural masterpiece would be the site of what are supposedly top secret operations. But those spectacular windows in particular hide the transparency they suggest, as the criminal protection racket they really operate actually takes place behind locked doors and could just as easily be an underground bunker. There’s an odd bit of whimsy in this film as well, as Mel routinely talks to the ghost of his dead daughter, which becomes a pronounced theme, including the use of flashback home movie images, all of which connects the dots between the living and the dead and the precarious position we face from our own impending mortality. In its own way, this movie suggests its our own future that lies in jeopardy unless we open our eyes to the masterful deception that is taking place in the dark corridors of our own government.
We may have moved from veiled Cold War to explicit global terror
in the 25 years since the excellent, UK-set nuclear conspiracy thriller ‘Edge
of Darkness’ first aired on the BBC, directed by Martin
Campbell (‘Casino Royale’) and written by Troy Kennedy Martin. It’s also
been some eight, traumatic post-9/11 years since Mel Gibson’s
last thespian outing in M Night Shyamalan’s ‘Signs’. But time seems to have
stood still in
In condensing the original mini-series into a conventional, two-hour package, scriptwriters William Monahan and Andrew Bovell have sadly sacrificed some of the original’s cultural specificity and its slow-burn quality. Moreover, in relocating from northern
It’s basically a ‘little guy against the system’ movie, literally so in many of Campbell’s framings – for instance, where he miniaturises Gibson’s now slightly wizened figure against the looming bulk of Danny Huston’s smarmy corporate bad guy. However, Ray Winstone, as a boozy high-level fixer in pointed contrast to Craven’s ginger-ale-drinking sobriety, does offer good value in what is otherwise a surprisingly low-wattage and anonymously directed thriller.
The Onion A.V. Club review [C] Keith Phipps
Mel Gibson has been away from the cameras for a while, and he appears a little scuffed up in Edge Of Darkness, his first starring role since Signs in 2002. He looks greyer and craggier than before, and his stiff movements make it easy to forget his former athletic grace. Whatever the source of that wear and tear, it at least helps him look the part in this revenge thriller, which casts him as a Boston cop looking for answers after seeing his daughter (Bojana Novakovic) gunned down on his own front porch. Director Martin Campbell, adapting a well-regarded BBC miniseries he directed in 1985, goes further than merely failing to hide the ravages of time, trouble, and hard living. He puts his diminutive tough-guy star next to actors who tower over him, in shots that subtly drive home the same point: As often as we’ve seen Gibson get out of scrapes in the past, his odds don’t look so good this time.
Those choices serve the film, too, which compels Gibson—sporting a thick, occasionally believable Boston accent—to unravel a far-reaching conspiracy involving his daughter’s employer, a private industrial concern overseen by a silky, amoral Danny Huston, whose character needs only a mute Korean manservant to qualify him for a supervillain license. With each lead Gibson follows, he discovers he’s taken on not a dragon, but a many-headed hydra.
Edge Of Darkness gathers all the elements of a smart, politically resonant thriller, but leaves them only half-assembled. That might partly be due to the need to compress a sprawling plot into a two-hour frame; a pattern of investigation, interrogation, exposition, fisticuffs, and repetition takes over the movie after a while. But it’s mostly because Gibson crowds out anyone and anything competing with the displays of righteous fury he’s leaned on since Braveheart. In spite of attempts to make him seem vulnerable—which include a bunch of maudlin conversations with his character’s dead daughter—this is really a movie about the power, and grim pleasure, taken by a man building up a static charge of rage as he searches for the right target. Huston, Ray Winstone (playing a puppetmaster of puppetmasters), and other recognizable faces all do fine character work, but Edge Of Darkness quickly devolves into another showcase for Gibson’s snorting-bull act, a routine he could happily have shelved during his time off.
If you were looking for a director for the movie version of Edge of
Darkness, you'd have thought you couldn't do better than Martin Campbell,
who made the original 1985 series for BBC television. He's now a bona fide
While Campbell and screenwriters William Monahan and Andrew
Bovell have transplanted the action from
The snag is, where the original Edge... brilliantly captured a
mood of fear and dread about the nuclear industry, intensified by the
authoritarian mood of the Thatcher-Reagan years, the course of events over the
last 25 years mean that we've become woefully inured to the routine scale of
corporate and governmental lies and deception (there's a televised inquiry
currently in progress along these very lines). Indeed, the somewhat cursory
manner in which the movie introduces us to a bent lawyer, a corrupt Senator and
a murderous business executive, not to mention a far-from-upstanding
The Kennedy Martin original was also distinctive in articulating a resounding ecological warning, setting up a confrontation between mankind's malign, misguided tinkering and the mythic power of Mother Nature. Hence he called his eco-activist group GAIA, referring to a hypothesis in which earth is its own living biosystem. In the movie the activists belong to something called Night Flower, and references to any kind of spiritual dimension have been reduced to Craven's imaginary conversations with his dead daughter.
You'd have to conclude that Campbell and his writers have missed a major trick here. James Cameron's Avatar may be simplistic, but vital to its huge success is surely its timely connection to issues of ecological awareness and protecting the environment. This might have been a major weapon in the Edge of Darkness locker too, but it makes no attempt to reach for anything beyond the literal surface of the action. The story's emotional force supposedly derives from a lonely man trying to deal with the aftermath of his much-loved daughter's murder, but Edge-the-movie settles instead into a routine shoot-'em-up where stone-faced Mel metes out comeuppance to the scumbags. While he's committed to avenging Emma's death, he shows no glimmer of comprehension of the issues that she considered important enough to risk her life for. As remakes go, file this alongside The Italian Job and Get Carter.
"Did you shoot my daughtah?" is the question posed, in flat-voweled Bostonian, in the trailer for Edge of Darkness. And Mel Gibson, much-bereaved and much-vengeful, from Hamlet to Ransom to Revolutionary America, sets out to settle another score.
Gibson is Thomas Craven: veteran, homicide detective, lonesome widower. His daughter, a post-grad intern at a research and development firm in the Berkshires, is visiting home when somebody fires a gun in front of his house. Craven, left lonelier, wants to find out who did it, the first link in a long chain of whos and whys that leads him up the food chain. As in the film's predecessor—a Yorkshire-set 1985 BBC2 serial, with Bob Peck as Craven—the investigation of what's supposedly an open-and-shut botched payback killing by an old collar opens into something much bigger, revealing a sweaty commingling of private and public sectors.
Director Martin Campbell, most famous for James Bond relaunches, is revisiting old material—as a hot-handed U.K. TV director, he shot the original six-part, six-hour cult-classic miniseries from a Troy Kennedy Martin script. For the film, mysteries unspool more quickly, while peripheral characters and "color" scenes without expository purpose—Peck bawling on the M1, a Brit ballroom competition on TV—have disappeared.
What's left is propulsive and streamlined, with Craven more single-mindedly
focused on finding and damning the guilty. When Peck went to question his
daughter's boyfriend, it was a psychological duel, the uncomfortably intimate
father-daughter relationship a jealous undercurrent. When Gibson makes the same
visit, it's for a knife fight (his paternal love now purged of anything
unseemly). This change in character may not have been intended—there have been
rumors of reshoots to punch up the action at the studio's behest—but this Edge
is a vigilante movie. Which isn't to say it's simply a downgrade from Anglo
Kennedy Martin's Darkness unfolded in the shadows of Cold War
espionage and the arms race of the Reagan-Thatcher era. The 2010 incarnation is
still political: Danny Huston's man-behind-the-curtain CEO disguises
his rogue dealings in "jihadist dirty bombs" as experiments in clean,
green energy. He has pictures of himself shaking hands with Bush
II and Nancy Pelosi and, in what would have seemed a sci-fi
touch a year ago, one of the implicated parties signing off on his private
"security fiefdom" is a Republican senator from
Some of the off-the-record Corridors of Power stuff is well done, but the
scenes feel haphazardly placed, not quite of the same movie as the Gibson
revenge flick. Ray Winstone's Jedburgh, a bon viveur government
troubleshooter with ambiguous loyalties, who consults on and monitors Craven's
investigation, never quite integrates either. The 1985 Jedburgh was a CIA good ol' boy in
Gibson has been absent from the American screen since 2004. He's squandered his industry clout with risks both planned (The Passion of the Christ) and, assumedly, not (the passion for conspiracy theory). One wonders—certainly Warner Bros. suits will—if off-screen events have made it impossible for audiences to swallow him as a character. Yet Gibson still knows what he does best, as a star should, and creates tension just from never letting the tears poised in his eyes fall. Onscreen much of the time, thicker and more creased than you remember, he can make this rather unshapely movie seem taut.
Screenjabber review David Franklin
Film Freak Central review Ian Pugh
Frank's Reel Reviews review Loron Hays
Gibson: back with a vengeance John
Hiscock interviews Mel Gibson from The
Entertainment Weekly review [B] Owen Gleiberman
The Hollywood Reporter review Michael Rechtshaffen
The Daily Telegraph review [2/5] Tim Robey
Austin Chronicle review [2/5] Marc Savlov
Campion, Jane Art and Culture
TCMDB profile from Turner Classic Movies
Along with Australian directors Gillian Armstrong, Jocelyn Moorhouse and Shirley Barrett, Jane Campion has emerged as a major feminist filmmaker. She has been responsible for some of the most acclaimed films to have originated from Down Under since the late 1980s. Her features all have one thing in common: a powerful, courageous woman as a central figure. From Genevieve Lemon's unhinged "Sweetie" (1989) to Kerry Fox's mentally troubled Janet Frame in "An Angel at My Table" (1990) to Holly Hunter's mute Ada in "The Piano" (1993) to Nicole Kidman's manipulated Isabel Archer in "The Portrait of a Lady" (1996), the lead in a Campion film provides a showcase for the actress and advances the director's desire to display private, often erotic, sides of women rarely portrayed in conventional Hollywood fodder. Although some critics have found her work self-conscious, the majority have praised her originality.
The roots of her skill can be traced to her upbringing and education.
After marking time in the Women's Film Unit, a
government-sponsored program for which she directed the short "After
Hours" (1984), about sexual harassment, and a detour to TV with the
longform "Two Friends" (1986), Campion made her feature debut with
the darkly stylish "Sweetie" , a disturbing study of familial
tensions brought about by a mentally unstable young woman. Acclaimed for its
visual style, strong performances and comic originality, "Sweetie"
earned prizes from the Film Critics Circle of
Campion's second feature "An Angel at My Table" was
originally intended as a TV-movie. Working from a script by Laura Jones,
adapted from the autobiography of
In 1984, fresh out of film school, Campion began working on a
screenplay about the colonial past of
Campion's long awaited follow-up was an adaptation of Henry James' novel "The Portrait of a Lady", written by Laura Jones and starring Nicole Kidman. Critics were divided; some found it static and miscast, while others praised its intelligence and the director's injection of sexual matters hinted at in the original. Next Campion and her sister Anna co-wrote the screenplay for her next directorial effort, "Holy Smoke" (1999), in which an Australian family hire a noted cult deprogrammer (Harvey Keitel) to retrieve and restore their errant daughter (Kate Winslet) from an Indian guru. Their subsequent battle of wills, which as in all Campion efforts also takes on an overpowering sexual component, drives the narrative, but while the film starts out extremely promising and Campion teamed with yet another actress as fearless as she is talented, the ultimate execution was flawed, murky and unsatisfying.
A planned reunion with Kidman was in store for Campion's next
effort, "In the Cut" (2003), an adaptation of Susanna Moore's novel,
but the ever-in-demand Kidman's schedule required her to cede the role to
another actress (though Kidman stayed on a producer). Campion cast a maturing
Meg Ryan, looking to break out of her sterotypical adorable parts, as a
All-Movie Guide bio from Rebecca Flint Marx
Cinema Nation Identity: Jane Campion. Department of Communication ... a nice, thorough biography
Film Reference profile by Rob Edelman
Jane Campion • Great Director profile • Senses of Cinema Fincina Hopgood from Senses of Cinema, October 4, 2002
Jane Campion | NZ On Screen biography
Directors: Jane Campion bio and brief film reviews by D.K. Holm from Cinemonkey
OZ CINEMA.com : People : Jane Campion a brief, early bio
Jane Campion | Biography (born 1954) bio and website
Jane Campion: memory, motif and music Geraldine Bloustien from Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture, vol. 5 no 2, edited by Adrian Martin (1990)
FILM / Piano Forte: A few years ago Jane Campion was an eternal ... A few years ago Jane Campion was an eternal student, turning out short films which even her tutors considered too offbeat. Now she is the winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and Harvey Keitel describes her as a goddess, by Quentin Curtis from The Independent, October 16, 1993
Passion in Perspective: The Films of Jane Campion — Filmmakers ... Richard Peña on a Retrospective: February 3–24, 1995
Jane Campion's Shining: Portrait of a Director - Film Comment Kathleen Murphy, November/December 1996
Jane Campion: a complete retrospective Peter Keough from the Boston Phoenix, January 28, 1999
Where the boys are - Salon.com Jessica Hundley from Salon, March 22, 2000
A Pleasure to Watch: Jane Campion's Narrative Cinema Sue Gillet from Screening the Past, March 2001
Jane Campion: 'Life isn't a career' | Film | The Guardian Andrew Pulver, May 12, 2014
Jan Chapman, producer of 'The Daughter' | The Saturday Paper Benjamin Law, March 19, 2016
BIOGRAPHY: Jane Campion - Film Director - The Heroine Collective Miranda Bain, September 2, 2016
Campion, Jane They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They
BOMB Magazine — Jane Campion by Lynn Geller interview Winter 1990
New Again: Jane Campion - Page - Interview Magazine Michael Tabb and Katherine Dieckmann interview, January 1992
“We are all Isabel Archers” A “Bonne Femme”
Conversation with Jane ... Sophie Menoux talks with the director
Interview: Jane Campion Scott Tobias from The Onion A.V. Club, September 22, 2009
Jane Campion: 'Life isn't a career' | Film | The Guardian Andrew Pulver interview, May 12, 2014
AN EXERCISE IN DISCIPLINE – PEEL B+ 92
This was my first film. I knew these people who all had red hair and were part of the family. They were also alike in character, extreme and stubborn. Their drive in the country begins an intrigue of awesome belligerence.
Recalling a 1984 interview by Mark Stiles, Jane Campion: Interviews - Page 5 - Google Books Result
The people at the AFTS
loathed Peel when they saw a first cut of it. They told me not to bother finishing it. I was quite vain so I found that really
upsetting, but it was good for me. I cut
out everything that was remotely extraneous and made the film a lot
better. The AFTS people thought I was
arrogant and not particularly talented.
There were people there more talented than I was, but my talent wasn't
the kind they were ever going to understand, which was one of the luckiest
things for me.
Peel, also known as An Exercise in Discipline — Peel, is a 1982 Australian short film directed by Jane Campion, described as an “Abrasive yet meditative study of the usual family road-trip misery.” Working for the first time with her longtime friend and cinematographer, Sally Bongers, a fellow student at the Australian Film and Television School, a father along with his son and sister are taking a road trip in the country, each with bright red hair, during which an orange peel has significance, where teaching a lesson has unforeseen consequences. As the youngest child grows bored, dropping pieces of an orange peel out the window, his father tells him to stop, but he intentionally disobeys, causing his father to stop the car, claiming they’re not going anywhere until he goes back and picks up all the pieces he dropped onto the side of the road. While his sister complains endlessly about how she can’t believe what a waste of time this is, extending an already long drive, claiming she has important things to do, growing more and more vehement, until the father pops out of the car as much to escape her as to find out what’s going on with his son. When they return, the sister has herself peeled an orange and left the peel on the ground next to the car. When both tell her to pick it up, with the kid apparently learning his lesson, she refuses, where once again stubbornness alters the power dynamic, leaving them all in a state of limbo, not going anywhere, where the final image is one of mayhem, with the sister assuming the role of the pouting, incalcitrant child, while the out-of-control kid is seen jumping up and down on top of the car.
The film went on to win the Short Film Palme d’Or at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival making Campion the first ever woman (and New Zealander) to win the award.
Jane Campion's 1982 short film "An Exercise in Discipline: Peel" is an interesting study of character, relationships, and to a degree the way that the camera can capture these elements. It follows three people traveling in a car along a small stretch of a country road. Indicated right away are the relationships of the people involved, who are said to be real people: a father, his son, and the father's sister. The bored son is goofing off by throwing orange peels out the window, and the father gets ticked off, and everything escalates from there. The film examines how inconsequential arguments leave us at a standstill. Ironically the resolution to the argument here is reached by ignoring it. At only nine minutes, Campion's short is to the point, and a near perfect expression.
"Peel" is an appropriate title, applying literally to the peeling of the orange that starts the commotion that leads to confrontation, and figuratively signifying the peeling away of the outer skins of the trio to lay bare the inner turmoil and conflict. The first phrase of the title, "An Exercise in Discipline," is used in a sardonic sense. There is little discipline involved in the battle among the three where emotions run amok and a ripple effect occurs from child to adults. What begins as a tussle between father and son for domination and control ends as a stalemate with father and son teaming up against the sister/aunt. To further emphasize the ignorance and stupidity exhibited, the entire show takes place along a busy public highway in broad daylight.
On a higher plane, Jane Campion indicates that major battles which may destroy individuals, families, and nations often begin over the silliest of occurrences, in this case the peeling of an orange and throwing the husk out a car window. The narrow minded among us can become so stubborn concerning minor infractions of rules and regulations that we forget how mundane and harmless such actions really are. The man decides this after much ado when the boy picks up all the pieces save one that have been strewn along the roadway. He surrenders to the boy's wishes and wistfully places the boy atop his shoulders to return to the parked car only to begin a new war with his sister, who is late for her destination as a result of the orange peels fiasco.
Color adds to the effectiveness of the allegory with the bright shades emphasizing the frayed emotions, lost tempers, and broken dreams. "Peel" is a much underrated short by a gifted artist.
An Exercise in Discipline: Peel opens Jane Campion's
career with a bang. It starts with an echoing tap eventually revealed to be an
orange bouncing off a dashboard and proceeding in a series of quick cuts that
allow no hint of coherence even as a title card establishes its trio's relation
to each other. From there, it only gets stranger, using the vivid color of '80s
clothes and the countryside around the stopped car to bring out the dysfunction
of the family dynamic exhibited by the father, his son and the boy's aunt. The
father chastises the boy for throwing his orange peel out the car window, even
stopping to make the kid pick up the pieces along the road. The lad's defiance
leads him to run away, but in quiet shame he starts collecting the peel long
after getting out of eyesight. The woman, meanwhile, viciously berates the man
for making them stop, already peeved that she had to spend the day driving with
them when she had other plans.
The only thing clear-cut about this movie is the aforementioned card with its postmodern family tree, but even that triangle is problematic: by folding back in on itself, it lightly suggests incestuous relationship, an theme common to Campion's early work in both literal and psychologically figurative ways. Though one generally refers to the film by its subtitle, it is important to take note of the "Exercise in Discipline" tag. It speaks to the fractured narrative exercise: the man forces discipline upon his son, who then begins to order around the woman having no been conditioned into a harder adult male. But it also hints at the formal rigor of Campion's piece, which features segmenting and fragmenting angles, framing and focal lengths by cinematographer Sally Bongers to deepen the alienation and power dynamics of the family. It's bewildering to think that something so dense and fully formed was a student film, and much less surprising to note that it won the Short Film Palme D'Or at Cannes four years later. This is one of the best modern short films I've seen, and one can see Campion's gift for microcosmic, obsessive yet always playful characterization in its eight short minutes.
Peel is joyously experimental, infused with the stubbornness of its characters. Campion allows this shared trait to seep beyond the events of the story and into its very form. She emphasises the repetitive nature of their quarrels with a circular narrative structure and rhythmic editing and sound. She also has fun with the stereotypical connection between short tempers and red hair, making oranges, the fruit, trigger the family’s argument.
At the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, Campion won the short film Palme d’Or for Peel, made when she was a student at AFTRS in 1982. The film was apparently poorly received at the time by her teachers. 1986 was a big year at Cannes for Campion. Along with Peel’s win, her telefeature Two Friends (1986) and two more of her AFTRS shorts, Passionless Moments (1983) and A Girl’s Own Story (1983), screened in Un Certain Regard. Jane Campion’s later, landmark Palme d’Or win for The Piano (1993), remains at the time of writing the only occasion on which a female director has received the award for a feature film.
Campion’s student films tend to sidestep, or experiment with, conventional cinematic narrative categories and Peel toys with both narrative and documentary form. The Pyes, including fashion designer Katie Pye, are a real family and the opening credits announce 'a true story’ – but the action is staged.
These student works are enjoyable both as standalone films and as a retrospective insight into Campion’s early experimentation with the medium. They show the emergence of narrative and stylistic interests that she would develop through many of her later features. Peel shares a dry wit and a surreal visualisation of the ordinary with Sweetie (1989) and Passionless Moments (1983). In addition it shares an interest in the dynamics and powerplays of human relationships, both familial and romantic, seen in many of Campion’s later works, including Sweetie (1989), The Piano (1993) and A Girl’s Own Story (1983).
Campion completed degrees in anthropology and fine arts before attending film school and US Academic Kathleen McHugh has drawn attention to the influence of ethnography and surrealist art on Campion’s work. In Peel we see a direct manifestation of the two. The opening credits lay out the family relationship in an anthropological diagram (see clip one) and the film concerns itself, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, with plotting the nuances of this family dynamic. It does this through an at-times surreal visual and narrative focus on even the most mundane of details and moments, with particular emphasis on similarities and parallels.
Peel’s cinematographer was another AFTRS student, Sally Bongers, who later worked with Campion on A Girl’s Own Story (1983) and Sweetie (1989). These films share a similar visual sensibility. Each makes beautiful the ordinary and the drab through strikingly graphic compositions, visual matching and extremes of focus and framing.
"This was my first film. I knew these people who all had red hair and were part of the family. They were also alike in character, extreme and stubborn. Their drive in the country begins an intrigue of awesome belligerence.”
In 1982, Jane Campion asked her friend Katie Pye to portray a version of herself in a short family drama she’d written called “Peel.” The screenplay peeled away appearances and showed the Pye family’s angry relationships with each other. Katie and her brother Tim laughed when they read it. “Yes, that’s us,” they told her.
At twenty-eight, Campion was a remarkably self-assured film student in Sydney; she’d already traveled through Europe and earned separate bachelor’s degrees in anthropology and painting. “As a young filmmaker, I was particularly committed to what was nasty, what isn’t spoken about in life,” she said. She admired Luis Buñuel and Australian director Peter Weir (“Picnic at Hanging Rock”) for his “sense of mystique, a depth, another layer. It’s good to work beyond what you know consciously. I do that,” she added.
“Peel” derives much of its power from being unafraid to upset us. Campion throws us into the middle of a particularly unattractive family spat, where the atmosphere is tense and aggressive; but we’re hooked by the prospect of something terrible happening: an accident, perhaps, or the characteristic violence of a dysfunctional family.
Her willingness to look nastiness straight in the eye is partly why “Peel” rankled its viewers. “The people at the AFTS [Australian Film and Television School] loathed ‘Peel’ when they saw a first cut of it. They told me not to bother finishing it.” The criticism hurt, but spurred her to cut the film down to its barest essentials. The result, “An Exercise in Discipline: Peel” ended up winning the Palme d'Or for Best Short Film at Cannes in 1986.
The film starts with an incessant pounding and the words “AN EXERCISE IN DISCIPLINE” – a cryptic statement that poses as many questions as it answers. We are propelled forward, into split-second cuts of traffic rushing by and roadside signs registered from a vehicle traveling at dangerous speeds. Pounding, ‘exercise,’ ‘discipline,’ unsafe traffic, the title “Peel,” – jumbled audiovisual elements calculated to put us on edge. A triangular diagram clarifies – or confuses? – the relationships of the people we’re about to meet:
Observed (and not studied) only momentarily in the course of the narrative, the use of two titles for each character creates a sense of incestuous uneasiness, as though the brother and sister were also mother and father.
With the sound of radio stations being searched and the Doppler-effect whizzing of cars rushing by, Tim Pye is at the wheel, his son Ben beside him, pounding an orange against the windshield. Katie, Tim’s sister, is in the back seat, upset, speaking to the back of Tim’s head. The car space feels too small for the Pyes. Point-of-view camera perspectives place us deep in the psyche, and physical space, of each of these family members, as though we too, both issue and absorb the brunt of their psychological domestic abuse.
Violence. Tim grabs Ben’s hair and yanks his head back. The car screeches to a halt; Ben isn’t wearing a seatbelt and nearly smashes his head against the windshield. “Get out!” Tim says directly to the camera. But orange peel is organic waste; why should it matter that Ben throws it out on the country highway? “You throw ice cream out!” Ben tells his father. Doesn’t matter. Orders must be followed; balance of power maintained. Meanwhile, there’s an insurrection in the back seat: Katie blames Tim for their being late to their engagement. “Shit! You said we’d be back by five,” she says. “Jesus, you make me mad. I never would have come if I thought we’d be later than five.”
When Ben stands – Tiananmen Square-style – in front of the car, daring his father to do his worst, and aims and hurls the orange at the windshield, Tim is quick to anger; for a split second we feel his impulse to violence, his unconscious wish to run the boy over. He revs the engine, inches the car forward. “Can’t you just whip him? That’d be quicker,” Katie says. Instead, Tim jumps out of the car and chases Ben down the road.
Why does Campion make a point to show Katie crouched down in the field, swatting flies, rear end exposed as she urinates? What feels like a deliberate provocation of the audience is perhaps Campion reminding us of our own animal state, the primitive origins of the family unit. She may be underlining the sordid nature of the family drama playing out, urine, warts and all; asserting that events will be recounted, that the truth of this family, possibly all families, will be told.
Seated in the passenger seat next to Tim, cars scream loudly past them, mocking their stasis and threatening their safety. Tim checks the rearview mirror; Ben is completely out of sight. “Why the fuck did you send him off!” Katie says. Her vehement use of the word “fuck” is a patent shock to us. Is it because this is a narrative that features a child actor, or because the person hurling the vicious expletive is an adult woman attacking her adult brother for his poor parenting skills? Guilty, Tim exits, but takes the keys with him, thereby turning off the radio and punishing Katie for her reproach. “Well fuck you, can’t you leave the keys! What do you think I’m gonna do!” she shouts after him. As he saunters off, Katie gets out of the car, hands on her hips, and hollers after him, “YOU FUCKING PIG!!!” Everything that is wrong with this family (and by extension, many families) is present in this moment, this line, and this tit-for-tat exchange. Only a family can contain such poisonous rage between its members; even war is a less intensely personal form of conflict. In the fading shadow of the Feminist movement of the late 1970’s, “fucking pig” says a lot about how Katie feels toward her brother and the male/female power dynamic that binds them.
As Tim runs back along the road to find Ben, he looks down: the ground is littered with trash. Ben is crouched over, prostrate, forehead to the highway’s gravelly shoulder as cars continue to speed loudly by; it feels terribly dangerous. (Why he is in this position isn’t clear; it may simply be a psychologically astute conjecture of what a child of around ten might do in the circumstance. It may also signal Ben’s submission to his father’s authority.) Ben reveals to his father that he’s reconstituted nearly the entire orange peel and offers him the hollow shell. Tim lightens ups and walks back to the car carrying Ben on his shoulders, dancing all the way.
They arrive at the car to find Katie has been peeling an orange and dropped the peel on the ground. Now Tim feels obliged to face off with Katie; he orders her to pick up the peel. She ignores him. Campion shoots this is a profiled close up, the ultimate snub. Ben emulates his father and also orders his aunt to pick the peels up. The younger male has teamed up with the pack leader to discipline an errant female, even one considerably older than him.
The story ends with this stalemate. But it’s not the end of the film. After slapping the peeled orange from her hands, Ben invasively inspects Katie; he shunts his head and cocks it in front of her face. We see Katie’s eyes, nose and mouth, all in extreme close ups. It is disquietingly intimate.
Making his way to the Tim who is sitting on car’s back bumper, Ben inspects him as well, in the same series of too-close close ups. The soundtrack hums with a sharp tone. Bens shakes his father, as though to break the spell. It doesn’t work.
Sensing a complete breakdown of authority and the family structure, Ben is free to do as he pleases. The opportunity makes him unruly; he scrambles up to the roof of the car and uses it as a trampoline. Neither adult moves. The final shots of Ben jumping on the car, with Katie in the passenger’s seat and Tim sat on the bumper are shot from the objective view of cars racing past them on the road.
Discipline is an exercise of power; Campion’s “Exercise in Discipline” vividly illustrates Tim’s thwarted effort to exercise his power over his family.
Jane Campion: memory, motif and music Geraldine Bloustien from Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture, vol. 5 no 2, edited by Adrian Martin (1990)
Nick-Davis.com: Favorite Films: Peel: An Exercise in Discipline #35 on list of favorite films, from Nick’s Flick Picks
Antagony & Ecstasy: JANE CAMPION: BEGINNINGS Timothy Brayton
Peel (Jane Campion) on Vimeo (8:34)
PASSIONLESS MOMENTS B- 80
Jane Campion: Interviews - Page 30 - Google Books Result Michel Ciment interview from Positif magazine, May 17, 1989
It was the result of a collaboration with one of my friends, Gerard Lee. It was his idea at the beginning and we wrote and directed the film together. Once we had the frame of the film — a series of playlets —, we tried to imagine the maximum number of stories that would be told with a certain ironic distance. We finally wrote ten of them. Gerard and I wanted to show sweet, ordinary people that you rarely see on the screen and who have more charm than better known actors. The film was shot in five days, two episodes per day. I was responsible for the photography and I realized the benefit of film school where in two hours I learned how to light and to exploit the possibilities of the camera.
A voice says, “There are 1,000,000 moments in your neighborhood; each has a fragile presence which fades almost as it forms.” Campion’s graduate diploma student film, co-written and co-directed by Gerald Lee, who had a brief romance with the director during film school, becoming a treatise on boredom, or drifting time, reflected by small innocuous moments that have little if any meaning, including reveries and daydreams that seem to go nowhere, yet comprise so much of our random time on earth, where as the saying goes, we forgot more than we ever knew. Narrated in a dry, emotionless voice, somewhat in the Greenaway tradition, recalling Buñuel’s travelogue-style narration in LAND WITHOUT BREAD (1932), only without the depictions of misery and degradation, shot in Black and White, the film captures ten moments, each titled, offering slight satiric information on each sequence, all happening on the same day, reflecting a kind of wry humor, yet none rise to the level of even being remotely interesting, however, that seems to be the point. We aren’t always our most captivating and wittiest versions of ourselves, as oftentimes we do the most ordinary things, where this film perfectly captures the things that people do when nobody else is in the room, especially out of sight from everyone else, where we are perhaps at our dullest expression when no one else is watching, as what this film amounts to is mental nose picking.
Co-written and co-directed by Campion's boyfriend Gerald Lee, Passionless Moments consists of ten vignettes, accompanied by a pompous BBC-style narrator, in which various characters have individual moments of strange epiphany (or non-epiphany) in their mundane lives. Some critics have remarked on the influence of David Lynch on Campion's early work--an influence which she openly acknowledges--and it's especially evident here. The film won an award for Best Experimental Film at the 1984 Australian Film Awards.
Jane Campion's "Passionless Moments" is a short film containing ten short films. More than being simply short, they are tiny. The film deals with nonsense that goes through one's mind that no one dares share when asked "what are you thinking about". It's really a wonderful concept for a short film, and the result is a funny, touching piece of work. It would be impossible to pick a favorite bit, and truthfully it would do a disservice to the film itself to try and express the actual occurrences in each mini-short. It might be worth noting that Gerard Lee was indicated in the credits as ex-director. Perhaps that's why the finished product has far more visible passion than the sketches themselves, which comes straight from the filmmaker's chair.
A remarkable first short film by a student (or fresh out of film
school) - as much for the script as anything else. I happened to see it on TV
as a teenager and then made various other people watch it too when I spotted it
coming round again.
The film simply shows a series of short quirky moments in people's everyday lives. For example, a man stretches his arm as he wanders out of his house, and this gesture is mistaken by a neighbour who thinks he's waving at him.
Quirky moments such as these have since become the stuff of observational comedy, except that the ones depicted here are so small that they would pass quite unnoticed if not isolated and commented on by this film.
Continuing the splintered framing and behavioral observation of Peel, Passionless Moments shows how our attention focuses in and out constantly. Repetitive sounds, double-take glances and sudden bursts of memory cause people to randomly meditate and fixate on things they do not particularly care about but try to solve anyway. Campion then adds her focal aestheticism to the mix by messing with focal lengths to demonstrate how one's attention is always settling on one thing at the expense of the other, and that the vacillation between foci is random and, as the title lets on, passionless. Though Campion's next short would firmly align with a feminist perspective, it is this film's presentation of her minute detail as merely a series of shots she finds interesting at the moment until something else catches her eye, demystifying her approach even as she only furthers her mastery of the form. Though it's a step down from the fully contained bewilderment of Peel, Passionless Moments is no less vital in understanding Campion as a filmmaker. In fact, given how much more accessible it is, it mght be a better starting point.
Passionless Moments is a lighthearted series of vignettes sharing people’s fleeting thoughts. Jane Campion combines a serious documentary style with a whimsical look at the small moments people experience everyday.
This short film reveals a beautiful oddness in mundane situations. In a 1989 Positif interview with Michael Ciment, Jane Campion explained that she and co-writer Gerard Lee 'wanted to show sweet ordinary people that you rarely see on the screen and who have more charm than better known actors’. The film has a witty, detached ironic tone and a surreal focus on the ordinary detail of lives in suburbia. It plays with narrative point of view, suspending the audience between dispassionate observation and an intimate awareness of the characters’ subjective states.
Campion playfully borrows from the documentary genre. The full opening title reads 'Passionless Moments recorded in Sydney, Australia, Sunday October 2nd’. An authoritative sounding BBC ethnographer-style narrator uses phrases like ‘the filmmakers discovered …’ to suggest that the film is observational. This notion is beautifully absurd, as the narrator coolly reports on the characters’ interior monologues and unspoken, incidental thoughts. Nor is the camera simply observational, doing things like hiding under beds and illustrating what the characters see and think.
Passionless Moments won a 1984 AFI Award for Best Experimental Film. It was part of the group of films that marked Campion’s breakthrough at the Cannes Film Festival in 1986, screening in the Un Certain Regard section alongside A Girl’s Own Story (1983) and her ABC telemovie Two Friends (1986). In the same year An Exercise in Discipline: Peel (1982) won the Palme d’Or for Best Short Film.
Antagony & Ecstasy: JANE CAMPION: BEGINNINGS Timothy Brayton
"Ex-directed" by co-writer Gerard Lee, Campion's second
student short is exactly what it says on the label: a series of tiny film-lets
within an already slight 15-minute running time. Each of those tinier films is
about one incident happening to one person on a certain day (October 2, 1982,
in Melbourne, if my memory serves; but I didn't take notes, and part of the
film's purpose is to show that those details which it provides at the start are
completely meaningless). Each incident is given its own modestly amusing title,
with the action narrated by an uncredited man, who I assume is likely Lee.
If "Passionless Moments" suffers in comparison to "Peel", it is for one predominant reason: the earlier film made a point of giving us nothing to work on besides individual pieces of fact, while the latter presents its theme unambiguously in both the title and the concluding narration (which observes that a million moments like these happen and die unobserved every day). The point is that at some point, hundreds of times, we all have a moment of realisation or speculation, something when our mind drifts out from under our direct control and just works over a problem that we weren't even aware we cared about. These moments of reflection are "passionless" because we really don't care about them enough to commit them to memory or follow these ideas to any conclusion; and yet, life is made up of virtually nothing but such moments.
Two films in, and it becomes clear that one of Campion's chief points of interest as a filmmaker is behavioral minutiae; by which I mean, she observes characters performing unexplained actions that are natural to them, and only "significant" because it is those moments that we in the audience are watching. If that's what connects "Peel" with "Passionless Moments", I think it's worth pointing out that this is the overall theme of "Passionless Moments" itself.
Visually, however, the two films are mostly distinct. Where "Peel" is in full, evocative color, "Passionless Moments" is in high-contrast black and white, full of lingering shots and very few cuts, although for that reason every cut that occurs is given the force of an atomic bomb. The chief relationship between the two, and I do think it's significant, is that she shows in both of them pieces of things, rather than whole things. There's one mini-story in the latter film that showcases this idea: a man sits on the bed, ignoring his lover, while trying to figure out why you can only focus on one plane at a time. The film then cuts to a POV shot of his thumb going out of focus while the back wall comes into focus. This idea that there will always be something you can't notice, at the exclusion of noticing something else - you can't be in more than one place at one time, taken to its ultimate extension - is perhaps the key unifying force between the two films. If you're looking at this, it is necessary that you are not looking at that. "Passionless Moments" serves to memorialise that fact while nothing, with some ironic melancholy, that even this lasts for such a brief duration that it does very little good to look at it in the first place.
Jane Campion: memory, motif and music Geraldine Bloustien from Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture, vol. 5 no 2, edited by Adrian Martin (1990)
Passionless Moments on Vimeo (11:08)
A GIRL’S OWN STORY A 96
In this film I put together ideas about girlhood. I wanted to tell a few stories from those years, where family is strange, adulthood lonely, innocence perverse.
A gorgeously stark and eerie Black and White film that looks at the complicated lives of a group of girls, the intensity of their feelings, and their growing interest in sex and its consequences. Originally screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, Campion is back with Sally Bonger as her cinematographer, taking an acute interest in subjectivity, accented by extreme angles and framing, where it’s actually shot on 16mm much like a German Expressionist film, providing a refreshing look back at the 60’s and the Beatlemania craze, beautifully capturing the group mentality and quirky mannerisms of teen girls, a depiction of the passions and innocence of three young teenage girls, flooded with hormones and sexual images, yet it also shows how easily young girls are violated.
Opening with close-ups of girl’s faces, to the music box sounds of the love theme from DR. ZHIVAGO (1965), recalling a similar look in Cassavetes’ Faces (1968), the film begins with a medical book diagram of an erect penis, with the curiosity of girls using their fingers exploring the outline of the male anatomy, with the following inscription underneath: THIS SIGHT MAY SHOCK YOUNG GIRLS. With shrieking girls caught up in the hysteria of Beatlemania, three girls in identical school uniforms face the camera, using tennis rackets as guitars, innocently singing the Beatles song “I Should Have Known Better,” A Girl's Own Story (1983) clip 1 on ASO ... - Australian Screen (3:08), showing girls wearing Bobby socks dancing the twist before the nuns at Catholic school run them off. With the central character Pam (Gabrielle Shornegg) narrating her inner thoughts throughout, we enter her bedroom, lined with Barbie dolls, which is a shrine to the Beatles, where she and her school friend Stella (Geraldine Haywood) kiss photos of their heroes pasted to the walls before practicing on each other, with one wearing a Beatles mask, supposedly preparing for kissing boys. Dinner is a surreal experience in her home, as her mother suffers from depression, where Pam curiously tends to side with her father and blame her mother for her illness, even though her father (Paul Chubb) refuses to talk to her, but relays messages to his wife through his daughter, some overly personalized, which tends to erupt in an explosion of frayed nerves, while her father acts like nothing happened.
Elsewhere, another brother and sister are home alone and up to their old antics, Gloria (Marina Knight) and Graeme (John Godden), first seen behaving like dogs, then turning to seductive cats, where it’s easy to see these two are used to venturing into inappropriate territory, playing sex games with each other when their parents are away. But as her brother, all he can offer is sex without love, where she just lies still, like one of the dolls seen in the bedroom, as they don’t even kiss. In one of the strangest dream sequences, accompanied by a vividly provocative soundtrack, a young girl is walking down the street in boots and a raincoat, followed by a car that pulls up next to her, where the girl is transformed into Pam and back to a child again. The man in the car sounds like the voice of her father, holding a young kitten in his hands, drawing her attention, luring her into his car as they drive away. With the same music continuing into the next scene, Stella has turned on Pam, as they’re no longer friends, leaving her isolated and alone, but this time it’s Pam acting like nothing has happened, where in a locker room scene, surrounded by taunting girls, she’s surprised to learn Gloria is no longer in school, but is pregnant, sent away to a Catholic home for wayward girls. In a room with a crucifix looming on the wall, these girls commiserate with each other, while Graeme comes to visit, though this time it’s his turn to pretend like nothing has happened, yet Gloria is clearly showing signs of her pregnancy. Continuing on a theme of inappropriate male behavior, Pam’s Dad takes her out to dinner on her birthday, but brings along a girlfriend of his own, using the lame excuse that it’s a French restaurant and she can translate what’s on the menu. Later on, when his girlfriend calls his home, his wife freaks out, violently attacking her husband, who strangely starts kissing her instead, where the two retreat upstairs where they have sex in plain sight. Pam’s eyes follow their every move, exposed to something she probably shouldn’t see, where their sudden intimacy catches her off-guard.
At the end, over an image of a spinning ice-skater in white superimposed over a girl’s listless face, the three girls break out into song, “Feel the Cold,” expressing the feeling “I feel the cold/I feel the cold is here to stay/I feel the cold/I want to melt away.” (clip three, 3:11) Throughout the film there are images of space heaters, metaphors for the girls’ emotional isolation and a lack of human warmth, suggesting the world is a cold and unwelcoming place, with predatory men hanging around, lurking in the shadows, where the love and affection they crave is realized only in fantasies. The collective characterizations of these young girls reveal fresh insights, offering shades of the female experience rarely seen before, expressing a frank depiction of teenage sexual curiosity, but also the nightmarish places you could end up if you’re not careful, where it’s interesting that the Catholic church is not spared, exposed as the root of chauvinism in the Western world. It’s a non-traditional narrative, where the expressionist quality of the film is jarring to the senses, where the boldness of the film delights with cinematic flair, especially the play-acting of the girls, but on another level delves unsparingly into incest, voyeurism, infidelity, domestic violence, idolatry, and childish same sex experimentation. This is one of Campion’s most autobiographical offerings, as her mother suffered from depression, cleverly emphasizing isolation and awkwardness associated with that age, especially Pam’s inability to empathize with her mother’s illness, yet tends to accept her father’s philandering ways, revealing the anxieties associated with adolescent sex and family relationships. The music composed by fellow film student Alex Proyas is impressive, as it gloriously captures the dark mood of the film, filled with sudden departures into surreal and dreamlike moments, winning the 1984 Rouben Mamoulian Award at the Sydney Film Festival. Nicole Kidman admitted during an interview that at 14 she was cast as the lead in the film and turned it down because of her reluctance to kiss a girl and wear a shower cap.
Jane Campion's 1984 short film "A Girl's Own Story" is an overall stronger film than her previous work. It tells a far more cohesive story, has sharper camera work, and involves a better group of performers. It's tells an engaging story about a growing up a teenage girl in the 1960's with domestic squabbles, hormones and Beatlemania all running high. It is a very relate-able and moving film on many levels, and it impressively handles serious subject matter such as idolatry, infidelity, same sex experimentation, and incest. Unfortunately with a film that has so much going for it, the poor 1980's musical score and rather long ending keep it from being excellent.
A Girl's Own Story is the most ambitious and emotionally complex of Campion's short films. Set in the early Sixties, it focuses on Pam, a young adolescent who is caught in the middle of Beatlemania, sexual yearning, and a tense family life. The camerawork often suggests her subjective experience of the world; in particular, one sequence where she floats up the stairs recalls German Expressionist cinema or possibly experimental cinema such as Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). The film is also noteworthy for the frankness with which it handles the emotional consequences of molestation and incest. Already, we can see how Jane Campion's directorial vision will develop into the richly eccentric and disturbing worlds of Sweetie (1989), An Angel at My Table (1990), and The Piano (1993).
This short by Australian director Jane Campion, part of the Films of Jane Campion, explores the story of three girls through their progression of becoming women in the time when Beatlemania ruled and the sixties were in high gear.
The film follows three friends Pam, Stella, and Gloria as they transition from childhood to teenagedom. Initially the girls were able to bond over their love of a little band (the Beatles!!) but when puberty hit – their friendship took a hit also. Pam is trapped in a household with parents who fight all of the time, Stella matured faster than the others and became one of the “it” girls at school and Gloria finds herself pregnant (with her brothers child) and forced to leave school.
In a way the film accurately shows that akward stage in our lives (we all have them) where in certain aspects we feel grown up, but in many ways we are still children. Campion capitalizes on the mindset that when you are a teenager you realize that your family is sort of strange, adulthood can be really lonely, and innocence is perverse.
Jane Campion's work may be less openly confrontational than the
work of Catherine Breillat, but I find her style to be far more combative and
transgressive, particularly in her early work. Her fragmented, synecdochical
framing eventually blossomed into full-on paranoia and schizophrenia in Sweetie
and An Angel at My Table, respectively, but A Girl's Own Story,
the longest and admittedly weakest of Campion's early films, shows that style
being used to dive into the female perspective for the first time. A Girl's
Own Story opens with girls looking in a medical book at a drawing of an
erect penis, their hands curiously brushing along this 2D representation to get
a feel for the material. At last their hands move down along the drawn legs to
the bottom of the page, revealing a bit of text that warns "This sight may
shock young girls."
But if a penis is shocking to these young women, Campion suggests that is only because of its power over these physically changing girls. From Beatles reenactments that have other girls in a Catholic school shrieking in quasi-homosexual frenzy to a boyfriend who convinces one girl to have unprotected sex (leading to pregnancy) without the two even sharing a kiss, men hold power over these confused and suddenly sexually appealing women. One shot, in a clinic where pregnant teens meet, frames these women under one of those garishly graphic crucifixes, tacitly pointing out the religious root of chauvinism in the Western world. For the first time, a slight surrealism enters Campion's frame, a tone she would carry out in fullest extent in Sweetie: one girl's parents have stopped speaking to each other and use their daughter to pass messages between them, only to have rough sex in front of their children. Later, the father joins the ranks of the other men circling around these women like sharks. Campion doesn't force any of these shots, and for the first time Campion demonstrates her ability to completely bewilder and stun with such subtlety that the cognitive disruption always seems to hit just after the tone switches once more, only widening the confusion.
Wellington Film Society - A GIRL'S OWN STORY Jocelyn Robson and Beverley Zalcock
The inimitable decentred visual style that so distinguishes Sweetie (1989) can be seen in the
earlier Jane Campion film, A GIRL'S OWN
STORY. In both films, the cinematography of Sally Bongers seems to
capture visually the very texture of uncertainty and insecurity which is a
feature of Campion's narratives, most particularly through the techniques of
framing and composition. The lighting, decor and cinematic codes (camera angle,
distance and movement) are, in A GIRL'S
OWN STORY, perfectly attuned to the subject matter of the film which is
about a young girl growing up in a dysfunctional family. This is a family which
exudes repression... As a result, each family member inhabits her or his own
private world. The domestic space which they occupy becomes a strange and alien
place. The mother is virtually mute with depression, the father is in deep
denial and the sisters are hostile and prickly...
Areas that Campion explores in Sweetie are touched on almost as a dress rehearsal in A GIRL'S OWN STORY. Subjects such as sibling incest, child abuse, clinical depression and obsessiveness are the staples of Campion's films. The family is represented as a site of moral danger and thwarted emotion; in A GIRL'S OWN STORY, the atmosphere is conveyed through the motif of cold (absence of warmth), with heaters that are never switched on. Characters speak in non-sequiturs and desire is clearly a sin. The convent, to which a girl made pregnant by her brother while they were playing 'cats' retreats, is a cold, bleak and secret place; these are the consequences of a Christian morality based on the 'word-of-the-father' and the admonition "thou shalt not."
The girls' friendships are perhaps the only positive thing about the situation they find themselves in and there are some strange moments which are both moving and amusing. For example, in the opening sequence of the film, four girls (with tennis racquets for guitars) sing the Beatles' song 'I Should Have Known Better', so encapsulating, in one brilliant visual stroke, both the mood and period of the film. Later, two of the friends practise kissing, in a heterosexual role play, one playing the boy and wearing a George or Ringo paper mask, the other lying on the bed passively, playing the girl. The implicit critique here of gender roles and gender positioning within the nexus of the family is a central concern of Campion's and one that returns in her subsequent feature films.
A Girl's Own Story (Jane Campion, 1984) • Senses of Cinema Anton De Ionno, July 2010
Jane Campion has been a dominant force in world cinema for nearly two decades. Shot delicately in black-and-white, A Girl’s Own Story is an early short film that traces the stories of three suburban teenage girls (Pam, Gloria and Stella) in 1960’s Australia. It deals with the difficulties of burgeoning sexuality, incest, friendship and family against the backdrop of Beatlemania and an era that valued the isolating notions of purity and wholesomeness over honesty and acceptance.
The film progresses through a collection of events – some humorous and sweet, others troubling and complex – which culminate in the final sequence, an expressionistic musical number in which our protagonist Pam (Gabrielle Shornegg) is joined by Gloria (Marina Knight) and Stella (Geraldine Haywood) to perform a haunting song entitled “I Feel the Cold”. The motif of “cold” runs through the entire film, with recurring references to heaters as a way for Campion to play gently with the subtext that she explores in this final sequence.
The sequence begins with Pam ascending the staircase in her house, escaping the distressing behaviour of her parents below, who are absorbed in a lustful embrace following a heated argument. When Pam reaches the top of the stairs, she stands in a doorway, dressed in a loose white nightgown that billows in an unheard wind. She begins to sing the refrain “I feel the cold” while images of ice-skating are projected over her body. She is joined by Gloria and Stella, dressed in white singlets, all three girls standing in ominous darkness while they sing. The sequence continues with images of each girl eerily waving her hands in front of an offscreen heater, their eyes sad and lost. At one point, the choral refrain subsides whilst Pam performs (in voice-over) a spoken word interlude. In a hushed voice, she asks “Will I melt away?”. As Pam’s spoken words are uttered, we are presented with shots of a man’s hand running along Pam’s arms and legs inter-cut with tight close-ups of Pam’s face, wary and frightened, as her voice-over continues: “It feels cold, this warmth.” These images, together with Pam’s voice-over, stitch together the conceptual fabric of young female sexuality and Pam’s carnal fears that underpin this haunting moment. The sequence concludes with the girls seated next to small heaters on a tiled floor, while the final lyric (“I want melt away”) is repeated ominously.
In this evocative sequence, Campion explores (so beautifully) new ways in which to express her characters’ fears and isolation. This moment hints towards ideas and styles Campion will later develop and explore, like the graceful femininity of the ice-skating she revisits in In the Cut (2003) or the emotional isolation of women and the historical perspective she utilises in An Angel at My Table (1990), The Piano (1993) and The Portrait of a Lady (1996). In this moment, Campion also finds one of her earliest platforms for experimenting with expressionistic conventions of cinema like the chiaroscuro-style lighting of Ingmar Bergman, the inky suburban subconscious of David Lynch and Peter Weir’s haunting images of lost girls.
Campion’s body of work is characterised by audacious honesty and creative integrity. In the intimate sexuality, recurring motifs and embedded humour, tenderness and pathos of the closing sequence of A Girl’s Own Story, the viewer is touched by an exquisite moment that is the mark of a visually profound auteur.
Antagony & Ecstasy: JANE CAMPION: BEGINNINGS Timothy Brayton
Best Short Narrative Films of All Time Gerald Peary
A girl's own story on Vimeo (25:28) in English, subtitled in Spanish
TWO FRIENDS – made for TV A- 93
Australia (76 mi) 1986
She’s hardly a person anymore.
—Louise (Emma Coles), describing Kelly, her once inseparable best friend
Hard to believe this was made thirty years ago, yet this is an early, rarely-seen, first feature film by Jane Campion, screening at the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, originally made and broadcasted on Australian television in 1986, the same year CROCODILE DUNDEE rivalled TOP GUN for top grossing films of the year, Spike Lee made his first film SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT, Mike Tyson became the youngest world heavyweight champion ever at the age of 20, Philippe Petit audaciously walked a tightrope hastily strung between the two twin towers of the World Trade Center in the early morning hours high above New York City, Cory Aquino was elected President of the Philippines, the first female President in Asia, toppling the 21-year authoritarian rule of Ferdinand Marcos, where Time magazine named her “Woman of the Year,” but it was also the year the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff killing the crew of 7 astronauts, the worst disaster in the history of the American space program. An understated portrait of adolescence with complex and subtly developed relationships, a trademark of Campion’s defining works, the film portrays the decaying relationship between two 15-year old girls, the straight-laced Louise (Emma Coles) and her more rebellious, punk friend Kelly (Kris Bidenko). Focusing on small personal details contrasted against the authoritative influence of their parents, the story reflects the changing nature of their relationship, where the brilliance of the narrative is that it’s inventively told backwards, much like Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (Irréversible) (2002) and François Ozon’s 5 x 2 (2004), so as the film continues, they get younger, happier, and much closer together. The film wasn’t released in the United States until 1996, making critic Amy Taubin’s #6 film of the year, Amy Taubin's Top Ten Lists 1987-2005, yet it certainly exemplifies Campion’s typical fragmented structure, including language, which is often unintelligible at first and hard to follow, where the use of subtitles can be of considerable assistance to American audiences, while also presenting heroines that don’t conform to existing societal norms, often rebelling against male paternalism, where the childhood friends are mismatched, like the siblings in Sweetie (1989), yet the offbeat character of Kelly sets the precedent for the remarkable emotional range of mental disturbance expressed by Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon) in Campion’s next film.
Francois Ozon: Monsieur extreme | The Independent Jonathan Romney on Ozon’s film 5 x 2 from The Independent, March 12, 2005
Ozon was inspired by the realisation that he knew few people whose relationships had lasted more than five years. “I wanted to ask why people find it difficult to maintain a relationship for 10, 15 or 20 years, like our parents did. Because the story was about something ending, I wrote the end first. Then I realised that was the starting point.”
Telling the story in reverse order allowed Ozon to scatter clues to the marriage’s failure for us to collect backwards — like following a trail of pebbles in a forest, as he puts it. We’ve seen the reverse structure applied to the thriller (Memento) and, in Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible, to the po-faced contention that “time destroys everything”; Ozon brings a simpler, though no less caustic touch to the technique. He acknowledges two models in particular: Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal and Jane Campion’s 1986 TV film Two Friends. Otherwise, his key references in diagnosing the conjugal malaise are Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and Maurice Pialat’s Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble (We Won’t Grow Old Together); Ozon says he could easily have borrowed either title. “What I love about the Bergman film is that he conducts a sort of autopsy — he goes where it hurts.”
5 x 2 may be classical in tone, but it remains experimental in method. It was shot in reverse chronological order, and neither Ozon nor the actors knew where they were heading. He started by filming the first three sections, then stopped for four months to edit what he had and write the rest.
Written by Helen Garner, one of Australia’s greatest writers, showing enormous range in her work, utilizing what’s described as a savage honesty, where Australian literary critic Peter Craven writes that “Two Friends is arguably the most accomplished piece of screenwriting the country has seen and it is characterised by a total lack of condescension towards the teenage girls at its centre.” With an oblique, puzzling, and often abstract narrative at the outset, with characters that only slowly come into view, where a young girl’s funeral from an overdose draws together disparate forces, where the presence of punks in weird hairdo’s are hanging out alongside conservative establishment figures, each carefully avoiding the other, all contributing to a working class world of detachment and emotional discord. When we first meet the two girls, it’s in the past tense, as they are no longer friends and seem to be living entirely different lives, where Kelly’s name comes up in the form of friendly gossip, a girl that was once a fixture in their home, as suddenly the ears perk up for both Louise and her divorced mom Janet (Kris McQuade) who want to know all the details, which are decidedly slight, though rumors suggest she may be living a drug-addled life with friends in abandoned buildings. The funeral comes to represent the death of a close-knit relationship between two teenage girls, as the dire outcome foreshadows what possibly lies in store for Kelly. While Louise has a more supportive environment, she’s disciplined, conscientious, and self-aware, an obedient child that always makes sure she does her homework, while Kelly is a restless soul, rebellious and irresponsible, who impulsively can’t wait to stray into the world of sex, alcohol and drugs, often distancing herself from Louise in social circles, as she instead gravitates towards the boys. Campion has experiences of teenage girls cropping up throughout her films, as they are the formative years that have such a strong influence on the person they eventually become. Perhaps what draws these girls together initially is the shared experience of puberty, having a friend and ally to help you navigate your way through the social minefields. Unlike Louise, who has a relatively calm and unadventurous middle class life, Kelly’s home is an incendiary picture of working class discontent, with her mother (Debra May) remarrying an unsympathetic jerk named Malcolm (Peter Hehir), likely a former radical who is now disillusioned, whose self-righteous, authoritative manner and domineering presence controls their lives, never bothering to listen, but making judgments all the time, forcing others to live by his rules. As a result, Kelly spends plenty of sleepovers with Louise, where her less combative home is like a shelter from the storm.
As raw and graphic as Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001), Campion has a clever way of revealing the discord in the form of a letter Kelly sends to Louise on her birthday, where Kelly’s already left her home, living on the streets, where we hear Louise reading the contents, with her friend claiming “So far so good. I’m not yet a junkie or a prostitute.” But Louise grows distracted or loses interest and instead starts a mechanically repetitive piano lesson, where we hear Kelly’s voice continue reading the unfinished letter, yet can’t be heard over the clamor of the musical notes. This uncomfortable dissonance shows just how far they’ve grown apart. While much of the material is unveiled in a near documentary manner, it’s filled with ordinary moments where kids are being kids, seen gleefully going shopping or sprinting through the shopping malls, where every moment feels like an inspiration, while parents are always an awkward presence in their lives, where everything slows down and becomes dull to the senses, like something to be endured between the more exhilarating and ecstatic moments when kids simply run free. Each of the teenage girls seems to bring out something from the other, as they’re both obviously smart, where early on they both can’t wait to go to high school together, seen gabbing away in their drab school uniforms, where Kelly is every bit as smart as the more conventional Louise, but you’d never notice as she’s such a wild child. But Kelly’s dreams are obliterated by Malcolm, her stepfather, whose abusive treatment includes his refusal to allow her to go to the school of their choice, which is a school for gifted students that must pass an entrance exam. Claiming the school is reactionary and elitist (and it may be, but it also provides the most challenging student option), he infuriatedly expresses no wiggle room, where this turns out to be the single most drastic event that leads to their separation, as they end up at different schools. Moving backwards in time, the two become more and more alike, sharing the same dreams, as it seems the girls are inseparable, where Kelly is like a member of the family, with Campion shifting from social realism to more colorful fantasy sequences with the girls play acting their hopes and fears, using a variety of techniques, including speeding up the frames, using different film stocks, garish colors, animation, coloring within the frame, stop-motion photography, all of which add a jubilant spirit of childlike innocence and giddy exhilaration, a beautiful expression of childhood’s fleeting moments, yet it’s also a wonderful eruption of abstract cinematic expressionism. The tonal shift exerts its power on the viewers, causing a dizzying rush of euphoria, leaving the two in a freeze frame of unbridled joy, a celebratory moment when both have passed their entrance exams with the families gathered around drinking congratulatory champagne, capturing a remarkable moment where the future never looked brighter.
The first feature-length film from Jane Campion; made for TV, like An Angel at My Table, and still a little unpolished, it is nevertheless a remarkable picture. It's the story of two inseparable schoolmates, Kelly and Louise (Bidenko and Coles), and how over the course of ten months they become, in fact, separated. Campion's films are acutely personal and absolutely distinctive. They combine an oblique, detached point of view with startling human insight. She has the knack of invading private space by standing back; a sort of estranged intimacy. Here, she tells this very simple story (written by Helen Garner) in reverse. It begins in July, cuts back to February, to January, December, and finally October. The effect is puzzling at first, but stimulating, and it ends appropriately on a note of unforeseen poignancy.
Before Jane Campion began making lumbering big-budget films about mute pianists and Henry James heroines, she gained a well-deserved critical reputation for her complex character studies of troubled young women (Sweetie, An Angel At My Table). Two Friends, her 1986 debut, finally makes its video premiere, and it's one of the best examples of her early craft. It's the story of two young girls and their friendship's dissolution, told in a reverse chronology, from the last sputtering hope that the girls might reconcile to a dizzyingly happy moment in their lives nine months earlier. That's hardly a novel structure anymore, but Campion and screenwriter Helen Garner put it to surprisingly effective use here. Garner is smart enough to create a series of backwards episodes that focus on psychological continuity instead of plot threads; that's a choice that answers most of the important questions about who the characters are, while still leaving intriguing loose threads between episodes. And Campion is skillful enough to squeeze both realism and poignancy out of almost every scene with her strong ensemble of actors. Two Friends was originally produced for Australian television, presumably inexpensively, and although some restoration work has been conducted for its video release, the soundtrack is still far from ideal. Since this flaw is coupled with subtle dialogue spoken in Australian accents, some viewers may find Two Friends difficult to follow at times. But if you stick with it, it's well worth the effort.
THE FIRST FEATURE film by Jane Campion, director of The Piano, is scheduled to play this weekend at The Screening Room, and it's well worth taking a trip downtown to check it out. The 1986 film, Two Friends, has all the hallmarks of Campion's early work--it's subtle, offbeat and surprisingly funny, though the theme as a whole is one of sadness and loss.
Two Friends traces the friendship of two adolescent, Australian girls through several rocky months in their lives and relationship. Instead of progressing, the film follows the pattern of Pinter's Betrayal and tells the story by hopping backwards through time. At the beginning of the film, the friends Kelly (Kris Bidenko) and Louise (Emma Coles) couldn't seem more different. Louise is a rather straight-laced parochial schoolgirl concerned with getting her homework done; Kelly is a fuming punkette drop-out living on the beach with some guy. The two girls don't see each much of each other and their friendship seems to have broken down. Each time the story jumps back in time, we see a little bit of Kelly's dissolution undone until, at the end of the movie, she is as balanced and full of hope as Louise.
By moving back in time, Campion and Helen Garner, who wrote the screenplay, accentuate the sadness of Kelly's incremental loss of innocence. Sharper even than this loss is the sense that Kelly is being somehow broken by the adults around her, who refuse to notice she is clever and talented. Louise, by contrast, has much more supportive parents who worry about buying her a case for her French horn. One of the things that makes this film so good is how complex and layered the relationships between the characters are. Louise, for example, seems to feel guilty that her life is so much easier than Kelly's, and this drives the two even further apart.
Campion shows enormous sensitivity to the problems of girls in this film. Unlike American fantasy versions of female adolescence like Clueless, she takes the problems of girls very seriously, in a wider, social sense and also on a case-by-case basis. In other words, she treats them as whole people, complicated, worth watching, and not always agreeable. You practically have to see Two Friends to realize how rare this is, though Campion achieves a similar feat in Sweetie, and Anna Paquin's role in The Piano had something of this complexity about it too. At one point Kelly has been left alone at her father's house with one of his male friends, and for some reason she wanders into his room and curls up next to him in bed. The man begins making out with her; she responds for a minute, then jumps up and runs out into the street. It's a disturbing but perceptive depiction of a lonely adolescent girl testing out her new power of sexuality.
Campion achieves all this without much cinematic fanfare. In fact, her technique in Two Friends is fairly minimal, with mostly wide, stationary master shots. Campion seems more interested in the variety of human emotions in Two Friends than in telling a story in a conventionally cinematic way. Characters wander in and out of the frame at will, and it's pretty much up to the audience to decide which part of the story is significant. This is not the Jane Campion of The Piano; there's nothing operatic or overwrought about Two Friends. There are few beautiful, sweeping shots. Instead it's more reminiscent of her fabulous short Peel (which is out on videotape), a deadpan, uncannily funny little film about a family battling over a discarded orange rind.
The only problem with this technique is that without the lip-reading help of close-ups, it gets difficult at times to understand the Australian slang and accent of the girls, who nosh on "Vegemite" and describe undesirable boys as "daggy." Despite this, the performances of the young actors in this film are so natural, and Campion's style is so unadorned, that at times Two Friends begins to seem like a series of real-life vignettes, something almost unheard of in Hollywood movies. Bidenko, as the rebellious Kelly, is especially interesting to watch, not only because of her fine, low-key performance, but because she doesn't look like an actress at all. With her big legs, pink skin and unsympathetic face, she looks more like a bad-girl teen guest on Jenny Jones than someone who'd turn up on the silver screen. In such choices, Two Friends is always an unusual film.
Two Friends (1986) | PopMatters Elbert Ventura
The Auteurs: Jane Campion | Cinema Axis NinVoid99, September 30, 2013
Combustible Celluloid Review - Two Friends (1986), Helen Garner ... Jeffrey M. Anderson
The 10 Best Movies That Use Reverse Chronology « Taste of Cinema ... #5, Two Friends, Alexandra Gandra, December 26, 2014
Amy Taubin's Top Ten Lists 1987-2005 #6 in the year 1996
Two Friends - Boston Phoenix Peter Keough
Two Friends - Film Calendar - The Austin Chronicle Alison Macor
`Two Friends' Marks Turning Point For Girls, Director Campion ... Michael Wilmington from The Chicago Tribune
SWEETIE A 96
We had a tree in our yard with a palace in the branches. It was built for my sister and it had fairy lights that went on and off in a sequence. She was the princess; it was her tree; she wouldn’t let me up it. At night the darkness frightens me. Someone could be watching from behind them—someone who wishes you harm. I used to imagine the roots of that tree crawling, crawling right under the house, right under my bed. Maybe that’s why trees scare me. It’s like they have hidden powers.
— Kay (Karen Colsten), opening narration
It’s interesting to note that Jane Campion’s first feature premiered in competition at Cannes during the same year as the spat between Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Steven Soderbergh’s SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE, where Cannes Jury President Wim Wenders explained his controversial view that Mookie, the lead character in Lee’s film, did not act heroically, believing he did NOT do the right thing, so the film did not deserve to be recognized with an award. It generated all the headlines, as Lee’s film has had a profoundly greater effect on the cinematic and cultural landscape than Soderbergh’s film, the eventual winner of the Palme d’Or (1st Prize). Lost beneath the glare of the bright lights is this contemporary and curiously challenging film from Jane Campion, one of the more original first features on record, something of a head-spinning experience, a surrealist glimpse into family dysfunction where the sheer oddness of the experience touches a special nerve that will continue to enlighten us well into the future. Strong on visual style, performances, and comic originality, part of the appeal upon its release was the ambiguity associated with the ferociously individualistic character known as Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon), a mentally-challenged, behaviorally stunted character who is so out of control that her family is paralyzed and has no idea how to handle her, so instead her father Gordon (Jon Darling) spoils her, coddles her with compliments, and filling her full of illusions while treating her like a budding rock star, where she’s led to believe she’s talented and uniquely special, though there’s little evidence to support this. But as a result, Sweetie terrorizes her family by doing pretty much whatever she pleases, whenever she pleases, always wanting to be the center of attention, going into violent, emotionally disturbing tantrums when she can’t get her way, all of which has a tantalizing effect on everyone else. While she is the titular character, she’s not introduced until nearly a half-hour into the film, as instead the focus is on her more straight-laced sister Kay (Karen Colsten), an overly repressed woman that feels uncomfortable in her own skin, who seems to have spent her life trying to get out from underneath the shadow of her more domineering sister, but who certainly has her own unique peculiarities, among which includes a petrifying fear of tree roots, imagining them coming up through the concrete or under her bed while she sleeps, where subconsciously she literally appears threatened by the effects of her own family tree. At least initially, without seeing Sweetie, the audience hasn’t a clue what to make of this, but as events proceed, viewers get a much more intimate glimpse of the family dynamic, where Sweetie is so much more than just the black sheep of the family, continually restrained and mistreated, where the sad truth of the matter is that society even today hasn’t found an answer of what to do with emotionally volatile, yet developmentally arrested children who suffer from a wide-ranging condition known as pervasive developmental disorder.
While Campion films are always rich in characterization, which is why performances are always dramatically powerful and memorable, yet the off-putting and oblique angle of every single shot of the film is remarkable, where framing is perhaps the single most defining characteristic of the film, shot by Sally Bongers, a fellow student who became friends with the director at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in the early 80’s, and the first female cinematographer to shoot a 35-millimeter feature in Australia. At the time the film was released, many HATED the look of the film, including some at Cannes who booed the film, while others thought it ruined the movie as they couldn’t put people in the center of the frame, where it was subject to a lot of male aggression responding negatively to women finally expressing themselves differently. To a large extent, much of this happened at film school, where they were competing with guys that were attracted to spectacular shots and hogged all of the equipment, leaving the few female students to fend for themselves, having to discover a witty and more original way to tell the story. What’s perhaps most significant is that Campion and Bongers, like David Lynch, were graduates of prestigious art schools before they became filmmakers, where Campion was a painter, influenced by surrealist painter Frida Kahlo and sculptor Joseph Beuys, but felt limited by the medium, turning instead to cinema as an artform. While they also collaborated on two of Campion’s film shorts that were made during film school, the film is also informed by the writing skills of Gerard Lee, who they also met at film school, with Campion involved in a brief romance, becoming an Australian novelist who co-wrote and co-directed another earlier Campion short, while co-writing this film with Campion as well as one of her later works, 2013 Top Ten List #9 Top of the Lake. Yet it’s the look of the film that viewers must learn to navigate, where there is a complete lack of camera movement, an intentional awkwardness within the frame, always pushing people to the outer extensions of each shot, where the style itself creates an inner tension, beautifully edited, as is the trailer, Sweetie (1989) - Trailer (1:45), with a great sense of rhythm, accentuating the idiosyncracies in us all. Looking back over the years, it was this choice that identifies a cinematic originality, as it was actually an act of liberation to be so wildly different, where there was no one on the set to boss them around or tell them what to do, using a largely female crew, many of them first-timers, which was unheard of at the time, as they were instead free to be very intuitive and create the look they wanted. As a result, objects such as cracked concrete, carpets, curtains, and wallpaper are sometimes as important as the characters, as it keeps the focus within the frame.
It’s interesting that Campion had already written a first draft of THE PIANO (1993), but set it aside as she had the foresight to make this smaller, quirkier film first, feeling it was much more personal, and that a low-budget, more experimental style of filmmaking would be harder to get funding for later on, claiming she was influenced by the more intimate filmmaking styles of David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch, yet also Luis Buñuel and Australian director Peter Weir, especially their ability “to work beyond what you know consciously.” Opening to the sounds of Café of the Gate of Salvation, a white a cappella gospel choir from Sydney that sings in the black gospel tradition, a group that had never been recorded, but can be viewed on YouTube here 25th Anniversary Concert 5.11.11, yet they provide spiritual inspiration before the film even begins. The uniqueness of the sound, however, adds to the flavor of cinematic liberation, as this is a film that took the world by storm. The first sister we are introduced to is Kay, describing her unnatural fear of trees in the opening narration, so she relies upon superstition to help her understand the ways of love, where she visits a psychic that does tea readings, predicting a man with a question mark on his face will make a difference in her life. Soon enough, that man appears in the form of Louis (Tom Lycos, who according to Campion is the spitting image of Gerard Lee), who is already engaged to somebody else. That is no barrier to fate, however, as she meets him clandestinely in an underground parking lot where she seduces him with this strange idea that they were destined to be together, convincing him with the flip of a coin that persistently comes up tails. While he’s a sensitive and moody guy who thought he wanted a normal girlfriend, both of them have their own share of eccentricities, reflected by his love of meditation, and her rising anxiety, where one night she yanks a plant out of the ground by its roots, despite being planted in honor of their relationship, fearing some harm could come. Not knowing what else to do with it, she throws it under the bed, where immediately the couple starts having sex issues, deciding to sleep in separate bedrooms. The film jumps ahead 13 months. Perhaps the most Lynchian moment is when Kay attends a meditation class and continually interrupts, claiming it’s not working, but the instructor calmly and succinctly repeats the exact same instructions each and every time, like a prayer mantra. When they decide to make an appointment for sex, this turns into another absurd moment, beautifully framed with their heads cut off, where the magic just isn’t working, where they feel more like siblings than lovers, so they decide they’re just going through a non-sex phase. One of the fun moments of the film is the kid next door, Clayton (Andre Pataczek), a 5-year old who loves to shout from the back yard into Kay’s kitchen window, where they have to duck down to avoid being induced into playing with him, where he has all his toy cars lined up, ready to go. One of the classic moments of the film, viewed from the kitchen window, comes when he runs out of a tent and jumps into a tiny wading pool, like its all part of a spectacular circus act, where there’s a viewer impulse to break out into applause.
Coming home one night, they find the house broken into and loud music playing, where Sweetie’s entrance is like a bolt of lightning, an unbridled force of nature with no boundaries and no inhibitions, where Kay’s so embarrassed by her half-naked presence she doesn’t know how to describe her, initially telling Louis, “She’s a friend of mine. She’s a bit mental.” By morning, however, he discovers this is her sister, turning up with her boyfriend, Bob (Michael Lake), supposedly her agent, ready to sign her at the first opportunity, but really he’s just some junkie amused by the show she continually puts on. Having to explain herself, Kay indicates, “She was just born — I don’t have anything to do with her.” One of the challenges of the film was finding the right actress to play Sweetie, where they didn’t want her to be perceived as threatening or overly aggressive, but she couldn’t have modesty issues. Campion had previously seen Genevieve Lemon perform onstage without a stitch of clothes on, while in this film her sexually indulgent behavior and constant need for attention reveals a character that is amoral, incredibly inappropriate, and knows no limits, unbounded in every way, given a rebellious Goth and punk look. She’s charming and adorable most of the time, and always interesting, but she’s a wild child who loves playing with Clayton next door, as they are both mentally about the same age. Kay, on the other hand, sulks in her presence, as she’s the sensible sister, tidy and well-organized, where Sweetie is a moving tornado who has a way of breaking things, including Kay’s favorite objects, a set of porcelain figurines of horses set in various poses, where she gives each of them a name, like Thunder, Blaze, and Blaze’s mother, Gypsy. They are like alter-egos of her repressed interior world, suggestive of the Tennessee Williams play The Glass Menagerie, where the brooding sister witnesses them get smashed to pieces, ending up in Sweetie’s mouth when she sheepishly tries to hide the evidence. This incident mirrors a moment when Louis discovers the dead plant under their bed, feeling betrayed by his own, supposedly lucid wife. Sweetie’s innocence (and the film’s) is her greatest appeal, as she’s just a big kid that never grows up. When Gordon, her Dad arrives, having no place left to go, as he’s just been left by his wife Flo (Dorothy Barry), leaving him a week’s worth of prepared dinners on the way out, where they have no life together, as she’s tired of her husband always giving in to Sweetie, where she has him wrapped around her finger, so she disappears for a while, heading into the outlying territory. Having never established boundaries with his daughter, the most inappropriate scene of the film has Sweetie actually bathing her father in the tub, and probably not for the first time, which is suggestive to some of an incestual relationship, a view that surprised Campion, as that was not her intent, though it may rationally explain the family dynamic. Yet the real beauty of the film is that the inappropriate behavior is never explained, remaining ambiguous throughout. Like a kinetic force that never stops, Sweetie grows more and more out of control, testing the limits of everyone’s patience, with the family caught in a state of inertia, where they decide to take a road trip to visit Flo, but cruelly and deceptively leave Sweetie behind.
With music playing in the car as they head for the outback, Schnell Fenster :: Whisper  (3:48), getting out into the open countryside is familiar territory in Jane Campion films, revealing the redemptive power of nature, as Flo is living with the jackaroos (young Australian cowboys), working as their cook, where this entire segment feels utterly surrealistic. Finding his wife surrounded by a multitude of young men at a dude ranch, it’s all too much for Gordon, who storms off in a huff, taking the car to pout alone, yet the others are immediately welcomed, where it’s like being stranded at a Foreign Legion outpost in a Claire Denis film, made a decade before Beau Travail (1999), where the film turns into a fantasia of cowboy paradise and infinite happiness, where there are no problems to be found, with handsome, well-groomed cowboys dancing with one another, or with chairs, as they grab Kay as a likely partner, with Flo breaking out into song, beautifully singing a gorgeous country ballad, There’s a Love that Waits for You, where there’s a feeling of romance wafting in the breeze, away from the stress of the world, that even greets Gordon as he graciously returns, eagerly dancing with his wife, as the jackaroos seem to be having a therapeutic effect on their marriage, with terrific music by Martin Armiger. On the drive back home, Gordon has another spell of regret, torn by their deceitful actions towards Sweetie, where he’s stymied by the idea they can’t all get along, stuck in his own delusion, which seems to be the curse they all have to bear, as Sweetie remains a walking time bomb that at any second can go off. By the time they get back home, with relationships seemingly reconciled, all is not as it seems, as Sweetie goes off the deep end again, this time with tragic consequences, stripped naked in her treehouse along with 5-year old Clayton (who curiously asked in person if she was really a grown-up), in full view of the neighbors, as she refuses to listen to reason and come down, where the dreams and the fantasy collide with reality in an instantaneous thud, a sad and regretful moment, a fall from grace, as they are simply unable to move her out of the spotlight, forever remaining the center of attention, even after she’s gone, with Kay finding her broken figurines meticulously reconstructed, with some obvious parts still missing. But there is no more haunting moment than a memory of Sweetie as a young girl all decked out in a cute little pink sparkle outfit singing a song, "Sweetie"song YouTube (1:17), an innocent plea for love from her father as if summoned from the grave, and a reminder of what she could never obtain, being accepted for who she was. As powerful and unique as this film may be, so much is still left off the screen and out of the film, where there are open spaces that make it sometimes feel more alienating and distant, as if set in a kind of detached coldness, offering a feeling as if characters are continually under a microscope being scientifically observed, where the entire film becomes a lost memory, like a photograph, retaining a quiet innocence that through the passing of the years is hard to find. It’s curious that Campion, who is actually a quite sunny person (displaying a flair for laughter, claiming it is never inappropriate), is drawn to making films of such tragedy, where her mother who suffers from depression attempted suicide near the end of shooting this film, with her sister forced to look after her full-time, allowing Campion time to complete the last ten days of shooting. As a result, the film is dedicated to her sister. But it’s apparent to Campion that illnesses are real, as they have a tragic effect on families, where the open ended, non-judgmental attitude of the film has an enormous impact on families dealing with a similar situation. Despite Campion’s growth as a filmmaker and the accolades she’s received, this daring early work arguably remains her best film.
Sweetie | Chicago Reader Jonathan Rosenbaum
Those lucky enough to have seen Jane Campion's eccentric and engaging shorts had reason to expect her first feature to be a breakthrough for the Australian cinema. But nothing prepared one for the freshness and weirdness of this 1989 black comedy about two sisters (Genevieve Lemon and Karen Colston) locked in a deadly struggle. Practically every shot is unorthodox, unexpected, and poetically right, and the swerves of the plot are simultaneously smooth, logical, and so bizarre you'll probably wind up pondering them days later. The mad behavior of both sisters may make you squirm, and there are plenty of other things in this picture—including the other characters—to make you feel unbalanced, but Campion does so many beautiful, funny, and surprising things with our disquiet that you're likely to come out of this movie seeing the world quite differently. In short, this is definitely not to be missed. With Tom Lycos, Jon Darling, Dorothy Barry, and Michael Lake.
Both of Campion’s theatrical features are bold expressionist works about female sexual desire that make free and idiosyncratic use of central metaphors — though here their similarities end, and it will be interesting to see whether Campion’s next feature, an adaptation of Henry James’s A Portrait of a Lady, bears any relationship at all to this pattern. In Sweetie, the principal drama is between two antagonistic sisters — one of them sexually repressed and neurotic, the other completely uninhibited and psychotic — and the central metaphor is trees. Though a couple of trees actually figure in the plot, Campion mainly uses trees as a poetic organizing image in the consciousness of Kay, the neurotic sister, who narrates the film: she gets us to think about family trees, planted and uprooted lives, unseen depths and giddy elevations, blooming versus dying, and various forms of encroachments and entanglements.
Kay (Colston) fears darkness and the secret, stifling power of
plants; her teenage sister Dawn (Lemon) is crazy, throwing tantrums at all and
sundry, and dreaming, unrealistically, of stardom. When the latter and her
bombed-out boyfriend (
New Season Opens with Jane Campion’s Sweetie in 35mm Rebecca Hall from Chicago Northwest Film Society
The first feature film by director Jane Campion, Sweetie is the story of a family “falling apart like a wet paper bag.” On the advice of a tea-leaf reading psychic, Kay (Karen Colston) steals her presumed soul mate from the arms of a coworker. Soon Kay and Louis (Tom Lycos) are living the suburban dream outside Sydney, Australia, working nameless jobs and watching their sex life disappear into the candy-colored linoleum. Enter Dawn, a.k.a. Sweetie (Geneviève Lemon), Kay’s feral, sexually charged sister, and let the hair pulling and destruction of all things beloved commence. Perhaps Campion’s funniest film (with the exception of the unfairly maligned Holy Smoke!), Sweetie is a fever dream occupied by needy, selfish children being literally (thanks to cinematographer Sally Bongers) and figuratively backed into corners. Released four years before Campion became the first (and only, as of 2016) female filmmaker to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes (for The Piano), it contains both the poetry and depravity that can be traced throughout her later work. Always ready and willing to treat seemingly mad and irrational characters with deadly sincerity, Campion makes no exception for neurotic, tree-fearing Kay, as we watch her demons made flesh in the film’s final scenes.
Jane Campion's feature debut focuses on the lives of a dysfunctional family set against a backdrop of ordinary suburbia. Kay livens up an otherwise dull existence with an unhealthy interest in superstition. She pursues and wins the heart of Louis on the basis of a tea-leaf prediction., and they consequently move in together; sharing the same "spiritual plane".
The spell is broken when Kay tears out Louis' newly planted tree; relations start to rot as Kay changes overnight to an emotional and sexual invalid. Enter Sweetie, Kay's mentally ill sister. Arriving. out of the blue one night Sweetie suffers the deluded conviction that with Bob, her producer-cum-lover, she will "walk through doors" into the world of entertainment. She exults in her new-found freedom away from the family nest, whilst Kay refuses to entertain the notion of letting her stay, convinced that she is a "dark spirit" and thus the scene is set for conflict between two sibling opposites. Into this chaotic spectacle walks Dad, suffering woefully with the separation from his frustated wife who has gone into the bush to find herself amongst the jackaroos.
Sweetie is notable for the use of bizarre wide-angle shots in enclosed spaces, combined with lurid set colours - these contribute to the angst and tension within the family unit. The contrast of incongruous people, situations and events with ostensibly mundane environment hints at something more corrupt and sinister underlying the suburban dream.
CINE-FILE: Cine-List - CINE-FILE Chicago Kathleen Sachs
English Romantic poet John Keats, who's the subject of Jane Campion’s 2009 film BRIGHT STAR, once described a phenomenon he called “Negative Capability” as being “when a man is capable of... uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” It’s no wonder, then, that Campion was drawn to Keats’ story, as that very philosophy likewise sums up the appeal and justifies the inscrutability of Campion’s motley oeuvre. Her first true feature, SWEETIE, is perhaps most emblematic of this concept, both as it applies to the subject of the film itself and its place within her output; it’s at once Campion’s most idiosyncratic feature and still a perfect example of her enigmatically alluring style, though it doubtless has more in common with her film school shorts than the more mature features that followed. Filmed in Australia from a script cowritten by Campion, SWEETIE is mostly about Kay, a shy and superstitious woman whose neuroses take the form of a toy horse collection and an elegiac fear of trees. She enters into a relationship with her coworker Louis at the beginning of the film, more or less stealing him from his fiancé after discovering that he fits a description given by a suburban fortune-teller. Thirteen months later, just as their sex life has stalled, Kay’s sister, from whom the film takes its name, comes to visit. Sweetie is everything Kay is not: brash, impulsive, shameless, and impetuously sexual. Their parents are similarly bizarre—their father coddled Sweetie at the expense of his marriage, and their mother, averse to Sweetie as she may be, is more like her wilder daughter than she thinks. This summary, however, is deceptively straightforward; just as it is difficult to describe a Keats poem, or an experimental film, it’s tough—and perhaps pointless—to blithely summarize any of Campion’s work. One might in fact describe SWEETIE as being experimental, it’s rather conventional themes deconstructed by Campion’s auteurist inclinations and cinematographer Sally Bongers’ singular aesthetic. The latter element is best characterized as quirky, a label that’s taken for granted in this era of contrived capriciousness. Similarly to how the motifs that span Campion’s filmography often go unexplained—engagement, for example, factors into several of her films—SWEETIE’s distinct visual style persists without explanation. Her fixation on female psychosexuality is less apparent in the film, however, though what focus there is on it is certainly reflective of Campion’s unique viewpoint on the subject. (Female sexuality is not just a throughline in her career, but also the subject towards which her “negative capability” is most applicable. In other words, it’s the “unknown known,” to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, that drives her art.) SWEETIE might not be her best film, or even her most experimental (IN THE CUT is the frontrunner for that distinction), but it could be her most mysterious in execution as well as intent.
In "Sweetie," Jane Campion's unsettlingly original, macabrely funny first film, the camera seems to capture its images from never-before-seen angles. Everything in the universe Campion has created is just slightly off-kilter, as if the Earth had positioned itself awkwardly beneath your feet. The film's subject is family life, but voices seem to call down from the flowers on the wallpaper, and every crack in the sidewalk threatens danger. It's about family life as Kafka might have viewed it.
From its opening shots on, the film unfolds a mood of enveloping peculiarity. In essence, "Sweetie" is a horror movie; it's about the horror of having relatives who crowd in, wear your clothes, occupy your guest room and, without the slightest urging, attach their lives to yours.
Deeper down, though, there's another layer, and this is where Campion is happiest. She likes it when family turbulence is repressed and springs out in freaky new shapes. Campion's style isn't articulate; it's based, in fact, on inexpressiveness, on the thoughts that get tangled up and don't quite work themselves to the surface. Her jokes, too, hit you upside the head, like Freudian snowballs zinging in from nowhere.
The movie is slow to bring its own themes to the surface (it never fully does), busying itself instead with laying out its shadowy, suggestive atmosphere. The first section introduces us to a bony Australian named Kay (Karen Colston), who wears her dark hair in bangs that drop like a curtain just above her brow. Peeking out from underneath are a pair of huge, panicky eyes that appear to be on perpetual alert for signs of some invisible menace.
When we first see her, Kay is lounging on her bed above a floral-printed carpet, and the way Campion has shot it, the image might seem idyllic -- a sort of dreamy transcendence on a leafy bank of clouds -- if, on the soundtrack, she weren't talking about the hidden powers of trees and how, as a little girl, she was afraid that the big ones outside her house had sinister designs and were growing their roots out under the house to get her.
Campion, who comes from Australia, develops the film narrative according to its own dark, neurotic logic. After a visit to a fortuneteller who tells her she is to encounter a man "with a question mark on his face," Kay meets Louis (Tom Lycos), whose front forelock curls down to a mole on his forehead. Having decided that fate has played its hand, the couple immediately set up house, where things go along well enough until Louis plants a scraggly baby arbor in the back yard, rekindling Kay's childhood tree terrors.
The sapling, of course, cannot be allowed to survive, and there's an eerie hilarity in the way Kay yanks it out of the ground in the middle of the night and appears, ever so subtly, to strangle the life out of it. This "death" signals the end of the couple's sex life. Claiming that she has a cold, Kay moves into the room across the hall. But even after the cold has vanished she can't bring herself to move back. And though neither of them is particularly happy about it, every night, just before hitting the hay, the couple kiss good night, like brother and sister, and lock the doors to their separate bedrooms.
At this stage, with the arrival of Kay's sister, Dawn (Genevieve Lemon), the movie shifts gears. Nicknamed "Sweetie," Dawn is a well-upholstered nightmare with dyed jet-black hair, black fingernails and cradle-born dreams of a glamorous show-biz life. Materializing out of thin air with her boyfriend-producer, Bob (Michael Lake), an upright slug who's either a junkie or a narcoleptic, Sweetie seems to have only one purpose in life and that is to set Kay's teeth on edge. At first, Kay won't even claim her as family. "I didn't have anything to do with her. She was just ... born."
Like a child star gone to hideous seed, Sweetie is the most wholly unsympathetic screen creation since Dennis Hopper's Frank in "Blue Velvet." And while watching her, we're aware that Campion is intentionally taking us to the edge of revulsion, daring us to push her character away. Still, even after Gordon (Jon Darling), the girls' father, arrives, all forlorn because his wife has left him to work out West for a bunch of cowboys, and we see how sickly manipulative the family relationships are, our disgust becomes more complicated but perhaps even more urgent.
As skilled a creator of otherworldly moods as Campion is, "Sweetie" doesn't have much narrative drive, and I found it vastly more compelling in the beginning, when Kay was center stage, than after the destabilizing arrival of her sister.
Still, I loved the way Campion and cinematographer Sally Bongers make the natural and the unnatural (human) landscapes appear lush and supersaturated with color, but at the same time barren, minimalist. Also, a scene in which the jackaroos dance a dusty sunset waltz in the cowboy camp has an almost serene eccentricity. The images imprint themselves instantly into your memory. In making her first film, Campion has done thrillingly atmospheric work, and in the process, established herself as perhaps the most perversely gifted young filmmaker to rise up in years.
Sweetie: Jane Campion’s Experiment Criterion essay by Dana Polan, October 23, 2006
On the Road With Jane Campion video, September 30, 2009
Three Reasons: Sweetie video, May 24, 2011
12 Great Parting Shots photo gallery, July 16, 2012
More than Meets the Eye: The Mediation of Affects in Jane Campion's ... Sue Gillett from Senses of Cinema, December 5, 1999
Jane Campion • Great Director profile • Senses of Cinema Fincina Hopgood, October 2002
A Major Talent [on SWEETIE] | Jonathan Rosenbaum March 30, 1990
Sweetie | Foolish Human James Harmon
Antagony & Ecstasy: JANE CAMPION: SWEETIE (1989) Tim Brayton
Sweetie | Cinelogue Matthew Mesaros, May 18, 2011
Michigan Quarterly Review|First Films: Jane Campion's “Sweetie” Eric McDowell from the Michigan Quarterly Review
Sweetie (Jane Campion) - Film Reviews - No Ripcord Gary Collins
The Auteurs: Jane Campion | Cinema Axis NinVoid99, September 30, 2013
Sweetie | Blu-ray Review | Slant Magazine Genn Heath
Women's Pictures - Jane Campion's Sweetie - Blog - The Film ... Nathaniel Rogers from The Film Experience
DVD Times Gary Couzens
50 Essential Feminist Films – Flavorwire Sweetie #9
Sweetie rewatched – Jane Campion's beautifully strange film debut ... Luke Buckmaster from The Guardian
MOVIE REVIEW : Family Unsettlingly Under Siege in 'Sweetie' From Australia Sheila Benson from The LA Times
'Sweetie': A Second Look - latimes Dennis Lim
Movie Review - - Film Festival;; 'Sweetie,' a Wry Comedy By New ... The New York Times
AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE – made for TV A 96
My brave spirit!
Who was so firm, so constant, that this coil
Would not infect his reason?
Not a soul
But felt the fever of the mad and play'd
Some tricks of desperation.
—Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 1 Scene 2, 1611 The Tempest - Page 397 - Google Books Result
Originally made as a three-part television series, Campion was initially reluctant to let it be released theatrically, eventually winning a handful of awards (seven) at the Venice Film Festival in 1990, yet this is one of the better biopic cinematic experiences, told in three parts, covering all three in a trilogy of autobiographical volumes by New Zealand writer Janet Frame, To the Is-land (1982), An Angel at My Table (1984), and The Envoy from Mirror City (1985), and a film that defiantly probes underneath the surface of the lead female character. Given a more modernistic context in that the film, a collection of various fragments in her life, leads to a wholistic overall view, as the life of Janet Frame literally materializes before our eyes, filled with literary passages and extraordinarily subjective insight, where the film is a profoundly revelatory work that expresses something close to the depths of the writer’s soul. Reminiscent of an earlier portrayal of Hollywood actress Frances Farmer in Jessica Lange’s brilliant portrayal in FRANCES (1982), both women spent years confined to institutions for perceived mental health issues with a condition that was believed to be incurable, subject to electric shock treatments and targeted for a recommended lobotomy, which, viewed in historical hindsight, is one of the cruelest and most destructive medical procedures mankind ever invented, yet both of these women came frightfully close to having the procedure. It was her intimacy of the psychological terrors inflicted on patients during extensive hospital treatment that led the young artist to examine her life so closely, finding language for the darkest recesses of her imagination, exposing what amounts to hidden secrets to the world through an obsession with the healing power of literature. Arguably New Zealand’s most distinguished author, Campion, a fellow New Zealander, fills the screen with indelible images of her own homeland while scrutinizing Frame’s life with methodical precision. With a screenplay by Laura Jones, who also wrote the adaptation of the Henry James novel in Campion’s later film with Nicole Kidman in THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY (1996), this film also has one of the best uses of music by Don McGlashan which couldn’t be more perfectly integrated throughout, creating a fragile, sensory experience that is unique to films. But first and foremost is the character of Janet Frame, played by three different actresses, Karen Fergusson as a child, Alexia Keogh as an adolescent, and Kerry Fox as an adult, where Fox, so brilliant in Patrice Chéreau’s INTIMACY (2001), offers the performance of her career in her very first role, yet another unique discovery by Campion, criminally overlooked by the Academy Awards, as she was not even nominated, yet unlike the character of Sweetie, whose fierce individuality may have been too toxic for some, Frame’s vulnerability invites the audience in, allowing us to feel her social anxiety, hiding recognizable fears and anxieties with an uncomfortable smile, caught out of sorts, like a deer in the headlights, almost entirely with looks and gestures, barely uttering a word, as she suffers from extreme sensitivity and acute shyness, offering an inner narration as a window to her soul where she becomes socially isolated at college, “Too shy to mix, too scared to enter the Union building, I was more and more alone, and my only romance was in poetry and literature.”
The author of twelve novels, three short story collections, one children’s book, two books of poetry (one published posthumously), and three volumes of autobiography, Frame grew up in the South Island of New Zealand in dire poverty, the second daughter in a family of four girls and a boy, where her father was a railroad engineer, and though he kept his job during the depression years of the 1930’s, the family had little money to spare. In the opening moments viewers are introduced to a young girl with an explosion of red/orange hair, like the Little Orphan Annie comic strip character, where it feels like a satiric reference to Campion’s first film short, AN EXERCISE IN DISCIPLINE — PEEL (1982), where all three characters have bright red hair, yet there are none of the skewed angles and experimental shots on display here, instead it’s shot by Stuart Dryburgh in a much more conventional manner, featuring remarkable landscapes, where humans are dwarfed by green fields and the grandiosity of the land, made to resemble smaller creatures. Deprived of material possessions, there are many family songs in Janet’s childhood that recur later in the film as familiar musical motifs, such as “Duncan Gray,” a Scottish folk song heard throughout, an angel at my table YouTube (31 seconds), yet they play a role early on in contributing to family unity, as Janet seems content with her warm and loving family. Perhaps starved for friendship, she steals money to treat her classmates to gum, yet ends up being branded a thief, made to stand in front of the blackboard with her back to the class in utter humiliation, which becomes a personal catastrophe, especially when she’s separated from the rest of the class and placed with several obviously disabled kids. Scorned and humiliated, perhaps this is a hint of what’s to come. With four sisters to a single bed, seen amusingly practicing shifting together, all turning simultaneously, Janet has a close relationship with her sisters, reading vociferously, comparing her family to the Brontë sisters, while her brother developed epileptic seizures and was regularly beaten by her father. Meeting a friend outside the family was a revelation, a neighbor girl named Poppy, where the two playfully re-enacted various abuses they witnessed, violent fathers and puritanically strict teachers, An Angel at my table YouTube (4:02), yet the curious way the children are filmed feels almost magical, holding our spellbound interest with intoxicating musical selections, yet perhaps their closeness aroused fear in their parents, as Janet’s father forbid them from seeing one another again. Often framed in long walks down a lonely highway or through sheep-ridden acres of farmland, her awkwardness increased during puberty, becoming embarrassed by her unruly red hair and her decayed teeth. Things only got worse when her eldest sister Myrtle drowned in a local swimming pool, an event that was preceded by happy events, as the family took photographs on a family holiday, yet when looking at them afterwards, the view of Myrtle was blurred, where she is strangely missing from view, like an ominous omen announcing her fate.
But it wasn’t until Janet went off to college at the University of Dunedin, studying to be a teacher, that she found it painfully shy to interact with the other girls, afraid to enter the student common room, instead taking refuge in spending her time alone in her room, immersing herself in a world of imagination and literature in order to escape from reality, writing poems and short stories, many of which were published in school publications. Her sister Isabel joined her at school, yet they were eventually forced to separate, leading to an existential moment, “So this is how it was, face to face with the future, living apart from Isabel, pretending that I was not alone, and that teaching is what I’d longed to do all my life.” Astoundingly, her sister Isabel drowned shortly thereafter, creating yet another inexplicable personal loss. When the day arrived that she should finally stand before a group of young students as their teacher, with an administrator observing from the back of the classroom, she froze, once again standing with her back to the class, mirroring a childhood incident, where the camera’s focus is suddenly on the piece of chalk in her hand, as if time has stopped, yet the class becomes restless and uneasy, where she’s forced to excuse herself, leading to the most wondrous scene of the film, where the exquisite music of Kathleen Ferrier sings Schubert’s “An die Musik” an angel at my table YouTube (3:38), her favorite composer, as Janet runs away with tears streaming down her face, unable to contain herself, finding herself suddenly outside where she is filled with desperation and anxiety, having what amounts to a nervous breakdown, yet the transcendent voice of Ferrier, so quietly dramatic, registering such clarity, unmatched tonal richness, and emotional warmth, holds the screen. Frame’s interior world was collapsing, “I felt completely isolated. I knew no one to confide in, to get advice from; and there was nowhere I could go. What, in all the world, could I do to earn my living and still live as myself, as I knew myself to be. Temporary masks, I knew, had their place; everyone was wearing them, they were the human rage; but not masks cemented in place until the wearer could not breathe and was eventually suffocated.” It was her writing talent, however, that brought special attention to her personal life, as she acknowledges in one paper swallowing a handful of pills in what was probably a suicide attempt. It was this autobiographical observation that led one of her college professors to refer her for further psychiatric examinations where it’s revealed that she’s schizophrenic, perhaps the singlemost significant event in her life, as she spent the next eight years drowning in the as yet untold atrocities of the New Zealand mental institutions, including the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum. What follows is an immersion into personal nightmares and horrors, as she’s thrown in with more seriously disturbed patients with little to no education, who literally can’t control themselves, where patients were beaten for bedwetting, who scream and cry out all hours of the day and night, yet she’s dumped into their presence for what was described as “a period of rest.” Viewers immediately recognize the shocking indignity of suddenly descending into barbaric conditions, yet she was forced to receive more than 200 electric shock treatments, “each the equivalent, in degree of fear, to an execution.” One of the more ghoulish scenes of the film is a strange dance party taking place in the asylum, an unsettling moment that couldn’t feel more twisted.
Recalling in her autobiography, An Angel at My Table, An Angel at My Table: The Complete Autobiography:
The attitude of those in charge, who unfortunately wrote the reports and influenced the treatment, was that of reprimand and punishment, with certain forms of medical treatment being threatened as punishment for failure to ‘co-operate’ and where ‘not co-operate’ might mean a refusal to obey an order, say, to go to the doorless lavatories with six others and urinate in public while suffering verbal abuse by the nurse for being unwilling. ‘Too fussy are we? Well, Miss Educated, you’ll learn a thing or two here.
After eight years, with no signs of improvement, Frame was scheduled for a lobotomy, as even her mother was persuaded to sign the permission documents, as we see a group of patients wearing head wraps, presumably those that survived the operation, with orderlies helping them walk the grounds, but she was only spared the operation at the last minute when her doctor happened to read in the newspaper that she won a national prize, the Hubert Church Memorial Award, for her book of short stories, The Lagoon and Other Stories. Astonishingly, at the age of 29, Frame emerged from this episode with her sanity intact, writing “It is little wonder that I value writing as a way of life when it actually saved my life.” With the help of Frank Sargeson (Martyn Sanderson), a gay New Zealand writer of some repute and notoriety, he invited Frame to come live in a trailer on his grounds, allowing her to write in solitude, where she immediately set to work on Owls Do Cry, her first published novel in 1957, which surprised them both by being immediately published. Receiving a grant for her artistic work, she travels to London and Spain as a published author, yet her humility is at the heart of her appeal, described by Campion as “an unremarkable heroine who allowed people to experience their own vulnerability.” Through various travails, her reservation gets lost in the mail and she loses her luggage, among other things, yet she remains isolated, spending much of her time in her room, where the tone shifts from absurd comedy, especially in the form of Patrick (David Letch), a bigoted Irish tenant who tries to school her on the ways of the world, repeatedly asking if she’s “fancy-free,” still a virgin, thinking he’s being romantically protective, to the strangeness of the Spanish women who are forever scrubbing the floors and cleaning their building, surrounded by religious icons, while spreading gossip about this hopelessly “fallen” woman, to the inhibitions of free-wheeling 50’s tourists traveling through Europe, where she discovers her first love affair with an American history professor, taking a break from writing, where her passions are beautifully expressed by swimming nude in the open sea, but alas, he must return to America for the fall term once summer is over. While the film accentuates the romantic backdrop of a small, Spanish coastal town, it also addresses her very real fears when she’s left pregnant and alone, without the man ever knowing, where in an excruciatingly sad scene she loses the baby, adding a female dimension on the summer holiday that most films never explore. Elevated feelings of anxiety lead to a voluntary hospitalization in London, where she’s surprised to learn, “Finally it was discovered that I never suffered from schizophrenia. At first the truth seemed more terrifying than the lie. How could I now ask for help when there was nothing wrong with me?” What she was experiencing was the residual effects from the many years of electric shock treatments, as it takes years for the body to calm down afterwards. This stunning revelation of an earlier misdiagnosis seems to clear an open path for the rest of her life, where she was content to simply write. By the end of the film, she’s a notorious artist that the press wants to photograph and write stories about, a local celebrity when she returns to her hometown, and for a very brief moment, even dances the twist, An Angel At My Table End YouTube (2:14). It should be pointed out that Kerry Fox is simply phenomenal, onscreen for nearly every shot in the second half of the film, showing an emotional range that is quite simply breathtaking, where certainly part of Campion’s unique gift comes in her remarkable talent for casting. Sensitive and deeply moving, with only spare use of dialogue, this is a uniquely inventive character study that doubles as a living novel that develops before our eyes, something of a delight all the way through, where the uncredited music of a Schubert sonata, Alfred Brendel Schubert - Piano Sonata in B Flat Major, D. 960 Second Movement ... YouTube (9:38), plays throughout, heightening the gravity, as does that original folk theme played at the outset, An Angel At My Table (OST) by Don McGlashan on Spotify, adding a solemn grace to the outstanding artistry onscreen.
Monica Sullivan from Videohound’s Independent Film Guide:
Jane Campion’s AN ANGEL AT MY
TABLE began life as a three-part series on New Zealand television, which (dare
we say it?) is the best way to see this 157-minute movie. After all, it is based on three different
autobiographical novels by Janet Frame, To
Though adapted for television from three volumes of autobiography
An Angel at My Table Terrence Rafferty from the New Yorker (link lost)
Based on the autobiography of the
An Angel at My Table | Film Review | Slant Magazine Eric Henderson
Director Jane Campion initially conceived of her adaptation of poet/novelist Janet Frame’s series of autobiographies as a TV miniseries. Only into production did the New Zealand Film Commission suggest a theatrical release, apparently because the biopic is the singular genre that looks, feels, and acts like episodic television and still plays nominally well in movie theaters. An Angel at My Table, named from the volume of Frame’s memoirs that recounts her elongated residence in a psychiatric ward, is no doubt a heartfelt tribute to a soft-spoken, melancholic writer from a director who claims to cherish her work as being very important in her own development. And though it’s shackled to that unyielding, difficult narrative structure of most biopics, this quality also works to the film’s benefit as Frame’s life is unspooled with the same sort of scenes-as-brushstrokes impressionism of Im Kwon-taek’s Chihwaseon.
But whereas Chihwaseon becomes increasingly restless and elliptical as it goes on, culminating in one of the most poetic representations of an artist stepping into legend (via a kiln), An Angel at My Table begins at the height of Campion’s mottled isolationist whimsy—showing a baby Janet covering her face trying to deflect her approaching mother’s bosom, and then a credit card commercial panorama of the knobby-kneed pre-teen Forth against the rolling New Zealand landscape—and settles into the mundane chapter-and-book processional as it continues. Janet goes through her early childhood as an outcast at school. She’s from a poor family, has poor hygiene (later in her teens, she let her teeth rot brown), and when she offers her entire class chewing gum bought with money she stole from her father’s woolen pocket, her teacher reveals her thievery to the class who then sneers. To say nothing of the untamable patch of ginger cotton growing from her scalp, which remains a constant in her life as she moves from the university to the asylum to a successful writing career complete with grants to travel to Paris and Spain. Spanning over three decades, Frame is portrayed seamlessly by three different actresses (in order of age: Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, and, playing the adult Frame, Kerry Fox) whose remarkable resemblance to each other extends beyond their appearance and mannerisms. They pass the psychological baton and collectively sculpt a portrait of growth.
Campion’s knack for solitary yet paradoxically epic scope nibbles off Laura Jones’s bite-sized scene-sketches of loneliness and makes entire meals of them, swallowing cast and location up alike in an effort to centralize the three actresses playing Frame to the point that even the most major supporting characters (her older sister Myrtle in the film’s first hour, her American lover in Ibiza in the last) are delegated to the sidelines…which aren’t exactly as prodigious as they might be in a film conceived for the silver screen. In fact, with Frame’s wild crown of fuzz, the preponderance of close-ups turn the rectangular frame into an hourglass, suggesting (however inadvertently) the time she struggles to remember and catalogue in writing her own memoirs as well as the time she lost in a mental institution, the place where she no doubt lost some of those memories enduring no less than 200 odd electroshock treatments. Campion’s film comes up short, however, in never satisfactorily illustrating the importance or character of Frame’s writing, which, while lauded for its selflessness, can’t survive the director’s tightly honed individualist scrutiny without occasionally lapsing into solipsism.
Movie Review - Angel at My Table, An - eFilmCritic Dr. Isaksson
From the moment you set your eyes onto Jane Campion's "An
Angel at My Table" you are completely swallowed into the film's
overwhelming atmosphere. This is the film adaptation of renown
From the outset of 1990's An Angel At My Table, we are led into
the life of Janet Frame, visiting her as a child and seeing the goings on of
her large but close knit family. We watch as the young, frizzy haired Janet
discovers a life-long love for literature as steps awkwardly through the daily
hardships of poverty and family troubles. These early scenes are filmed with
such a childish honesty that you almost feel as if you are watching a
documentary and not an acted film. As she reaches her teenage years, Janet
Frame comes to a crossroad. She must become a teacher to make a living and in
doing so, finds trouble in discarding her dreams of being a writer. (That dream
being the strongest passion in her life.) As she reaches early adulthood,
Janet's (played by the brilliant Kerry Fox) unhappiness and crippling shyness
leads her down a path that noone could expect. So eager to trust others, Janet
Frame stumbles into a dark realm of misery and hardship almost too horrific to
describe. However, her years of suffering and uncertainy are just the beginning
of the amazing journey she is set to make. And as that new course of life
begins you realize that An Angel At My
Table isn't just going to show you a life incomplete, but a life of the
most unbelievable occurrences and of great joy and great accomplishment.
The most amazing aspect about An Angel At My Table is the uncompromising and heartfelt lead performance by Kerry Fox. When she is on the screen, she gives you Janet Frame, body, mind, heart and soul. I have rarely seen such impeccable acting in my life and feel all the more richer that I was given the chance to see Kerry Fox in all her glory. She is nothing short of a revelation. The other young women who portray Janet are almost equally great. Through her childhood years, Janet is played by a chubby little wonder named (Alexia Keough). Her face is charmingly captured by Jane Campion in an honest and no frills light that sets the film's truthful and strong beginning. As a teen Janet, the quality of acting continues as (Karen Fergusson) assumes the role. Amazingly, the actresses are so convincing and look so much alike that you can easily believe you are watching the same person.
As far as the look and feel of An Angel At My Table goes, Jane Campion's direction can be just as harsh and unbending as it is soft and beautifully stunning. She has an amazing knack for capturing the most unflinching scenes of human emotion and then can stun you with her jaw dropping shots of the glorious New Zealand landscapes. You KNOW full well that Campion truly loves her work and the subject she has taken the task to portray. The film is just brimming with love. The music score for the film by Don McGlashan is another absolutely gorgeous standout. Full of moody dark atmosphere as well as shining joy, McGlashan's music plays in your ear long after the film has ended. Wonderful!
For me to say that Kerry Fox and Jane Campion deserved Best Actress and Best Director Oscars for this film would be an understatement. They are FAR above the plastic praise Hollywood has to offer. Their work is a testament that truly great films can (and do) come in small, foreign packages.
It is almost impossible to go into elaborate details concerning An Angel At My Table becuase it is simply an all embracing look at a human's incredible life. Most surprising, in all this, as a viewer, you never lose sight of the film's ultimate aim. That even in the darkest hour, no matter what is stacked against you, one of the most glorious of all powers blessed inside the human frame is the unstoppable, unbreakable, spirit.
"An Angel At My Table" is simply a masterpiece. Showcasing one woman's journey through days of childish joy, fragile teenage uncertainty, harsh grown up reality, and ultimately the neverending quest for self-fulfillment.
An Angel at My Table: Alone, Naturally - The Criterion Collection Criterion essay by Amy Taubin, September 19, 2005
Angel from the Mirror City: Jane Campion's Janet Frame • Senses of ... Sue Gillett from Senses of Cinema, November 2000
borderland through the work of Janet Frame a Writing in the
Margins, Exploring the Borderland in the Work of Janet Frame and Jane Campion, 18-page essay by
Anna Ball (
"Jane Campion's An Angel at My Table: As National, as Adaptation, as ... 5-page essay by David Callahan, 2002 (pdf)
Not Just Movies: An Angel at My Table Jake Cole, March 15, 2010
Antagony & Ecstasy: JANE CAMPION: AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE (1990) Timothy Brayton
An Angel At My Table | Foolish Human James Harmon, June 20, 2012
Nick's Flick Picks review of An Angel at My Table Nick Davis, February 1999
An Angel at My Table - Jane Campion - HOME Rachel Hatfield from Rachel Is a Critic
Women Writers on Film: "An Angel At My Table" 1990, Jane Campion Frances Hatherley, July 8. 2012
Bechdel Test Canon: An Angel At My Table | Bitch Media Alyx Vesey, January 25, 2012
Of Love and Other Demons: 'An Angel at My Table' (Jane Campion ... Justine A. Smith from Vague Visages, June 23, 2016
An Angel At My Table - TCM.com Margarita Landazuri
Women's Pictures - Jane Campion's An Angel at my Table - The Film ... Nathaniel Rogers from The Film Experience
An Angel at My Table - TCM.com Glenn Erickson, Criterion Collection, also seen here: An Angel at My Table : DVD Talk Review of the DVD Video
dOc DVD Review: An Angel at My Table (1989) - digitallyOBSESSED! Jeff Ullmer, Criterion Collection
"Let's Not Talk About Movies": An Angel At My Table June 10, 2009
Jane Campion recalls her encounters with Janet Frame | Books | The ... Jane Campion from The Guardian, January 19, 2008
Siskel & Ebert (video)
Review/Film - 3 Novels Are Adapted For 'Angel at My Table' - NYTimes ... Vincent Canby, also seen here: NYT review - The New York Times
An Angel @ My Blog Janet Frame website
"Janet Frame, 79, Writer Who Explored Madness" Obituary by Douglas Martin from The New York Times, January 30, 2004
Obituary: Janet Frame | Books | The Guardian Michael King, January 30, 2004
Janet Frame - Telegraph Janet Frame obituary, January 30, 2004
A survivor against the odds—noted New Zealand writer Janet Frame ... Margaret Rees obituary from The World Socialist Web Site, March 2, 2004
Gavin Highly - The New Yorker Janet Frame short story, April 5, 2010
THE PIANO A- 94
There is a silence where hath been no sound,
There is a silence where no sound may be,
In the cold grave—under the deep deep sea.
—first three lines of Silence, poem by Thomas Hood that both opens and closes the film, February, 1823, Silence by Thomas Hood | Poetry Foundation
There’s something to be said for silence. With time, I’m sure she’ll become affectionate.
—Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill)
A shared winner of the Palme d’Or (First prize) at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, with Ken Kaige’s FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE, Holly Hunter also won the Best Actress Award at the festival. The following year the film won three Academy Awards, Best Actress for Hunter, Best Supporting Actress for Anna Paquin, who at the age of 11 was the second youngest to win an Oscar, after Tatum O’Neil, who was ten, and Best Original Screenplay for writer/director Jane Campion. It is the most critically acclaimed of Campion’s films, the one that put her on the international map, as most only saw her earlier films “after” seeing THE PIANO. Campion began writing this film just after film school, setting it aside for her other films, creating a fairy tale for adults, a mythological study that examines how women’s voices were silenced during the Victorian era, where once again, the brilliance of Campion’s casting is nothing less than astonishing. Holly Hunter stunned the world with her muted performance as Ada McGrath, whose inner narrative speaks her thoughts briefly only at the beginning and end, “The voice you hear is not my speaking voice, but my mind’s voice,” remaining completely silent in between, where the fierce, individualistic power of her performance is utterly captivating, frantically using sign language or facial expressions to emphatically get her point across. Hunter fought for the role, beating out Isabelle Huppert, of all people, who claims it’s one of the regrets of her life not getting that role. Now it’s hard to imagine anyone else as Ada, as Hunter turned it into the most significant role of her lifetime, and will forever be associated with this remarkable film.
I have not spoken since I was six years old. Lord knows why. Not even me. My father says it is a dark talent, and the day I take it into my head to stop breathing will be my last. Today he married me to a man I’ve not yet met. Soon, my daughter and I shall join him in his own country. My husband says my muteness does not bother him. He writes, and hark this, “God loves dumb creatures, so why not I!” ‘Twere good he had God’s patience, for silence affects everyone in the end. The strange thing is, I don’t think myself silent—that is, because of my piano. I will miss it on the journey.
Honestly, as far as accessibility, this may be one of Campion’s most conventional efforts, but it’s so confoundingly different that it still mesmerizes audiences and critics alike for its sheer originality. Otherworldly, ethereal, with a melancholic musical score by Michael Nyman, the film is guided by a line of dialogue late in the film describing Ada’s improvisatory piano playing (all played by Holly Hunter, by the way), claiming it’s different than what they’re used to hearing, normally utilizing sheet music, no doubt written by men, where Aunt Morag (Kerry Walker) suggests, “Her playing is strange, like a mood that passes through you.” There may be no better explanation for this film. An expression of repressed passion and sexuality, the film is set in the Gothic romanticism of the 1850’s and Emily Brontë, a time when the repression of women was standard, as they simply had no rights to speak of, opening with a blurred shot through Ada’s fingers, where the lines of her fingers resemble prison bars and are emblematic of the imprisoned life she leads, yet with no explanation, she’s shipped off halfway across the world from Scotland to New Zealand to be sold as a mail-order bride in an unknown country to a man she’s never met, bringing along her two most prized possessions, her young daughter Flora (Anna Paquin, utterly remarkable in the role) and her piano. Arriving to the shore from a heaving ocean that swells with volcanic force, their belongings are collected on the shoreline, but there is no one to meet them, as they are dropped off on their own, but we quickly learn this is no damsel in distress story, as the seamen ask if they wish to be transported to the nearest town, with Ada replying with emphatic hand gestures, while Flora accentuates her sarcasm, replying, “She says no. She says she’d rather be boiled alive by natives than get back in your stinkin’ tub!” The seaman looks ready to slap the youngster for indignation, but Ada quickly places herself in front, showing a spirited defiance right from the start. It also establishes Flora as her mother’s mouthpiece, as she’s a highly skilled communicator, including facial expressions, though prone to exaggerations of her own, especially any questions concerning her father, who the viewer learns virtually nothing about from the film, instead she makes up exotic stories that seem to please her instead. With nowhere else to go, the two spend a cold night on the beach, using the wire frame of her hoop skirt as a tent for shelter from the elements. With Victorian artifacts stranded on the beach, along with their elaborately decorative clothing, we see how out of place they are in the wilderness of New Zealand, where the setting is a place where two differing worlds collide.
The next morning, Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill, always clumsy and a bit awkward in his own skin) arrives out of the harshness of the wilds with a team of Māori tribesmen to help transport the young bride and all her belongings, where Stewart is an oddly shy and humorless man that his Māori helpers teasingly refer to as “old dry balls,” but they haven’t enough men to haul the piano, which they leave on the beach, despite the objections from Ada, who would rather they bring the piano than all of their clothes. Despite the fact she brought this all the way from Scotland, so it must have some significance, Stewart dismisses her request, claiming it is unreasonable, which is the first sign he’s an insensitive tyrant. The piano is everything to Ada, who uses it as a means to express herself, while being removed from it leaves her distraught, as one of the most haunting images is a shot of Ada standing high up on a grassy bluff overlooking the brown sand and grey water of the beach where far off in the distance, the piano lies abandoned in the surf, where the one object that defines her entire identity has been left to the elements. As they trek through the forests, their pathway is traversing through endless mud, as there are no roads leading into this new world, where land crossings are strenuously difficult. The dark and bleak weather sets an ominous tone for what follows, as they are pelted by torrents of rain throughout their journey, arriving finally in Stewart’s home, where he lives with his Aunt Morag (Kerry Walker) and her helper Nessie, Genevieve Lemon from Sweetie (1989), along with a few female Māori servants. Before they have time to rest, they jump back out into the downpour of rain to get married, including a wedding photograph, none of which looks remotely like anything resembling wedding bliss. On the contrary, their relationship is difficult at best, with Ada and Flora mostly keeping to themselves, ignoring Stewart, who sleeps in separate quarters, though Stewart is not sure what he’s purchased, observing Ada play the piano on an ordinary table, thinking she might be a bit touched in the head. When he leaves to take care of business, Ada and Flora immediately set out to the home of George Baines (Harvey Keitel, one of the more surprising roles of his career), an uneducated white man who has reportedly “gone native,” a former whaler who now lives among the Māori tribesmen, speaking both languages, with Māori markings on his face, working for Stewart as his work foreman. He initially refuses their request to collect the piano, but they sit silently outside his door until he reconsiders. When he agrees to take them to the beach, he’s surprised by the elation on her face when she plays, conveying emotions that convince him this is her missing voice, as it’s clearly a surreal moment, as this element of Western civilization simply doesn’t exist in the savage wilds, yet he agrees to swap 80 acres of land with Stewart for the rights to the piano, so long as Ada teaches him how to play. Stewart, of course, pounces on the opportunity, as the English colonizers to New Zealand were largely land grabbers. Thinking only of his own interests, he agrees to the deal without even consulting Ada, as after all, it would give her a chance to play. Ada, on the other hand, is insulted by the deal, as without question the piano is rightfully hers, but in this patriarchal society, women have no rights, so the piano goes to Baines, along with agreed upon lessons. This imbalance is at the heart of the film.
Jane Campion: I think that it’s a strange heritage that I have as a pakeha New Zealander, and I wanted to be in a position to touch or explore that. In contrast to the original people in New Zealand, the Māori people, who have such an attachment to history, we seem to have no history, or at least not the same tradition. This makes you start to ask, “Well, who are my ancestors?” My ancestors are English colonizers — the people who came out like Ada and Stewart and Baines.
While it’s a bit like Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), situated in a bleak natural environment where people are used to living in the mud and the rain, struggling to bring some semblance of civilization to the wilderness, in this case the European culture they left behind, there’s a curious example of this in a Christmas pageant staged that brings together the young and old, including Flora who wear’s angel’s wings, yet included in their presentation is a retelling of the French fairy tale Bluebeard, where a frighteningly ugly nobleman marries a series of beautiful women that all mysteriously disappear. When his next young female subject explores his luxurious estate, she’s curious what’s behind a locked door, discovering the missing corpses of his former brides, with their heads hanging from a hook. About to make her the next victim, told in shadows behind an illuminated curtain, he raises an axe to her head, where the Māori men watching this become highly agitated, with one of them leaping from his seat to attack Bluebeard, causing immediate panic in the room. This amusing scene recalls the origins of cinema when The Lumière Brothers in 1895 showed “Arrival of a Train” to similarly panicked audiences who jumped out of the way, thinking they would be run over by the train. It’s interesting how this play within a play comments on the final outcome of the film. What Campion has done is pit opposite forces against one another, as the sexually repressed Victorian era of the Europeans enter the realm of the Māori indigenous peoples, who are much more comfortable with expressing themselves sexually, often seen telling sexually provocative jokes, never covering up their entire bodies with clothing, showing a lack of inhibition, as they don’t shy away from a more healthy attitude about their bodies. While one can see evidence of colonial exploitation in the way Stewart is a white landowner, where Ada is an extension of his property, always accumulating more and more land that used to belong to the natives, using indigenous labor as his hired help, one time attempting to pay them with useless buttons, a sign of his arrogance, yet the film is subject to racist accusations, as the film is about the featured European whites, and doesn’t really explore the Māori culture or native people except to show them as uneducated simpletons, sitting around in their idle time playing games or telling jokes, never once viewed as individuals, though one shows homosexual tendencies, immediately chastised by an older Māori woman, claiming, “Balls were wasted on you,” while another time Flora is playing a sexually suggestive game with other native kids, but is scolded by Stewart and instructed never to do that again, as natives are considered ignorant and amoral, where the film does play into perceived dualities, whites and natives, educated and ignorant, civilized and savage, sexually restrained and sexually promiscuous, moral and amoral. While the blue-green look of the film is beautifully captured by the cinematography of Stuart Dryburgh, who also filmed An Angel at My Table (1990), eschewing artificial light, it accentuates a mythical wildness of the land, cultivating a stereotypical view of treating natives as natural exotics, much like Tarzan of the jungle, or King Kong (1933), where the colonial environment, typically seen in the heat, is also depicted through the scents of spices and exotic flowers, strange animals, and spectacular landscapes, all of which appeal to the senses, like a forbidden fruit. It is not by accident that this is the backdrop to Campion’s film, where the male dominated universe is turned on its axis.
One of the more notorious scenes is a view of the piano, finally situated inside Baines otherwise spare home, where he strips naked, with his backside present, as he touches it gently with his hands and fingers, like an exotic object, waiting for the genie to come out of the bottle and for the magic to appear. Clearly this would not happen in a male directed movie, but it’s an interesting symbol of what the piano represents. When Ada and Flora arrive for Baines first lesson, she intends to shrug him off, claiming the piano is out of tune, but is dumfounded to discover it’s been perfectly tuned, immediately sitting down and playing rapturously, where the piano is the key to unlocking her heart, opening a floodgate of pure emotions, something Baines finds hard to resist, content to listen to her play, as there’s nothing like it in his environment. Baines decides to up the ante, where he’s willing to return her rights of ownership to the piano, one key at a time, so long as she agrees to allow him to do things. Shocked, but also intrigued, her counter position is all the black keys, which are considerably less, to which he readily agrees. Under these conditions, Flora is kept outside, excluded from the privacy of the room, as little by little Baines bargains for more, being allowed to see and touch her arms, or the back of her neck, which are worth more keys, as there is a progression over time, not only to accumulate more keys, growing closer to ownership, but she also sheds more clothing, eventually lying naked beside him, which is worth five keys. The repressive European customs are represented by the tightly wound braiding of her hair, reflecting how bound and confined women are perceived, where Flora is a miniature version of her mother. When Ada unbuttons her dress, it literally releases the moral restrictions placed upon her, changing the rules of the game, at least for her. In short order, Baines chooses to return the piano to Ada with no more strings attached, a position that alarms Stewart, as he has no intention of returning the land, but Baines reassures him the deal is done, he’s simply giving it to her. Nonetheless, he holds his suspicions, as he’s still never consummated his marriage with Ada, who she views as a total stranger, retreating into the bedroom with Flora, where the two giggle and tickle each other, especially in his presence, no doubt a way to avoid contact with him, where he’s visibly annoyed at being so rudely shut out. Surprised that Baines never learned how to play, Flora offers her own bit of insight, “I know why Mr. Baines can’t play the piano. She never gives him a turn. She just plays whatever she pleases and sometimes she doesn’t play at all.” With the piano around, Ada never plays, but instead seems to be avoiding it altogether, instead heading back to Baines, acknowledging her affection, submitting herself to him, yet Stewart, suspecting something is up, walks by and can hear them making love, helplessly watching them through the cracks in the wall, where he can’t look away, pathetically fixed on the sight, seething with anger, yet also filled with self-loathing, incredulously hating the choice she made. Incensed and outraged to the core, he follows her the next day when she attempts to return and confronts her in the forest, attempting to force himself on her despite her violent resistance, but he’s only thwarted by Flora’s presence, eventually boarding her up inside his home, not allowing her any avenue of escape.
Perhaps the only other film with a self-imposed muteness that comes to mind is Bergman’s PERSONA (1966), a much more challenging and experimental film that actually features a psychological tightrope between two female characters, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann, where the faces and personalities merge as one. On the other hand, Stewart and Baines are contrasting images of loneliness and masculinity, with a tamed Stewart living under the thumb of his suffocatingly restrictive aunt, abiding by her Puritanical rules and principles, deathly afraid of sex, despite the inappropriateness of his behavior, all wearing tightly buttoned-up clothes, while the more uninhibited Baines reflects his affinity with the Māori people, wearing much more colorful clothing, flamboyantly consorting with natives, unafraid to be seen naked or crude, where he exudes a wilder side. Shockingly, despite his advanced education, only one of them knows how to listen, and it’s not Stewart, who otherwise has all the advantages. Ada feigns affection with her husband for the first time while locked in, caressing him, but not allowing him to reciprocate and touch her, which only frustrates him more as she inevitably pulls away. But a growing trust allows him to remove the barriers, where he’s become a laughing stock to others for actually locking themselves inside, as that’s such a clear indication that something’s amiss in that household. Despite promising she won’t see Baines, she wraps a gift for him, as she’s heard he’s moving, offering him a single piano key with a personalized inscription that reveals her feelings for him, sending Flora. But by now Flora knows better, reminding her mother she’s not supposed to see him, and delivers the package to Stewart instead, who fumes with anger, becoming so enraged that he hacks off one of Ada’s fingers on a tree stump with an axe, a gut-wrenchingly painful scene to watch, mirroring the vicious brutality expressed in Bluebeard, sending Flora to deliver her wrapped finger instead, bellowing that if he ever sees her again, he’ll chop off another finger, and then another. Stewart inverses the civilized role where his savage brutality becomes even more cruel and sadistic when he attempts to rape her while she is lying unconscious. In contrast, one of the most powerful images of the film happens when Flora doesn’t return home, but spends the night with Baines, seen sleeping peacefully next to his side the next morning in an image of familial grace, providing the fatherly affection that Stewart never embraced. The violence inherent in the silencing of women is exposed for what it really is, as the film is notable for the degree of insanity on display at its most violent acts, where Stewart clearly sees himself in the right, believing strength of action is the appropriate and principled thing to do, but instead his actions are pathetic, as he’s viewed as fearful and insecure when he is incapable of having total and complete control over Ada. Oppression is shown to be just as detrimental to his own state of mind, where others view him in mockery for such a repugnant display of his weakness. Ada clearly rejects this imposed oppression, despite the devastating consequences, where we are reminded that it was only after Baines returned her piano and relinquished his power over her that she reciprocates his love. Loosening her ties to the piano, and to her former self, she liberates herself from society’s rules and imagines a different outcome for herself, even as fate is compelling her to be part of yet another existing reality, one that plunges her to the bottom of the sea. The film is a stunning mood piece about a woman's quest to control her own identity or destiny, ultimately providing multiple endings, which even in the eyes of the director have shifted over time, suggesting there will always be diverse outcomes, where each destiny will ambiguously be left open.
Jonathan Rosenbaum from 1001 MOVIES YOU MUST SEE BEFORE YOU DIE:
Sweetie (1989) and An Angel at My Table (1990) taught us to expect startling as well as beautiful things from Jane Campion, and this assured and provocative third feature offers yet another lush parable about the perils and paradoxes of female self-expression.
Set during the 19th century, this original story by Campion – which evokes at times some of the romantic intensity of Emily Brontë – focuses on a Scottish widow (Holly Hunter) who hasn’t spoken since her childhood, presumably by choice, and whose main form of self-expression is her piano playing. She arrives with her nine-year old daughter (Anna Paquin) in the New Zealand wilds to enter into an arranged marriage, which gets off to an unhappy start when her husband-to-be (Sam Neill) refuses to transport her piano. A local white man living with the Maori natives (Harvey Keitel) buys the piano from him and, fascinated and attracted to the mute woman, agrees to “sell” it back to her a key at a time in exchange for lessons – lessons that have ultimately traumatic consequences.
Setting out to be politically correct, erotic, and romantic at the same time, The Piano inevitably bites off more than it can possibly chew, but winds up stimulating passionate feelings nonetheless.
With The Piano, her third appearance at the NYFF, New Zealand auteur Jane Campion was catapulted into the realm of widespread visibility. The film garnered a variety of international acclaim, including Academy Awards for its screenplay and its two stars, Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin (who respectively won Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress), as well as sharing the Palm d'Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival with Farewell My Concubine (which also played at the NYFF31 in 1993), in addition to Hunter winning the Best Actress award there. The Piano will be screening tonight at 6:30pm as part of our 50 Years of the New York Film Festival series, followed by a Skype Q&A with Campion herself!
With a career spanning seven feature films so far, Campion has established herself as one of contemporary cinema’s most unique voices, crafting films that are as impressionistic as they are harshly honest. She has tackled a diverse array of settings and subjects, from the comedic dysnfunction of two Australian sisters in Sweetie to a shy school teacher navigating the psychosexual urban jungle of New York City in In The Cut to the 19th century English romance between John Keats and Fanny Brawne in Bright Star, all of which evocatively explore the lives of women on the cusp of emotional discovery.
This thematic concern is at the forefront of The Piano. Set during the 1800s, the film follows a mute Scottish woman named Ada who, on behalf of an arrangement made by her father, travels with her daughter Flora to New Zealand to marry an affluent landowner named Alistair (played by Sam Neill.) Her only means of pleasure seems to come from playing her piano, which Alistair trades for land with Baines (Harvey Keitel), an eccentric fellow landowner. Baines makes a deal with Ada to eventually give the piano back to her in return for sexual favors. Ada’s relationship with Baines grows from purely physical to emotional, igniting a chain of events that jeopardize her marriage to Alistair and her most prized possession.
Director Jane Campion's model for The Piano was
Campion's films center on strong-willed women. Her first feature, Sweetie, is the almost unwatchable story of a family ruled by a self-destructive sister. Angel at my Table is a biography of author Janet Frame, wrongly committed to a mental institution. After The Piano, she directed the adaption of Portrait of a Lady, starring Nicole Kidman. The Piano is about control, not sex... pure will, not flirtatiousness; Ada is no passive doll. She identifies her needs and goes about satisfying them. Holly Hunter plays her without vanity: no dialogue, no make-up and greasy hair.Hunter saw the script and had to have it. Campion had envisioned Ada as tall, as an extraordinary beauty, but Hunter had one enormous advantage: she can really play the piano.
Composer Michael Nyman hesitantly met with her to see how well she could play, and then, relieved, was able to go ahead and write whatever music he wanted to write, confident she could realize it. He felt it had to be "possible" mid-19th century music, written by an amateur composer who had lived in Scotland and then New Zealand in the mid 1850s. He used Scottish folk and popular songs as the basis for the music, something that she had in her head and in her fingers. He felt there had to be a kind of modesty to it, although Holly Hunter played Ada playing the piano with enormous dedication and intensity.
Holly Hunter won an Oscar for best actress and young Anna Paquin's complex portrayal of Flora won for Best Supporting Actress. Jane Campion won for Best Original Screenplay. The film also won the grand prize at Cannes, and Hunter for Best Actress. The photography is by Stuart Dryburgh. His dramatic points of view, and the cool grey sweep of landscape contrasting with the warmth of the interiors contributes to the unforgettable look of the film.
Ada's music is filled with repressed longing. It is a siren song: her husband is deaf, but a more elemental man answers...Heathcliff, or Caliban?
The Past Recapsuled - Film Comment Harlan Jacobson, July/August 1993
Of the good, Campion and Avati were the early standouts. From its first showing, The Piano looked the surest cinch for Golden Palm since Padre Padrone. Indeed, the shimmering primitivism and power to new-mint emotion echo the 1977 Taviani film; and like the Tavianis, the Australian director uses a geohistorical terra incognita—the remote New Zealand bush in the 19th century—as a way to explore the present through a sense-awakening encounter with the past.
Campion’s beat is feminism, but of a thrillingly nonconformist sort. In Sweetie and An Angel at My Table, she gave us disturbed/dysfunctional heroines, women on the verge of a spiritual breakdown. But for them, as for The Piano’s mute, unmarried other from Scotland, Holly Hunter, who’s pushed into an arranged marriage with Antipodean colonist Sam Neill, an alienated vision is also an objectifying, truth-finding one. Hunter’s 19th century Miss, thrown onto what seems another planet, is given a shock education in Nature (jungly vistas), in Sex (gone-native neighbor Harvey Keitel), and in the untouchable sanctity of Art. Her beloved piano is first left abandoned on the seashore, then seized by Keitel and used as an amorous bargaining chip (he sells it back, one key per sexual favor), and finally thrown from the departure boat at Hunter’s wish, the last redundant ballast keeping her old life afloat.
Just as galvanic as the heroine’s clash with alien reality is the audience’s. We cross not just sea but a century. Campion, deconstructing the modern world by reconstructing a bygone one, unsettles all our “eternal verities” about sex, love, female identity by showing they’re not eternal at all. Other times, other truths. (Therefore, guard each advance we make.) In the disrupting process, Campion’s movie releases all the feral stylistics hinted at in her feature début, Sweetie. Early shots set in Scotland, plus literary voiceover, may threaten Masterpiece Theatre. But once our heroine is carried ashore in New Zealand—a black-dressed body borne above a dozen legs like a surf-borne spider—the past becomes more than just a foreign country. It becomes a wilderness, a bestiary, an Unpeaceable Kingdom. The Campion camera invents its own calligraphy. Shots swoop or arc like birds. Shots tell us that the human mind is a gateway to grace or chaos, as in the bizarre moment when the camera tracks in towards the heroine’s spinsterly hairknot and then rises up and onward into the anarchic forest.
The movie finds preposterous aesthetic rhymes, and each one works. The ribs of Hunter’s hoop skirt—portcullis to sex with Keitel—make harmony with the arching forest twigs she later crawls through in dismay and terror. A dog licks Sam Neill’s hand, producing a transferred shudder of disgust, as he spies on Keitel using his profaner tongue on Hunter. And there’s even a special, ancestral rhyme for movie buffs. Which of them, when Neill thwacks down on his wife’s pianistic hand with a nasty instrument, doesn’t see the ghost of James Mason smashing Ann Todd’s digits in The Seventh Veil? Footnote for certifiable film buffs: When Neill left New Zealand for his first Western acting role, it was James Mason who encouraged and recommended him.
The Piano uses past and present in rhyme and counterpoint to create a fugue between the familiar and the far-off or farouche.
The Piano | MostlyFilm Philip Concannon
The first image we see in The Piano is a close-up of Holly Hunter’s fingers as she holds her eyes in front of her face, allowing sunlight to filter through them. We hear her Scottish-accented voice on the soundtrack, but she tells us that “The voice you hear is not my speaking voice, but my mind’s voice,” and throughout the film these fingers will be her prime means of communication. Her character, Ada McGrath, has not spoken since she was six years old, having apparently taken it into her head to simply stop doing so. She speaks through sign language, translated by her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin), or by writing short notes on the pad she keeps hanging around her neck, but when Ada wishes to truly express what she is feeling, she does so through music. “The strange thing is, I don’t think myself silent because of my piano,” her voiceover tells us, “I shall miss it on the journey.”
The journey that Ada and Flora are embarking upon will take them to New Zealand, where she is to meet her new husband Mr Stewart (Sam Neill) for the very first time. They disembark in rough seas only to find that Stewart has been delayed, but Ada opts to stay on this cold and windswept beach rather than travel inland, camping overnight with Flora, her luggage and – of course – her beloved piano. Two men are subsequently introduced to Ada, and the manner in which they both react to her prized possession tells us a great deal about them. Her rather stiff and conservative husband Stewart can’t understand Ada’s attachment to this cumbersome instrument, and he insists on leaving it on the beach while they carry the rest of her belongings, causing the first schism in their nascent relationship. The other man is Baines (Harvey Keitel), an acquaintance of Stewart’s now living with the Maori, who is instantly intrigued by Ada and who sees the piano as the key to unlocking this enigmatic woman.
The Piano was Jane Campion’s third feature film, but it marked an audacious leap forward from the already impressive Sweetie and An Angel at My Table. Drawing inspiration from 19th century romantic literature and New Zealand’s history and culture, Campion fashioned one of those rare films in which every single element just falls into place. The casting brought together a group of actors at exactly the right moment in their respective careers; Michael Nyman (inexplicably not one of the film’s Oscar nominees) came up with an inspired score that became an integral part of the film’s structure; and Campion found locations that gave her film the scale of an epic while simultaneously serving the narrative symbolically.
For example, the marital home that Stewart takes Ada to is situated in the middle of a dark forest, plagued by incessant rain, and with every footstep the characters sink into the thick mud. It’s all shot in dismal grey tones by Stuart Dryburgh and the effect is suffocating, with Ada’s thoughts constantly drifting back to her piano, which still sits on the beach. When she finally persuades Baines to escort her back to the beach so she can play, the film immediately brightens. Against an expansive backdrop of calm seas and bathed in a golden light, Ada plays freely and beautifully with a blissful smile on her face; in fact, it’s the first time in the movie that we see her typically fierce and cautious mask melt away.
The effect that the piano has on Ada is not lost on Baines. He takes possession of it and begins negotiating with Ada – a sexual favour for each key until she has eventually earned it back. Their arrangement begins on a small scale, with Ada removing items of clothing while she plays and exposing her arms or shoulders, but one such seemingly insignificant accession to Baines requests sends a shockwave through the film. While she plays, Baines asks Ada to lift her skirt so he can admire her legs, and when he spots a small hole in her stocking he delicately runs a finger over this tiny glimpse of white. At the point of contact, Ada immediately lifts her head and her expression suggests surprise, curiosity, puzzlement and pleasure all at once. This erotic encounter – perhaps the first she has ever experienced – is the turning point in Ada’s story, the moment in which she begins to explore and take command of her own body and sexual desire, freeing herself from the restrictive role of docile wife that Stewart expects her to be and becoming a person of her own making.
Although The Piano builds inexorably to a dramatic act of violence, there are no villains in Campion’s story, just a group of complicated characters facing emotions and situations that they have no experience of and are ill-prepared for. The director is constantly attuned to the shifting power dynamic and the fluctuating emotional tenor of the film, so much of which is captured in small glances and gestures between the characters, and each of the characters can be prickly, stubborn and unlikeable at various points in the story while also being capable of eliciting our sympathy.
At the time of writing, Jane Campion is heading the jury at the Cannes Film Festival, and her presence is a constant reminder that the Palme d’Or she shared for The Piano in 1993 is the only one that has ever been awarded to a female director. The film went onto gross over $140 million worldwide and took home three of its eight Oscar nominations the following year, but looking back from where we are now it’s hard to imagine how this particular film managed such a feat. Can you imagine a sexually frank drama about female desire making such an impact with mainstream filmgoers today? Instead of opening the floodgates for female directors or encouraging viewers to embrace adult, artistically daring films about love and sex, Campion’s film looks increasingly with every passing year like a strange but precious anomaly. The Piano has always been a film that seemed to exist out of time, and in many ways it feels like we are still trying to catch up to it.
"Like a Mood that Passes Into You": Amphibious Subjectivity in The ... Katrina Mann from Michigan Feminist Studies, 2001
Inhuman Love: Jane Campion's The Piano Academic paper by Samir Dayal, 2002
Romanticizing Colonialism: Power and Pleasure in Jane Campion's ... Reshela DuPuis (pdf)
Jane Campion - Assets - Cambridge - Cambridge University Press Harriet Margolis (pdf)
Boston Review: Jane Campion's The Piano (film review) Alan A. Stone
Campion, The Piano, and the Feminine Perspective as Feminist ... Dr. Cathy Hannabach, May 1, 2013, also seen here: Queer & Feminist Film Studies, Spring 2013
The Piano - Australasian Cinema Rachel Gordon
Portrait of a Girl: Reflections on the Role of Flora in Jane Campion's ... Rachael Johnson from Bitch Flicks
Antagony & Ecstasy: JANE CAMPION: THE PIANO (1993) Timothy Brayton
Jane Campion's 'The Piano': An Inquisitive Study of Eroticism ... Cinephilia and Beyond
Surrender to the Void: The Piano Stephen Flores
Jane Campion's The Piano: A sensitive touch to a fairly selfish theme ... David Walsh from The World Socialist Web Site
Urban Cinefile MAKING OF: THE PIANO (1993) Andrew L. Urban
Jane Campion's Masterpiece, 'The Piano', Makes its High Definition ... Jose Solís from Pop Matters
The Piano by Caoimhe Duignan on Prezi December 11, 2012
<em>Jane Campion's The Piano</em> Eleanor Hogan book review of Jane Campion’s The Piano, edited by Harriet Margolis, from Screening the Past, November 1, 2000
Jane Campion website article based on a Campion interview by Helen Barlow
On The Issues Magazine: Summer 1994: Is The Piano A Feminist Film ... Rebecca Shugrue and Carolyn Gage, Summer 1994
Is 'The Piano' a Feminist Manifesto or a Masochistic Love Story ... Allyson Morgan from Outtake, August 29, 2016
Piano, The | Reelviews Movie Reviews James Berardinelli
Film Dunce: The Piano - Spectrum Culture Jake Cole
Review for The Piano (1993) - IMDb Scott Renshaw
Review for The Piano (1993) - IMDb Dragan Antulov
Background | The Piano | Film | NZ On Screen Catherine Bisley, January 3, 2009
Film @ The Digital Fix - The Piano Gary Couzens
Women's Pictures - Jane Campion's The Piano - Blog - The Film ... Nathaniel Rogers from The Film Experience
20 Years After 'The Piano,' We've All Failed Holly Hunter - The Atlantic Joe Reid, November 12, 2013
Analysis on Jane Campion's — The Piano – Medium Mary Strause, February 22, 2016
The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993) The Gaze of Alisdair Stewart ... film discussion forum
Movie House Commentary hold the applause, from Tuna
bell hooks, Sexism and Misogyny: Who Takes
the Rap? Misogyny,
Gangsta Rap and The Piano, from Race and Ethnicity,
Piano, The Movie a film website
The Piano | FilmGrab stills from the film
How we made: Michael Nyman and Jane Campion on The Piano ... Anna Tims interview from The Guardian, July 30 2012
The Piano | Variety David Stratton
Jane Campion wanted a bleaker ending for The Piano | Film | The ... Ben Child from The Guardian, July 8, 2013
FILM / Piano Forte: A few years ago Jane Campion was an eternal ... Quentin Curtis from The Independent, October 16, 1993
The Piano Marjorie Baugartner from The Austin Chonicle
In Jane Campion's Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman), upon coming into a sizable inheritance from her uncle, Mr. Touchett (John Gielgud), finds herself surrounded by men seeking to possess her. But she is, as her aunt (ShelleyWinters) observes, "too fond of [her] own ways," willful and eager to test her limits. Serena Merle (an excellent performance by Barbara Hershey) moves Isabel profoundly by her piano-playing (Schubert), sadness and elegance. And even though the thrust of the narrative is to set up Isabel with Serena's weasely dilettante of a friend, Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), the deeper, lasting connection is between the women (and hence, the deeper betrayal lies in this relationship as well). Ironically, the film's obvious indictments of a cruelly elitist culture based on costumes and possessions, and of Gilbert, the supremely abusive husband, are less significant than its investigation of the women's relationship. Their mutual understanding — more strained than tender — is based on silence and willful blindness: in the end, Isabel and Serena have very few choices, despite their energy and passion for life.
masterpiece has long been deemed impossible to translate successfully into
film; Jane Campion and screenwriter Laura Jones have, however, produced an
adaptation as cinematically intelligent as it is faithful to the original.
Beginning, adventurously but wisely, with Isabel Archer (Kidman) rejecting Lord
Warburton's proposal of marriage, the film charts the changes in its young
American heroine's fortunes when, after
inheriting a fortune put her way by ailing English cousin Ralph Touchett
(Donovan), she travels to Italy, where she's introduced by her mentor Madame
Merle (Hershey) to widowed aesthete Gilbert Osmond (Malkovich). Though a friend
advises her to wed a long-time admirer who's followed her from
I'm treading dangerous ground here: in the circles in which I travel, admitting that you prefer the populist literary adaptations of Merchant/Ivory to an austere, moody, Artistic-with-a-capital-"A" film like Jane Campion's version of Henry James' novel The Portrait of a Lady is tantamount to treason, if not heresy. I'm willing, however, to risk the righteous indignation of cinéastes everywhere by confessing that I had to struggle to stay awake while watching Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman), James' misguided heroine, stumble into the loveless, degrading web spun by evil aesthete Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich). James Ivory and Ismael Merchant (who have filmed two James adaptations -- neither of which I've seen -- and are reportedly currently working on a third) would undoubtedly have simplified and trivialized the source material, but they would also have found and preserved its pulse, skillfully or no; Campion, on the other hand, opted to chloroform the book and mount it on celluloid, so that the only possible response is a detached, mournful, "My, how beautiful." Soporifically paced and virtually opaque, The Portrait of a Lady comes to life only when Campion attempts to throw off the literary shackles imposed by James' novel (her interest in which seems entirely sociopolitical, judging by how little attention she and screenwriter Laura Jones pay to the characters' interior lives), as in a nifty black-and-white experimental film that anachronistically chronicles her whirlwind tour of the Mediterranean, two decades before Edison and/or the Lumière brothers invented the medium. The rest of the film, unfortunately, is a colossal bore, consisting almost entirely of conversations in monotone (the acclaim and awards allotted to Martin Donovan and Barbara Hershey, both of whom are merely adequate, baffles me; Hershey, in particular, seems to be doing little more than an impressive Genevieve Bujold impression) between people about whom we know virtually nothing and about whom I consequently cared little. Yes, it's a more ambitious approach than one usually sees with regard to film adaptations of great novels, but I'll take any five minutes of Anthony Hopkins' "conventional" performance in The Remains of the Day over this entire tedious specimen. Memo to Ms. Campion and Ms. Jones (An Angel at My Table): Please leave the lit films to people who can't write. You can.
Great and evident artistry shapes this film version of the Henry James novel The Portrait of a Lady. Yet the end result perplexes as much as it fascinates. Jane Campion, the much-lauded director of The Piano, and screenwriter Laura Jones (An Angel at My Table) bring their modern sensibilities to bear on this story of James’ 1870s heroine Isabel Archer, a young, sharp-minded, American woman abroad who inherits unexpected wealth and uses it to live as she likes, traveling and rejecting numerous suitors until she falls into an unwise marriage that nearly becomes her ruination. From the opening credits, Campion signals her intention to recontextualize this classic novel for modern times and feminist analysis. The sound and images behind the credits are those of contemporary young women talking of their feelings about love and first kisses. The movie then opens in apparent mid-scene with Isabel (Kidman) rejecting her first suitor, even though he offers her a choice of castles to live in. Campion and Jones add a psychosexual fervor to the story and include several Freudian fantasy sequences as Isabel makes her way through the world as a single woman. Yet, the movie only seems interested in this phase of Isabel’s life as a preliminary background to her unhappy marriage. Her broadening travels are depicted simply (and frugally) as a picture-postcard diorama. The movie focuses primarily on Isabel’s attraction to and near-undoing by the manipulative esthete Gilbert Osmond (Malkovich). Prior to this, we see too little of the searing intelligence that has earned Isabel so many admirers and, likewise, we also see too little of the internal fire that lures Isabel to the viperous Osmond. In a movie marked by outstanding performances, Malkovich is the one weak link. We’ve seen him vamp through these coyly sinister roles a few too many times, and his Osmond comes off like a creature left over from Dangerous Liaisons. Kidman does what she can to bring the movie’s opaque Isabel to life (though I seriously doubt the role will win her the Oscar that, rightly, should have been hers last year for her delicious work in To Die For). As her sickly cousin and biggest admirer, Hal Hartley regular Martin Donovan makes a strong impression, as do John Gielgud (especially in a memorable death scene) and Barbara Hershey. No small contribution to the film’s overall impact is made by the wonderfully rich and atmospheric work of cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (Lone Star, Once Were Warriors, The Piano). Toward the end of The Portrait of a Lady, sequences and events have a hurried feel that not only contrasts sharply with the steady tone that preceded it but also packs too much subtle information into too little space. However, for all its misfirings The Portrait of a Lady paints a fascinating picture.
Jane Campion's Shining: Portrait of a Director - Film Comment Kathleen Murphy, November/December 1996
Only a filmmaker who possesses the hubris to imagine that art and moral adventure matter could have composed The Portrait of a Lady in the densely telling hues and uncompromising forms Jane Campion has achieved. To start with, the novel’s author has always been rated as a “hard read,” even in the days when reading wasn’t rare. Henry James works every word, every phrase, every description or discourse, so that you must travel his narrative attuned to the minute changes in social/spiritual weather and the moral and psychological reverberations of every bit of small talk. For lack of attention to dangerous undergrowth, a life, or a soul, can be shattered in his “civilized” minefields.
Campion’s Paradise Lost largely manages to recast James’s exquisitely wrought prose, his interior epiphanies and apocalypses, into dialogue, images, and performances that explode in slowest, utterly devastating motion. Like James’s hard reads, this brilliant, difficult film demands close concentration and committed effort on the viewer’s part. The novel’s central metaphors (sun and shadow, house and garden, nature and artifice), resonating dialogue, and actors—aspiring or fallen angels—are authentically animated, without cinematic disguise or distortion, on Campion’s canvas.
Campion chronicles the journeys of women into terra incognita with passionate conviction, making their quests as emblematic of the human condition as any Adam’s. In this, she’s been on the same track as Henry James, who loved to plunge (and vicariously plunge with) his brave Daisy Millers and Isabel Archers into refining—or fatal—“European” experience. Also in the Jamesian tradition, Campion’s heroines may be armed with self-destructive or even killing innocence. In The Piano, Holly Hunter’s silent émigré makes a kind of self-sufficient identity/sexuality of her speaking art. She’s not unaware that her singleminded consecration to her instrument is a come-on, separating the men from the boys, crudely speaking. When she’s brought to earth by Harvey Keitel’s half-Caliban (and symbolically castrated by her jealous husband), she lets her art drown and gets reborn as happy wife and piano-teacher.
An Angel at My Table, Campion’s adaptation of the autobiographies of author Janet Frame, begins by looking down on a fat baby girl lying on her back in the grass. Then we see her toddler’s feet, unsteadily navigating a meadow. Finally we wait—with the camera—for a chubby little girl topped by an explosion of frizzy red hair walking down a long road straight toward us. When Janet Frame arrives, she takes one look into the camera—the world? the future?—and, terrified, runs back the way she came. By the film’s end, when the Australian writer finally makes her way home again, she has bitten deep, often painfully, into life, the imagination, even madness. Campion’s camera puts a period to her journey by rounding the curved side of a very small, snug trailer to look in at Frame at rest and in virtual motion: writing, wombed in warm, golden light.
The hypnotic prelude to Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady begins in darkness, murmurous with the dreaming voices of young girls: “…the best part of a kiss is the moment just before…we become addicted to being intertwined…finding the clearest mirror, the most loyal mirror…when I love, I know he will shine that back to me.” Her camera gazes down into a grove where a sorority of lovely Mirandas lies about in innocent abandon, their bodies curved like silver fish in a sea of grass. Then, in a series of shots in black and white alternating with color, Campion’s hieratic virgins undulate slowly or stand still, always gazing out at us with the provocative serenity of brave new souls. These vestals in modern dress point the way—the film’s title is literally inscribed on the flesh of a woman’s hand—into the film proper, he 19th century pilgrim’s progress of Isabel Archer, New World Candide.
Campion makes us see—with really stunning support from Nicole Kidman—Isabel Archer as both eligible virgin and the bright, double-faced spirit of idealism that humankind perennially projects. Narcissus as much as Diana, she embarks on a quest for her “most loyal mirror”—for wisdom as much as love—through four very different men of the world. Campion shows her as distaff knight, courageously tracking enlightenment, imagining life into art; as chaste voyeur blind to complexity, willing to be deflowered only by dead men; and as an Eve whose free will is illusory, a temporary luxury provided not by god but money.
Archer’s odyssey ranges from heaven to hell on earth, from a garden rich with summer’s green-gold promise into blighting experience and back again, to a white and frozen homebase, hard ground to cultivate. But, in perhaps the cruelest sense, nothing happens in The Portrait of a Lady. A woman’s world simply ends, winding down to wasteland: dead zero. Not by accident, as Portrait’s innocent abroad launches into her world tour, she pockets an ominous “ticket,” a scarp of paper on which is written NIHILISM.
Our first portrait of Isabel closes in on her fiercely blue eyes brimming with tears as she turns down a proposal from wealthy Lord Warburton (Richard Grant): “When I’m touched, it’s for life,” the young man vows feelingly. (Touch and the prelude to touching, nearness, verbally and visually implode throughout Portrait, tagging the courage of passionate proximity and stone-cold possession.) This eminently desirable young woman is a guest at Gardencourt, the exquisitely appointed and landscaped English estate that houses her aunt (Shelley Winters, surprisingly good) and uncle (John Gielgud), the Touchetts. Seated among lush green leaves and molten sunlight, red-haired Isabel seems herself a bright flower, one that shrinks from plucking. The curving limb hat embraces Isabel, now so much like an Edenic benison, becomes, by Portrait’s wintry end, a black, no-exit barrier.
Campion’s precisely right to open on Isabel’s laser-blue gaze, for this Eve is all eyes—they’re the loci of her appetite, her avid curiosity: “I want to get a general impression of life…there’s a light that has to dawn,” she tells her uncle, her bright face shining out of a frameful of darkness. It does not yet occur to Isabel, in the ruthless purity of her innocence, that epiphanies may cast terrible shadows.
In these early scenes, Isabel’s heartshaped, flyaway red hair recalls Janet Frame’s unbound coiffure, electrified by a passionate, open imagination. Later, as a member of Gilbert Osmund’s (John Malkovich) coven—with his mistress Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey) and Pansy (Valentina Cervic), the exotic Venus-flytrap Osmund and Merle have crossbred—Isabel’s hair, styled in complete coils, darkens, signifying her new grasp of artifice and the occult. In the barely illuminated airlessness of her Roman home, Isabel is expected to move to a puppetmaster’s design or be still, a rich object d’art useful as investment, décor, or sexual lore.
Referring to a feature of one of Lord Warburton’s many homes, Isabel’s “I adore a moat” are the first words we hear from a Miranda so jealous of her virgin zone she refuses every hands-on surveyor. She flees Warburton, through an arch of greenery, across a vast verdant lawn where the family sips ritual tea. As she passes, her consumptive cousin Ralph Touchett (finely expressed by Martin Donovan) takes her in, following her progress with intense interest. A little dog drags at her flying skirts, and as she catches it, the frame slants slightly so that her shadow, holding up the animal, falls on the green.
Much of Isabel’s itinerary and fate are foreshadowed—literally—in this English Eden, where nature as lush topiary art frames the Touchett’s quietly cultivated way of life. Taking flight from potential largesse—emotional and financial—Isabel imagines herself to be perfectly free to choose where and if she will touch down. Campion closes in on Isabel’s skirts again and again in the film, as incremental refrain, measuring the decline of these beating “wings” from strong purposeful motion into aimless, futile flight.
The little dog that nips at the beautiful dreamer’s heels at Gardencourt is animal life, energy from below that demands attention. Less positively, the dog prefigures Gilbert Osmund, Isabel’s “small,” bestial husband-no-to-be—variously hairy faced, braying ass and snouting pig, who makes Merle “how like a wolf” (though in fact her name’s a poetic form of “blackbird”). Osmund later shockingly humiliates the Eve he’s bell-jarred by deliberately tripping her up as she flees him, keeping her down by stepping on her skirts.
Tilting to frame that momentary stain on Gardencourt’s lawn, Campion’s camera signs the beginning of Isabel’s slow descent into an “unfathomable abyss,” inked in the blackness of Madame Merle’s gloved hand spidering obscenely over Pansy’s stomach; the grounded shadow of a parasol; during Osmund’s subterranean “rape” of Isabel; the line of shade that, by her father’s decree, bars Pansy from a a sunlit garden. Campion will later look down on Roman park studded with trees moated by colorful flowerbeds. AS animated aristos stroll the circular paths, shades of Joseph Cotton and Teresa Wright attend Isabel as she insists she hasn’t “the shadow of a doubt” about the probity of the serpent on her arm.
Caspar Goodwood (Viggo Mortenson) the American admirer who has pursued Isabel to Europe, comes from good adamic stock; sunny open ground, he’s physically passionate and singleminded in his affections. Down from the Touchett estate to London, in the first stage of Isabel’s descent from garden to prison, a fleeing glimpse of a corset hanging suggestively on the back door of our adventurer’s little bed-sitting room sets the tone for Goodwood’s visit. Crowding her into a corner, her least talkative lover braces his arms on the walls that hem her, hardly able to resist touching her. “You don’t fit in,” she cries. She thinks she means in some large social scheme, but it’s the plaint of a virgin, afraid of the pain—and pleasure—of penetration.
Every time Goodwood touches her, at almost ritual intervals throughout Portrait, Isabel recoils as if afraid she’ll catch fire. She can’t take this man in through her eyes, her mind alone; he is too large, too lively for her. As he leaves her room, rebuffed once more, he momentarily holds her chin in his palm. Afterwards, she touches herself in the same way and goes under, as though set off by some posthypnotic suggestion. Her eyes soft and unfocused, she rubs her face against the fringed hanging of her four-poster like a cat in heat. Wojiech Kilar’s sensual music pulses as she trances out in carnal pleasure; Warburton, Touchett, and Goodwood snake about her body, caressing her until, suddenly startled, she shakes the men off and they decorporealize. It’s a scene out of Coppola’s Dracula (scored by Kilar), but even in fantasy, Isabel remains in control and intact.
In James, American Adams transplanted into the hothouse of Europe often grow into passive voyeurs; the refined, sexless inertia of a Ralph Touchett or Gilbert Osmond may signal an aesthetic or diabolical bent. The Gardencourt invalid who registered Isabel’s frantic retreat from Warburton soon plays beneficent angel by “making” his young cousin, that is, by arranging for her to be rich enough to follow the “requirement of her imagination.” Ralph Touchett looks forward, he tells her, to “the thrill of seeing what a young lady does who has refused” an English lord.
Ralph might be James, loosing his engaging young heroine into the world, eager to see where she will take him and his novel. Isabel and her ironically named cousin are Portrait’s truest soulmates, Platonic lovers happy to see and imagine, to apprehend and chew over life as if it were a complex masterpiece to be appreciated by earnest digestion. Their Rear Window symbiosis combines stillness and motion, invalid impotence and unfettered action. Pumping a friend of Isabel’s about his cousin’s treatment of Caspar Goodwood, Ralph inquires hungrily, “Was she cruel?” Campion cuts to a chilling shot of this consumer’s nail clicking on a glass that imprisons a buzzing hornet.
Campion divides her Portrait with a superbly visualized scene between Ralph and Isabel, one that conjures up Buñuel’s Tristana and Belle de Jour, along with Hitchock’s Vertigo. Isabel enters, distractedly, at the bottom of the frame. Inclining up frame-left is a wall of arched, molteny yellow stable doors. Two great ebon horses stand against the slant of golden wood. The effect is surreal, a Buñuelian dream-image hot with sensual simile. But this Belle is blind; she does not blaze until she’s inside the dark stables, her red hair thinly haloed by filtered sun, her face and body shaded blue by tinted windowlight. Isabel has just engaged to marry Gilbert Osmond; her vibrant warmth and color is already contracting toward the cool, hard, still “marble” he will make of her. (Stone and porcelain simulacra amark Isabel’s descent into museumed life: lovers sleeping side by side on sarcaphogi; the chubby marble hand of her dead child; Pansy’s Rosier, verboten suitor, diminished to a little doll hidden harmlessly at her breast.)
In the stables, Ralph Touchett grieves for the bright bird, now tethered by a sterile collector, he has ridden with such vicarious pleasure: “You were not to come down so easily, so soon. It hurts me as if I’d fallen myself.” Isabel’s been his Madeleine, an ideal he can cherish and pursue in his imagination; like Hitchock’s Scotty in Vertigo, Ralph doesn’t want to “touchett,” has no taste for a flawed woman of flesh and blood. A vampire of small but fastidious appetite, he has “made” he Eve for something finer than Psmond’s debasement. As Isabel pleads her case against his “false idea,” Ralph and the camera recede from her. She grows smaller in our eyes, as though her image has been released from his focus, to fall away into a void.
Their reunion comes in the penultimate moments of the film, in Portrait’s single scene of something like sexual consummation. The woman we’ve seen only in postures of sexual passivity or flight climbs into bed with the dying Ralph, frantically caressing and kissing a body already going cold. Their climax is his death, signaled by his hand falling uselessly away from her cheek. As he passes, he admonishes her to keep him in her heart—“I’ll be nearer than I’ve ever been.” (In a preceding, twinning scene, Osmond has come at Isabel as she beats her forehead against a door in despair, brutally pinning her with his body and firmly holder her valuable face from harm: “You are nearer to me and I am nearer to you than ever,” gloats her curator.) In death, Ralph Touchett’s spirit finally enters his beloved’s body in perfect Platonic possession.
From the moment at Gardencourt where Madame Merle sirens Isabel down to her with voluptuous Chopin, images of the young woman who puts such arrogant faith in her islanded identity begin to be doubled, distorted, and dissolved. In her Dantean journey, Isabel’s eyes are opened to her own self-delusions, and to the ugly, convoluted reality behind the “vivid images” she has made of Merle and Osmond.
At the start of Campion’s superb concatenation of horror movie, fairly tale, and re-fashioning of Eve’s mythic Fall, Isabel winds down the stairs of an ancient Roman villa to fetch up in a round subterranean chamber—half mausoleum, half-museum. Set an intervals in this strange room’s ceiling are grilled openings; weak light falls through air dense with old debris, so that barred rectangles punctuate Isabel’s path. Osmond materializes out of the shadows, twirling the parasol she’s left behind. It snaps with unpleasant papery sounds, like the rushing of bats, and he uses it like Mesmer’s hypnotic wheel. The two circle each other, like wary animals maneuvering for better ground, but Isabel’s eyes are locked on his. We’ve seen him work Madame Merle with the most expert hand—“Every now and then I’m touched,” he mocks his earlier conquest as he brutally disengages: Isabel hasn’t a prayer against his snaky intensity. Much later, even as he lashes her with hateful verbal contempt, Isabel leans helplessly in toward his mouth, her eyes “stupefied” with longing.1
As Osmond declares the precise nature of his love—“I offer nothing”—Campion’s camera rushes toward the couple around a curve of wall, past a skull set in old stone. The motion takes your breath away: something like death has passed. The frame tilts to show the shadow of Isabel’s parasol at the lovers’ feet. Osmond seals their unholy bargain with a Judas kiss, swallowing her mouth with a prostitute’s practiced, perfectly timed sensuality—and slides away into the dark. No Miltonic Satan vital with glamour and active evil, Isabel’s ravisher is a lesser devil, a cold collector of fortunes. He has seduced her into a world of pimps and promoters, where manipulation of bodies and souls is his vulgar art.
“I’d give a good deal to be your age again…my dreams were so great…the best part is gone…and for nothing,” confides Madame Merle, the dark sister who has precede Isabel into Gilbert Osmond’s soul-killing embrace. Nothing, out of James by way of Campion, is arrived through the profoundest of passions, an awful violence practiced as perfectly deliberate, often quite public atrocity. In Portrait’s last act, Campion frames Gardencourt in longshot, its beautiful stonework and ivy bleakly rimed in ice, as old Aunt Touchett creaks her way across the snowy lawn, clutching her walker. “Is there really no hope?” Isabel pleads, referring to Ralph’s illness. With grating, indifferent finality, Shelly Winters’s voice speaks a wider epitaph: “None whatsoever. There has never been.”
I haven’t said enough about the character of Madame Merle, played magnificently by that peerless Magdalene, Barbara Hershey. As the dark lady of Portrait, she is a truly tragic figure, because she has far more self-awareness and a larger vision than Isabel may ever attain—she chooses sin with her eyes open. Two images from the film, two sides of Merle: In the first, she and Isabel walk along a series of pedestals displaying classically monumental human parts in marble—a huge hand here, a gigantic foot there. Merle sits down in front of an heroic male torso, its genitalia backing her in the frame—as she unmasks for Isabel, confessing her role as procuress and trying to cozen Osmond’s wife into pandering for Madame Merle’s own daughter.
Later, at the dim convent where Osmond has locked Pansy up for being insufficiently commercial, Campion’s camera passes Isabel’s face in closeup, left of frame, to focus in on Madame Merle, who holds a little doll wrapped in waxed paper. Her glib social spiel, about paying a call on the lonely Pansy, stutters to a halt with her nearly whispered “a little dismal”—apt epigraph for her life and her child. This mater dolorosa is backed by a crucified Christ, painted on the wall ehind her, but Isabel can’t see that. Even in the rain outside, when a bedraggled Merle tries to touch her with “I know you are very unhappy, but I more so,” our unforgiving fundamentalist slides her carriage window shut between them, effectively making nothing of the woman who is perhaps her clearest mirror.
At film’s end, Campion reprises the circling dance in Osmond’s underground chamber, this time with Isabel and Caspar Goodwood, on the very site—now a wintry wasteland—where, as a green girl, she refused Warburton. But as the passionate Goodwood holds his upraised hands to either side of her face—as though afraid to catch hold of her—Isabel literally pants with fear, rounding against his offer of earthly happiness like a trapped animal. “Why go through this ghastly form?” her good angel cries out, referring to her marriage. “To get away from you,” comes her terrible, perverse reply.
Fleeing Goodwood, Isabel follows her earlier route, but now Gardencourt’s grounds are cold and unpromising. The whole weight of Portrait has slanted slowly, inexorably from summer down through seasons of dismal rain into this wintry whiteout, scrawled with the meaningless calligraphy of dead branches. We watch her dark skirts flash over the snow, as though Ralph Touchett’s once high-flying soul knew what significant South she was heading—but her advancement is herky-jerky, slowed by step-printing. Through the manor’s windows, we can see a warm haven of golden candlelight, the color of home in the final shot of An Angel at My Table. In closeup, Isabel’s hand turns on the doorknob. Then, her back to shelter, bleak landscape before her, our bright angel simply runs down, freeze-framed like some lost Galatea. In Portrait’s brave, hard-won ending, Campion’s eve—neither home nor exiled, but pinned in some deadly zone between—gazes out at nothing.
By means of a radical stylistic trope, Campion makes us see that the nature of Isabel’s stupefaction is sexual, moral, and aesthetic. The primitively shot and imagined silent movie—“My Journey”—that follows hard upon Osmond’s seduction is equal, lurid parts Son of the Sheik and Hitchock’s Spellbound, with a little Caligari thrown in for good measure. Jerkily, it segues from the comic, speeded-up motion of Isabel and her friend Henrietta sliding from side to side on the deck of a rocking ship; to Isabel costumed and veiled in Bedouin garb courtesy of a studio wardrobe department, abroad in exotic locales more back-projected than real; through the plateful of Daliesque beans that open like mouth or vaginas to groan Osmond’s “I love you absolutely”; to a climatic plunge down into feverdream and final swoon in sheikland. Flashing on her own eyes and mouth, the bearded orifice of her demon lover and his hand splayed on her naked stomach (as she’s seen Merle’s brand Pansy’s front), Isabel finally falls, naked, into the whirling wheel of a slideshow hypnotist. Is this Osmondian projection the “light that has to dawn” so anticipated by Isabel in the greenhouse of her imagination?
The Lady in the Frame: Two Portraits by Henry James and Jane Campion David Kelly from Senses of Cinema
Nick's Flick Picks (Full Review) Nick Davis
eFilmCritic Reviews Charles Tatum
Movie House Commentary Johnny Web
ToxicUniverse.com (Laurie Edwards) a surprisingly fixated one-note review
Maybe it's just a coincidence, but some of the most audacious, controversial and imaginative films to premiere this year were directed by women. In this issue's special focus we highlight three of the best: Jane Campion's Holy Smoke, Catherine Breillat's Romance and newcomer Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher. Here, Kate Pullinger applauds as Campion loosens her period-dress stays and returns to present-day Australia to cast Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel in a war of wits, offering a rich meditation on belief, desire and novel uses for livestock
Far from her suburban
Departing from her usually airless, overdetermined style, Jane Campion takes Holy Smoke into looser, more organic territory, at least until its disastrous final third. Kate Winslet plays Ruth, a headstrong Australian woman who’s convinced she’s found spiritual enlightenment in an Indian religious sect, only to have her parents trick her into coming home to be deprogrammed by unctuous, oily American "cult exiter" PJ (Harvey Keitel). When Campion (who co-wrote the script with sister Anna, based on the latter’s novel) keeps the focus wide, including Ruth’s deliberately vulgar family (caricatured in typically bigfoot Australian style), Holy Smoke ably balances boisterous humor with a more serious understanding of why Ruth decamped in the first place. (Yvonne Lee is particularly good as an innocently blowsy woman obsessed with bedding Keitel’s sleazeball.) The shot of a sari-clad Ruth belting out Alanis Morissette’s "You Oughta Know" as her car races across the outback is priceless: both expressive and perfectly ironic. But once Keitel and Winslet are cooped up in the "halfway hut" and the deprogramming begins, the movie turns self-serious and implodes almost immediately, instantly reverting to the fumble-fisted symbolism Campion is so fond of indulging. Once Keitel’s in a dress and Winslet has "Be Kind" written on her forehead, the movie has nothing left to do but pummel you with lines that are alternately obvious and opaque, and any prospect of enlightenment has long since passed.
Set to the full-throated, anthemic bombast of Neil Diamond's "Holly, Holy" (the live version), the delirious opening minutes of Jane Campion's Holy Smoke echo the singer's combustible mix of spirituality and kitsch, viewing a young woman's enlightenment as a sort of exotic pop adventure. Campion makes it easy to see how Kate Winslet, wonderful as an impetuous yet headstrong teenager, could fall for the Fruitopian vision of "absolute love" offered by an Indian guru named Baba. But the moment the song ends and her asthmatic mother wheezes through the Delhi streets, the film's peculiar spell is broken, its story splitting into two irreconcilable halves: one a fierce psychosexual melodrama similar to Campion's The Piano, the other a typically grotesque Australian comedy. Buried under all the clutter is a pointed theme about how society works to eradicate any unconventional belief system, no matter how much spiritual bliss it has to offer. Once Winslet makes the transition from rebellious and melancholic to peaceful and meditative, her parents are so alarmed that they force her back to Sydney and hire American "cult exiter" Harvey Keitel to snap her out of it. Their three-day deprogramming sessions, in the cramped space of an outback hut, are by far the most compelling material in Holy Smoke, as each angles for psychological advantage. Though the result of their tête-à-tête is predictable, especially for those familiar with Campion's torrid feminism, Winslet and Keitel attack and recede with almost primal intensity. But their palpable chemistry is continually undercut by her cartoonish extended family, whose flying toupees and distended bodies are meant to represent sickly, unnatural suburban life. It's a cheap point, made more effectively in fellow Aussie Nicolas Roeg's 1971 Walkabout, which deftly balanced natural beauty against the pollutants of urban life. For all its attractions, Holy Smoke is a tonal mess, too incoherent to get back in sync with Diamond's majestically trashy epiphanies.
Smoke is typical Jane Campion - as with The Piano and Portrait of a
Lady, there are plenty of ideas here, many of them remarkably good, many
remarkably bad. Stitched together to form a feature film, the results are
maddeningly uneven, but always worth seeing. Perhaps the problem is length - it
may be no coincidence that Campion's most satisfying work to date remains her
1984 short, Passionless Moments.
The best thing about Holy Smoke is probably Kate Winslet. She works wonders with the central role of Ruth, who undergoes a spiritual transformation during a trip to
For most of its length, Holy Smoke is original, witty, skilfully made and extremely well acted. In the final 20 minutes or so, however, things go careering out of control as the claustrophobic battle of wills between Winslet and Keitel heads into bizarre psychological territories which Campion doesn't seem to have fully thought through. Compared with what has gone before, the final scenes simply fail to convince, and the film feels in dire need of at least one rewrite. It doesn't know what it wants to be, and the scenes concentrating on Winslet's boorish Aussie family, though marvellously entertaining, seem to have been spliced in from another movie altogether.
Campion seems determined to go her own way - but the danger is that she doesn't appear willing to learn from her past mistakes. It's impossible to fault the acting (though Pam Grier has zero to do in a curiously minor role) and Campion stages many scenes with terrific visual verve, but Holy Smoke provides proof, once again, that a half-baked script is always an impossible hurdle to overcome.
There's reason for joy among feminists this morning, at least in the top
film market citties such as
When her family finds out, they're worried sick and her mother goes to
What happens out in "the half way hut" in the shadow of Ayres Rock is unlike anything you've ever seen at the movies before. It's sort of the Main Event in the battle of the sexes, with P J using his physical power, his tried and true deprogramming techniques, and his macho arrogance as his tools and Ruth using her faith, her knowledge that she has had a transforming spiritual experience, and her sexuality as hers. While he's trying to break her, she is slowly turning up the heat on him and eventually he can't control his desire for her. From there on in, she has him where she wants him. In a scene that women who believe that they should be in control of their own sexuality will marvel at, Ruth teaches P J how to make love to her on her terms, not his. Then, in a sequence that's reminiscent of the way Marlene Dietrich cruelly taunted and humiliated Emil Jannings in "The Blue Angel," Ruth puts lipstick and a dress on P J, and has sex with him her way for a change. She's gleeful because she has won the battle of wills, at least she thinks she has.
There's more, including a brief appearance by Pam Grier as Carol, P J's girlfriend from
City Pages, Minneapolis/St. Paul Kate Sullivan
PopMatters F.L. Carr
eFilmCritic Jack Sommersby
World Socialist Web Site Jason Nichols and David Walsh
AboutFilm Alison Tweedie-Perry
Kamera.co.uk Richard James Havis
City Pages, Minneapolis/St. Paul Rob Nelson
Movie House Commentary Johnny Web and Tuna
Filmtracks (Christian Clemmensen) soundtrack review
7:30 Report interview with the participants by Maxine Mckew December 13, 1999
Wholly Jane: Jane Campion on her new movie and other mysteries Judith Lewis interview from LA Weekly, January 18, 2000
The Boston Phoenix Peter Keough
Sumptuously photographed by Dion Beebe, filmed 100 % in New York City, this film has an incredibly sensuous and seamy style to it. Sex and violence are beautifully brought together here in a steamy erotic thriller where Jane Campion integrates the urban underbelly of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) with the growing female paranoia from Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941). Since becoming the first and only woman to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes for The Piano (1993), a lush study of repression, Campion has garnered a reputation for making ardently feminist films featuring a powerful and courageous woman as a central figure. But that doesn’t suggest her films are easy to digest, as evidenced by the virile review of the film by New York film critic Armond White Porn Theater and In the Cut | NYPress.com - New York's essential ..., “Feminism has garnered more favor in the mainstream media than has gay rights. This has nothing to do with correct thinking or sensitivity. As Jane Campion’s movies demonstrate, it is the result of privileged insensitivity,” calling the filmmaker a “con-artist” whose film is “the latest example of the way she uses sexual paranoia to appeal to the weak-minded sympathies of feminist critics and audiences.” Lest we remember White also called Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami a “backward third-world esthete.” Part of the resentment seems to derive from women freely adapting noir urban thrillers, territory that has previously been considered an exclusive male domain. Campion’s interest within the genre is redefining the women’s role, taking that same exploitive melodramatic female hysteria of women caught up in trouble, but exploring the fractured, internalized world from a different perspective. All she’s really doing is balancing the playing field, turning the story on edge using instead a female protagonist. The film is an adaptation of the 2003 novel by Susanna Moore, an erotic mystery thriller starring Meg Ryan, who made a career in the late 80’s and 90’s making homogenized mainstream American comedies. Campion originally worked for five years developing the film with Nicole Kidman (who remained a producer), but she got caught up in a messy and heavily publicized divorce with über megastar actor Tom Cruise.
Given that the film’s aesthetic is saturated in a dreamlike, impressionistic allure of color, the realistic aspect of the story may seem a bit improbable, where the now fortyish Meg Ryan is Frannie, a New York high school teacher and amateur linguist with an interest in the origins of slang, who continuously allows herself to be put in harm's way, almost as if she was hypnotized. However, this adds sensuality to the developing suspense, where every male in her mind becomes increasingly suspect as she nearly sleepwalks through this role, such is the dreamlike quality of her performance, while her sister Pauline, stunningly played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, gives one of her best performances as well. Both are world weary, affectionately close, neither passing judgment on the others life. The love between the two is overwhelming, as is their incredible need for love and intimacy. It's that feeling, the need to be needed, that dominates this film, as the two sisters appear to be sadly out of kilter with the world around them, as if it has somehow passed them by and they are settling for the leftovers. Opening strangely with the oddly hypnotic Que Sera Sera -- Pink Martini - YouTube (3:01) as petals fall over the Manhattan skyline, we’re already somehow part of a young girl’s fantasy, where the film revolves around Frannie’s sexual awakening, seen early on witnessing a cop getting a blowjob in the darkened back regions of a seedy bar, where the girl seen ends up murdered, where a piece of her “disarticulated” corpse is discovered near Frannie’s apartment. Frannie is portrayed as a vaguely dissatisfied woman, divorced with few friends, where she’s drawn into the misogynistic, macho world of the police detective investigating the murder, Mark Ruffalo as Detective Malloy, where it makes no sense why Frannie would be attracted to this type of vulgar-mouthed police detective, but attracted she is, and who says desire has to make sense? Her sister Pauline evidently wrote the book on the subject, encouraging her to finally connect with someone.
Some of the more genuinely affecting scenes in the film come between the detective and his partner, Detective Rodriguez (Nick Damici), where the combative language and police jargon perfectly captures the street oriented racism that is etched into their equally sexist dialogue, where both of these guys exhibit a crudeness exclusively associated with the behavior of hardened cops. Frannie grows both attracted and repulsed by Malloy’s boorish sexual aggressiveness, exploring the ambivalent feelings of female desire and passion, where her discovery of sexual pleasure is expressed with an emphasis almost exclusively on the woman’s enjoyment. But this is quickly tempered with her growing suspicions that Malloy may be the murderer, as he has the same distinctive tattoo on his wrist that she observed on the cop last seen with the murder victim, where now there are others killed in the exact same manner, meaning there is a vicious serial killer on the loose. Campion creates an intoxicatingly sensuous atmosphere steeped in sexual paranoia and violence, where every male figure suddenly becomes suspect, including her stalker-like, brain-fried former lover John, creepily played by uncredited Kevin Bacon, and a particularly interested black student Cornelius (Sharrieff Pugh), the source of much of her information on slang who also makes a play for her. These competing interests are contrasted against a highly developed internalized portrait of a women continually beaten down by the wretched horrors of the world outside, where Frannie has every reason to be petrified with fear, as the killer appears to be closing in. Using a rich and expressive visual language, including a highly personalized film within a film, the story unfolds from Frannie’s perspective, growing ever more blurry and indefinable around the edges of the frame, matching her deteriorating mental outlook. Meg Ryan succeeds brilliantly here in a more mature and multi-dimensional role, including full frontal nudity, breaking free from her stereotypical adorable parts that defined her career. Claustrophobic, dark and noirish atmospheric, this is an exquisitely constructed impressionistic mood piece that somehow offers its own peculiar elegy to the mournful souls currently trying to reconstruct their lives in a post 9/11 world weary New York City.
Laurie Anderson put it neatly: 'I hate my dreams,' she said. 'They're so infantile.' Campion's film is being sold as an erotic thriller, but the director evidently approached it as a fantasy. Ryan (no longer cute, and more interesting for it) is Frannie, an English teacher at NYU, caught up in a murder case when a 'disarticulated' corpse shows up on her doorstep. Frannie watched the girl giving head to a guy just the day before, a guy with an uncanny resemblance to homicide cop Molloy. Campion and Susanna Moore have sliced and diced the latter's novel, chopping and doubling characters with schizoid abandon. Every male is suspect. As for Molloy, Ruffalo gives him colour and shading; it's not the actor's fault if the character makes no sense. There's a much better film going on at the same time. Frannie's frank, funny relationship with her half-sister Pauline (Leigh) is credible and touching; so too, for that matter, is the fearful desire that pulses through Fran's erotic relationship with Molloy. The film's strong on its blurry, jittery New York rhythms, and the rich, febrile atmospherics are laced with poetry and secret talismans. There's texture and subtext to spare, but when it comes to text, Campion's disinterest in genre is palpable.
Porton from Cinema Scope, posted
Jane Campion’s early shorts and features, notably Sweetie (1989) and An Angel at my Table (1990), were distinguished by a remarkable visual and narrative dexterity. Although her subsequent films have often seemed strained and schematic in comparison (her breakout hit, 1993’s The Piano is the most egregious example), they all combine a fiercely personal style with an undogmatic feminist sensibility. Some of Campion’s champions are inordinately dogmatic, however, and it is both amusing and disconcerting to observe how her work is frequently celebrated with a blend of misplaced reverence and academic cant. In his BFI monograph on Campion, Dana Polan recounts a conversation with a professor friend who “declared virulently that it was impossible and even malicious to imagine Jane Campion making a film” of Susanna Moore’s novel In the Cut. Polan’s academic confidante views Moore’s heroine as something less than an exemplary independent woman, a curious objection given that Campion’s own female protagonists, who often fuse strength and vulnerability, are much too complex to be reduced to that stale cliché, “the strong woman.”
Unfortunately, Campion’s adaptation of In the Cut proves distressingly tame and, in the final analysis, is probably innocuous enough to please Polan’s censorious friend. (Since this “erotic thriller” opens with “Que Sera Sera” on the soundtrack, it becomes clear early on that subtlety will be in short supply.) Although the film version (co-written by Moore and Campion) almost slavishly reproduces the novel’s account of a hesitant sexual adventurer, other filmmakers – Catherine Breillat comes immediately to mind – have explored this terrain with less prevarication.
A whodunit with literary
pretensions, the film revolves around the sexual awakening of Franny (Meg
Ryan), a demure English professor. Once our heroine wanders into a
Working for the first time in what might be termed genre territory, Campion does her best to imbue In the Cut with a noirish ambiance. She opts for an intriguingly brackish colour scheme, perilously low light levels, and jagged camera movements. In the end, these flourishes (the film benefits enormously from the contributions of the talented cinematographer Dion Beebe) are all more or less perfunctory – as are Campion’s attempts to give the thin material some psychological ballast by inserting flashbacks in which Franny’s emotional paralysis is traced to her mother’s decision to marry an unfaithful man. The locations are disappointingly lackluster as well, although New Yorkers might notice one odd bit of local colour – Franny’s sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), lives above an actual strip club, the Baby Doll Lounge.
Many will assume that the film’s doom was sealed with the casting of Meg Ryan in the part of Franny, a role originally designed for Nicole Kidman. But Ryan gamely assumes the glum demeanor required of her, and it would be unfair to blame her for the film’s anemia. Leigh plays her sister, an entirely superfluous role, as an almost Eve Arden-ish sidekick. Since she portrays this underdeveloped character with such panache, it seems preternaturally cruel to kill her off as the plot reaches its creaky crescendo.
In addition, the film’s by-the-numbers sex scenes are sadly lacking in brio. I couldn’t help but think of Vladimir Nabokov’s withering comments on the wan sexual escapades in Tony Richardson’s adaptation of his Laughter in the Dark (1969): “the blotchy male shoulder, the false howls of bliss, the four or five mingled feet…all of it primitive, commonplace, conventional.” Even the admittedly risible sexual hijinks between Harvey Keitel and Kate Winslet in Holy Smoke (1999) possessed more erotic spark than Ryan and Ruffalo’s passionless writhings.
When a film by a director of unquestionable talent misfires, it seems presumptuous, but unavoidable, to speculate on her intentions. Instead of the cheekily subversive project Campion presumably had in mind, she ended up making a retooled version of a cautionary tale – an odd mixture of a Nancy Drew mystery and Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977).
Cinepassion Fernando F. Croce
Jane Campion's astonishingly beautiful new film, "In the
Cut," may be the most maddening and imperfect great movie of the year.
Certainly it's the most difficult to cozy up to with its unnerving fusion of
hot sex, icy sentiment and warm-running blood. The movie is being pitched as an
erotic thriller, but despite a suspense subplot and the frisson that comes with
watching professional cupcake Meg Ryan do the nasty, it plays far closer to an
adults-only fairy tale — albeit one in which the happily-ever looks a lot like
Think of it as the ultimate grim fairy tale: the story of a woman who, while wandering the streets of
Cornelius is one wolf on the prowl; a homicide detective named
Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) is another. Malloy comes knocking on Frannie's door after
an amputated female hand turns up in the teacher's back yard. A serial killer
seems to be running amok in the city, chopping women into mincemeat. Neither
surprised nor visibly disturbed by this grisly news (you'd think body parts
littered her front door), Frannie agrees to meet Malloy for drinks. But put off
by his boorish, epithet-spewing partner, Rodriguez (Nick Damici), she flees the
date and runs straight into the arms of a would-be mugger. Eluding her attacker
gives her an excuse to contact Malloy, ostensibly for some protective pointers.
The detective plays along with this fantasy by roughly putting an arm around
Frannie's neck and whispering dirty nothings in her ear.
Has Little Red Riding Hood jumped in bed with the wolf? That question drives "In the Cut," giving it a hum of nervous tension, but like all of Campion's features this is a movie that earns its thrills from two people circling each other and casual camera movements that catch moments of startling beauty. The film is filled with surreal, hothouse flourishes that tell the story as vividly and often more eloquently than either the plot mechanics or dialogue. In one scene, Frannie distractedly watches two women playing pool, one in a red dress, the other in green, a visual warning that she doesn't pick up on. Later, after telling the macabre story of her mother and father's courtship, she stands next to a blood-red wreath of flowers adorned with a banner reading "Mom."
At once dreamy and watchful, Frannie has the wounded mien of someone who's endured too many breakups. There's something disappointed about her but something angry, too. When Frannie and her sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), lounge around listening to love songs, the explicitness of their desire comes as a shock because it's so nakedly hurting. "What you need is a baby," Pauline coos, "and a man," echoing the words that reverberate through many women's heads whether they want them to or not. What Frannie really needs is something else, but when she first meets Malloy she looks at him as if he's stinking up the room. For his part, Ruffalo lets us know the cop doesn't care. "Tell me what you want me to be," Malloy tells Frannie, tracing tattoos of longing on her body.
Steeped in sexual paranoia and violence, Moore's novel is a chilly, self-conscious exercise in genre. It's a cheap shot of a book, but Campion has always enjoyed exploring the darker side of sex and power, so it's easy to see what attracted her to Frannie's strange adventure. The director handles the cop stuff effortlessly, nailing the hard precinct vibe and combative banter between Malloy and his partner, but she never satisfyingly integrates the story's thriller elements with the florid drama inside Frannie's noggin. The film mainly unfolds from Frannie's perspective and the images are often blurred around the edges to show just how little of the world she sees. But unlike the wife in Hitchcock's "Suspicion," the classic paranoid-woman movie, Frannie is also right to be scared.
Campion's visual language is richer, more expressive than Moore's prose, and in adapting the book she's appreciably warmed up the novel's characters, in particular Pauline, who looks as lush as overripe fruit and just as easy to bruise. Malloy gives off waves of heat, while Frannie's former lover, wittily played by Kevin Bacon, provides some humorous relief. But because Campion, unlike Moore's book, is fundamentally hopeful about men and women, there's something cockeyed about how the film ties up its loose genre threads. It's nice to see Ryan play a role without the usual ingratiation (there's always been a sour grimace lurking beneath that smile), but despite her best efforts it's difficult to accept where Frannie lands. Most of the film's last 30 minutes veer between the baffling and numbing, but just when you're ready to throw in the towel, Campion delivers a final grace note.
Although Campion isn't as strongly committed to surrealism as David Lynch, the final image of a slowly closing door in this film affirms that she's never been entirely in the grip of realism. A fever dream and a pitch-dark romance, "In the Cut" takes place as much in the realm of myth as on the downtown streets of New York; in each, women are either the heroines of their own stories or its victims. If nothing else, the film takes it on faith that the old storybook routines no longer apply, which helps explain why "Taxi Driver" — with its frenzied masculine violence and febrile vision of the city as a landscape of fear and desire — hangs over this movie so heavily. Once upon a time, Travis Bickle saved the girl, but then she grew up. Who saves her now?
BFI | Sight & Sound | Sex And Self-danger Graham Fuller from Sight and Sound, November 2003
If One Person is Strong, Must the Other Be Weak? Daniel Garrett from Offscreen, December 31, 2003
Violence as Phantasm: Eros and Thanatos in Campion's In the Cut Catherine Benoit
Making the Cut: Joy Press from the Village Voice
Jane Campion's IN THE CUT: Shadows from the Lighthouse M. Tamminga from A Journal of Film
Porn Theater and In the Cut | NYPress.com - New York's essential ... Armond White from NY Press
PopMatters Cynthia Fuchs
Nick's Flick Picks (Full Review) Nick Davis
In the Cut Leslie Felperin from Sight and Sound
In The Cut – Campion’s under-rated exploration of sexuality Zettel Film Reviews
"In the Cut" - Salon Stephanie Zacharek
About.com Rebecca Murray
EyeForFilm.co.uk Angus Wolfe Murray
Kamera.co.uk John Atkinson
The SF, Horror and Fantasy Film Review Richard Scheib
Movie House Commentary Johnny Web
Slant Magazine Jeremiah Kipp
DVD Verdict - Uncut Director's Edition Elizabeth Skipper
Sunday Online, Australia (Peter Thompson) including brief comments from Campion and the two leads
The Boston Phoenix Peter Keough
Bookslut | In the Cut by Susanna Moore Gena Anderson book review from Bookslut
It's usually first-time directors who make a splash at Cannes with their short films. But now, more established names are getting in on the act. Jane Campion tells Xan Brooks why small is beautiful
Cannes is the world of the brief encounter. For 10 days the place runs to a staccato rhythm of snatched conversations, bullet-point pitches, round-table junkets and business lunches. Away from the glare of the Palme d'Or competition, it has increasingly become the world of the brief film, too.
The short has always had its place at the Cannes film festival, with a number of programmes playing both in and out of competition. They provide a crucial platform for novice directors, the chance to show the industry what they are made of and - fingers crossed - drum up the funds for that all-important first feature.
But this year the balance has shifted, with these comparative ghettos of the schedule surprisingly gate-crashed by the rich and famous. The likes of Walter Salles (Motorcycle Diaries), Alexander Payne (Sideways), Alfonso Cuaron (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and Gaspar Noe (Irréversible) would not look out of place in the main competition line-up. Jane Campion, Gus Van Sant and the Coen brothers are former Palme d'Or winners. All of them have short films in this year's event.
Campion's piece, The Water Diary, is a lyrical, child's-eye view of an Australian township paralysed by drought. It is the director's contribution to 8, a series of movies strung around a weighty brief: the United Nation's development project on millennium goals. "I told them I would do it if I was given complete control," she explains. "I could just imagine what hell it would be if everyone started getting involved and gave me suggestions. This was a good way for us all to be freed. It's my fault if I get it wrong. Blame the film-maker." The Water Diary took just six days to shoot. It was, she says, "a little holiday".
Campion admits that short films are often seen as the poor relations of cinema. "But they 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. The great thing is that almost everyone ends up doing something creative with them, even those directors who then go on to make quite boring features."
You could say that The Water Diary has carried her full-circle. Campion first came to Cannes back in 1986 when her short piece, Peel, won a major prize at the festival. "I was so naïve back then," she says. "When they said they were putting my work in the programme I said, 'Oh, that's nice'. They said, 'Well, obviously you have to come' and I said, 'Oh no, I don't have that scheduled in my diary and I don't really enjoy that sort of thing anyway'. Fortunately they managed to convince me otherwise." Campion, of course, went on to further glory at Cannes when The Piano won the Palme d'Or at the 1993 festival.
This year she is keeping a lower profile, sheltering in the shade of a bar on the beach. She arrived with her daughter on the train from Rome, and has no particular thing that she needs to do. "It's nice coming here with a short film as opposed to a feature," she says. "It's a very relaxing way to see Cannes." Tonight she is planning catch a showing of Marie Antoinette. One senses that she is here as a tourist first and a film-maker second.
Described as "un film collectif", 8 points to a possible way forward for the short film. Evidence suggests that these bite-sized canapés traditionally struggle to connect with an audience accustomed to the banquet of the bona-fide feature. By grouping their work under a single thematic umbrella, the maker of short films is able to bypass such prejudices.
Playing further up the Croisette, Destricted boasts a rather different brief - a series of "responses to the theme of pornography by seven different artists". So far the tactic seems to be working. The queues go round the block while the mood in the cinema is festive, bordering on the bawdy. The tyro French director Gaspar Noe bounds up and down the aisle to greet the new arrivals. Larry Clark (of Kids and Bully fame) slopes to his seat with a furtive, watchful air. We learn that British artist Sam Taylor-Wood, who was also intending to be here to discuss her contribution, had to cancel because she's pregnant - that pesky consequence of actually having sex as opposed to filming it.
Destricted, inevitably, is a bit of a mixed bag. While some of the segments are genuine "responses to pornography", others are just pornography. Clark's film, Impaled, turns out to be one of the better efforts. The director interviews a gaggle of wannabe male porn stars, makes them strip for the camera and then abruptly introduces the winner to the woman he is supposed to have sex with. Elsewhere, Noe's film is a stroboscopic montage of brutish masturbation fantasies. Anyone who has caught his features (Irréversible, I Stand Alone) will know what to expect.
Like Campion, Noe won a short film prize at Cannes at the start of his career. Like her, he is drawn to the form for the freedom it provides. "With a short you are allowed to do whatever you want," he tells me afterwards. "It's like if you have a girlfriend and she tells you that you can do whatever you want. That's very exciting." He appears to be still stuck in steamy, Destricted mode.
The problem, explains Noe, is that the process of making a feature can be such a long and painful process. "It takes years out of your life. You get the green light and then it turns back to amber and you have to start all over again. Here you get the call and you have to come up with an idea and shoot it straight away. It feels so wonderfully fresh and liberating." For good measure, Noe also has a film about Aids, Sida, playing alongside Campion's in 8.
Finally we have Paris Je t'Aime, playing in the festival's Un Certain Regard section. It offers a sunnier, gentler example of the portmanteau movie: 18 five-minute love-letters to Paris, each one set in a different arrondissement. Its range of directors runs the gamut from Wes Craven to Gus Van Sant, Cuaron to the Coens.
At the Cannes press junket, the film-makers sit at a bank of round tables while the journalists bob between them like bees above a flowerbed. I speak to South African director Oliver Schmitz, who says that he found the format to be deceptively difficult, and that the act of boiling a life story down into one five-minute spell would be a challenge for anyone. Richard Lagravenese (who wrote The Fisher King and directed A Decade Under the Influence) suggests that we are entering a golden age for the short film, and that the internet provides the perfect platform for viewers who want entertainment in small doses.
Paris Je t'Aime is the brainchild of Marseilles-born Frederic Auburtin, who co-directs one segment alongside Gérard Depardieu. Apparently the original intention was to have 20 films in the collection. "Francis Coppola and Woody Allen were both very eager to get involved," Auburtin says. "They said yes straight away and stayed with the project for a long time. But in the end it didn't happen." Why was that? "They couldn't fit it in with their schedules," he says with a sigh. "They went off and made features instead." Amid all the generally positive talk, Auburtin strikes a rare downbeat note. For all its recent success, it seems that the short is not the new long after all - at least not quite yet.
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art —
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —
No, yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillowed upon my fair love's ripening breast —
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever — or else swoon to death.
—John Keats, from The Last Sonnet, 1819, 637. Last Sonnet. John Keats. The Oxford Book of English Verse
Thank God somebody still shoots on 35 mm and produces a “real” film that in every detail looks the way film is supposed to look, where color, detail, and art matter. A film laced with Campion themes and ideas, all beautifully rendered, where one especially admires the meticulous attention to minor details, this is a tormented love story between a sickly young poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw), unheralded at the time, and his inspiration, the object of his affection, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), who is consumed by his adoration. From start to finish this film is an idealization immersed in Romanticism that freely mixes speech and theatricality into cinema in an attempt to broaden the audience’s understanding of the period, from the composition of each shot, where each frame is a portrait in still life, to the extraordinary use of costumes, where actress Abbie Cornish is decorated throughout in simply outrageous, overly dressed outfits which seem to exist only in the movies, to moments where characters break out in a song or dance, and are encouraged by others to do so, usually met with applause, but most importantly with the reverential use of language, which is after all, what we have left from the writings of English poet John Keats, who died of tuberculosis when he was 25. Jane Campion has done something rarely seen in films without being pretentious (think of Sally Potter’s 2004 film YES which is spoken entirely in iambic pentameter), which is to create a literary language within the film language that interjects itself from time to time, like a film within a film, or a play within a play, where characters break out into lines of poetry, spoken to one another just like ordinary conversation, except the language itself is such a thing of beauty, including the perfectly exquisite way it’s being spoken, that it feels as if we’re being transported into an entirely new Shakespearean play of young lovers. This theatrical device increases the emotional intensity and saturates the screen with yet another layer of sensuousness on top of the luscious and inspired cinematography from Greig Fraser, not to mention the hauntingly lovely musical score from Mark Bradshaw.
Everything in this film points to sensuality, from the eloquent way they speak to one another, to the manner of her dress, to the intimately stylized way they’re being framed in close up, followed by idyllic, painterly long shots of her two younger siblings as portraits of innocence in a luscious, unspoiled landscape, always capturing the natural beauty of the world outdoors reminiscent of the cinematic poetry of Terrence Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978). Written by Campion herself, seen through the eyes of Fanny Brawne, we are thrown into a period drama without any introduction or preface, where John Keats has already written his first book of Poems as well as his follow up Endymion, but he remains penniless and not yet a writer of repute, living nearby and supported by a friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), a somewhat rakish, ill-mannered gentleman who spends all of his time in the company of Keats, probably borrowing liberally from his writing methods, supposedly liberated fellows intent on writing poetry. Campion captures the irony of the Romantic era as a period of female acquiescence where Fanny’s quick tongue and self confidence immediately fascinates Keats with her beauty and outspoken candor, not to mention her new interest in his poetry. Interestingly, Fanny has a skill in clothing design and wears her stunning creations as if on parade throughout the film, where she can usually be seen sitting quietly in a chair with needle and thread. Keats is seen as reserved, isolated, and shy, well mannered, with a moral disposition and a keen awareness for language, while Fanny is still a teenager at the time and appears self-centered, a bit conceited in her dress and opinion of others, yet she’s also thoughtfully inquisitive, especially for things beyond her reach, like the world of poetry, which quickly becomes her latest curiosity. She is seen throughout accompanied by her younger brother and sister, as a “proper” lady never goes anywhere unaccompanied.
The initial signs of love are simply a ravenous desire to talk with and be in the company of one another, all of which couldn’t be more natural, even when moving into the theatrical language of the era, stealing moments while trying to elude the net that the possessive Mr. Brown surrounds Keats with, who’s probably of the opinion there’s money to be made from this young protégé. But the flowering of their love couldn’t be more exquisitely realized, especially with walks in the woods and the remarkably inspired butterfly scenes with her little sister Toots (Edie Martin), also a few shots of Fanny in the throes of love, laying on her bed as the curtains flutter in the breeze, or happily playing in a field exploding in the color of violet flowers with her precocious younger sister, actually projecting her love for Keats to her little sister and the rest of the world at the moment. But trouble ensues, as Keats tries to earn a living elsewhere, where the entire world stops during those anguishing absences until the next letter arrives, where his letters are all that matters in the world. But as Fanny’s mother, Kerry Fox from An Angel at My Table (1990) and INTIMACY (2001) points out, Keats does not have the financial means to marry, so Fanny’s family is concerned with this all consuming passion, as it prevents her from meeting more economically prosperous prospects. It is the era of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice where even strong, opinionated women have absolutely no opportunity in life other than to marry a rich husband. Other than that, they were viewed contemptuously by men thinking their opinion as pretty much worthless, which is exactly the way Fanny is viewed by Mr. Brown, so Campion really gets the tone of the era right. This social dilemma haunts the couple like a plague throughout their entire lives.
After Keats’ brother dies of tuberculosis, followed by his sudden fascination with Fanny Brawne, his poetry takes on an increasing complexity, intermingling the subjects of love and death, eventually falling victim to tuberculosis himself, soon having to come to terms with his own mortality, writing in one of his last letters: “How astonishing does the chance of leaving the world impress a sense of its natural beauties on us.” Set in the poverty stricken, pre-industrial, pre-Victorian world of the 1820’s, there was no treatment for tuberculosis other than bed rest and moving to a more temperate climate, so his need to write, like Mozart on his death bed writing his own Requiem, becomes a race with time. When Keats moves to Italy during the winters, their love affair appears doomed, but Fanny’s hopes throughout will not be deterred. The blissful optimism of their budding love affair takes on darker, somber tones by the end, where much of the story is advanced through the reading of letters, as Cornish does an excellent job releasing her pent up anguish at the end where she lets out a ghastly death wail. The finale over the end credits was unnecessarily confusing, as Whishaw reads “Ode to a Nightingale” (Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats | Poetry Foundation) in its entirety while music plays over the credits all the way to the end, but theater patrons are gathering their coats, talking with one another, even starting cellphone conversations, all with noisy, typical end-of-film behavior, which for most patrons happens as soon as the credits roll, so the voice onscreen couldn’t really be heard over the commotion and just sounded like it went on and on endlessly. It’s an unfortunate finale, leaving some customers puzzled, as the rest of the film couldn’t have been more meticulously well-constructed, quiet, restrained, uncompromising, and well acted, always finding the right tone between the two characters, who could never marry or even consummate their love, as Keats was an English gentleman. Certainly the Romantics were fond of suffering, and the initial bliss of love in this relationship is replaced by a tortuous longing for which there is no release, not even after death. Such is the power of being in the everlasting grasp of love.
Opening this week is one of the year's best films, Bright Star. Jane Campion’s (The Piano) newest is an exquisitely constructed, lushly romantic tale of the passionate love between 23-year-old poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and the girl that lived next door to him while he was in London in 1818 -- Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). Fanny, slavishly devoted to fashion, wit, and dances, was first put-off by the brooding, handsome, serious poet, but soon grows to adore him. It’s hard to explain to modern audiences this kind of chaste but powerful relationship -- made up of letters, stolen kisses, and lying in beds pining for one another with a wall separating the two. But then again, imagine with sadness a future movie about a love affair constructed from saved text-messages. Campion conjures on film the pleasures, excitements, and extravagant mysteries of words. Fanny is a perfect Campion heroine. Headstrong, secure in her own skin, but leading with her heart.
A period piece typified by restraint, delicacy and the romantic spirit of its renowned subject, Jane Campion’s Bright Star details the amorous three-year affair of 19th-century poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Cornish). In keeping with Campion’s career-long interest in investigating and depicting the female perspective, the film sticks closely to Fanny, a young girl with a knack for sewing and, as she confesses to Keats early on, only an amateur knowledge of poetry. Fanny’s gumption, independence and beauty endear her to Keats, a struggling young writer living with poet and benefactor Charles Brown (an adept Paul Schneider), and their feelings blossom despite Keats’ unemployed, penniless condition, which – as Fanny’s mother regularly reminds her – makes him an unsuitable candidate for marriage. Both this obstacle and the jealous interference of Brown, whose fondness for Keats’ writing borders on the possessive, frustrate Keats and Fanny’s attempts to be together, with Campion’s clear-eyed, beautifully composed images (including a recurring one of the couple pressed up against opposite sides of the same wall) evoking the social structures that threaten to keep them apart. Whishaw’s reserved performance and Cornish’s sensitive turn work in tandem to create a poignant portrait of longing and (largely unconsummated) passion. Ultimately more moving, however, is the film’s deft evocation of Keats’ prose through both integrated spoken-word passages that feel both natural and reverent, as well as via seasonal snapshots of the verdant English countryside that (along with numerous images of caressing hands) have a potent tactility.
The girl is a mere teenager, and the young man will never grow old. He is fated to die, relatively unheralded, at 25, leaving his poems to endure and grow in stature, and eventually invite praise as the greatest since Shakespeare. She will marry another and, through the rest of her long life, remain secretive about their brief time together. Bright Star is the story of that time, a tale of first love between the belle damsel and the doomed genius. Fanny Brawne, meet John Keats.
In the gentle hands of Jane Campion, what a pure and poignant tale it is. The place is London circa 1820, although Campion takes admirable care not to “mount” the period piece, not to stick the Regency costumes and the attendant manners into a gilded frame. Instead, the modest houses seem lived in, the muddy streets look walked on, and the youthful principals appear refreshingly real. Especially Fanny (Abbie Cornish), who gives the film both its emotional power and its singular point of view. This may be a romance involving the greatest of the Romance poets, but the narrative unfolds not from the perspective of the famous man, but solely through the eyes of the obscure woman.
Immediately, we see those eyes at work, bent over the sewing of a colourful frock. Gaily turned out, Fanny is quite the fashion plate, but don't think any less of her. Keats makes that mistake when they initially meet, only to learn that her wit is as sharp as her needle. Pointing to her spools of thread, she smiles at the poet, who is already published yet still virtually penniless, and retorts, “But I can make money from this.” Bright star, indeed.
The verbal fencing over, her interest in him is sparked by the opening line of his Endymion : “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” (Here, and elsewhere, Campion stitches in the poetry seamlessly – she's no slouch with a needle herself.) Certainly, there's beauty in their budding relationship; however, the joy is restrained on all sides, not just by the proprieties of the time (their every move is chaperoned by Fanny's tagalong siblings), but more specifically by the particularities of Keats himself – by his failing health, by his empty wallet and, not least, by his best friend.
That would be Charles Brown (played with a deliciously rambunctious burr by Paul Schneider), who sort of triangulates the love affair. Revering Keats's work as he does, Brown regards Fanny as unworthy either of the poetry or the poet. That doesn't stop him from flirting openly with the girl, and the ensuing contrast – between Keats's high romance and Brown's lower lust – grounds the picture in an often-comic earthiness, the profane rubbing shoulders with the sacred.
Of course, it's love's sublimity, or at least its simple purity, that wins out and wins us over – all those gestures small and large, like Fanny tossing Keats a folded note through an open window, or his giving her his mother's ring, or the two leaning their heads against opposite sides of the wall that separates their adjoining homes. Yes, the barriers remain. Yet the very restraint that impedes the lovers is embraced by the director. Shooting with a classical reserve, Campion steadies her camera and calms her style, raising the lyrical volume only when the romance heats up over a short-lived summer. Then, she allows her lens to find a Keatsian enchantment in the wildflowers on the sun-dappled heath and the gentle breeze billowing a gossamer curtain.
Campion demands the same quiet restraint of her cast. As Keats, Ben Whishaw positions himself at the still point between sickness and health, sometimes amorously confused (“I'm not sure I have the right feelings towards women”) yet always artistically confident (“Poetry soothes and enables the soul to accept mystery”). Whishaw is just fine, but Cornish is superb. She's obliged to portray one of Campion's typical heroines – a strong and intelligent woman snared in the mores of her time – without recourse to any flamboyant theatrics. So her eyes alone speak eloquent volumes, seeing much, feeling much, even as Fanny is pushed by convention and circumstance to the margins of Keats's waning life – her love unconsummated and her anxieties unheard.
Admittedly, when the script does allow her emotions to surface, they can seem to grow out of rather thin dramatic soil – for instance, if her letters to him aren't quickly or lengthily answered, she weeps real tears. Consequently, on occasion, the film can feel too minimal and reserved, as lightweight as those gossamer curtains. Mainly, though, Cornish's performance and Campion's direction make for a beguiling marriage, never more so than during the tragic divorce of the climax. Then, in that tiny room above Rome's Spanish Steps, a young man meets his “easeful death,” leaving a younger woman hundreds of miles away to bear the news alone, her girlish tears displaced by a piercing howl that few would hear and most would ignore. Until now.
And then there’s this madness: Even movies that are about the women who love great men almost always end up being about the men anyway. I suppose that’s the point of telling the story of such women in the first place: they’re only worth talking about because the great men turned their gaze upon them for a time.
But not this movie. Not Bright Star. John Keats is the intruder into the story of Fanny Brawne, and if you didn’t already know that he turned out to be the renowed poet and she turned out to be “merely” the young woman who loved him, and was loved by him, and inspired some of his greatest poetry, you might be forgiven for assuming that she’s the one who surely washed up legendary years later, for how the film defies the convention of lavishing its focus not on him as the de facto presumptive natural center of attention, but on her.
The beautiful thing about that is that -- as with all expressions of honest feminism -- it ends up being as good for him as it does for her. Because screenwriter and director Jane Campion (In the Cut) has made her Fanny a true bright star for her John to orbit, has brought to breathtakingly lovely life not only the facts of their relationship but the spirit of the poetry that it inspired, and that made the poet the towering figure he is in our minds today. (The poem the film is named for is his ode to Fanny.) I’ve never actually been much of a fan of the Romantic poets, but everything I’ve ever been told about why they’re important and what their words say positively radiates off the screen: the impossibility of separating ourselves from nature, the importance of appreciating the experience of living, the pleasure we take in beauty being its own kind of beauty.
It’s there in the knowing dreaminess of Ben Wishaw’s (The International, Brideshead Revisited) John, who is moody and melancholy as he mopes around the rambling Hampstead houses and fields and woods that the film moves through, locations of expansive wistfulness perfectly suited to a poor poet who thinks of little but words and love and nesting in trees of an afternoon. It’s there in the steely certainty of Abbie Cornish’s (Stop-Loss, Elizabeth: The Golden Age) Fanny, as modern a girl as they come even today: 18 years old, consumed with fashion and creative about it (she makes all her own clothes, wonderful inventions that, you might have thought, were the reason she became famous, were you to suppose that she had), and positive that a poor poet is the man for her, even should he not be in a position to marry.
Marriage is the only option for a respectable, well-brought-up girl like Fanny, for it is 1818, and that’s just how things are. But these are not people who are living in a corseted theme-park version of the past: this is their real world, and the way things are is simply the way things are. They are modern people, as all people always are in their own times but as few films set in historical eras manage to capture. (It’s very much like Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice in that regard.) They don’t wear costumes but clothes -- John, especially, is so wonderfully unkempt half the time that he’s entirely the 1818 equivalent of a dude lounging around in old jeans and a torn T-shirt. And their feelings are shown to us by Campion in such a way as to almost make you gasp with recognition for their straightforward authenticity: as Fanny takes to moping over the impossibility of her love for John, she isn’t much unlike teenagers today. When Fanny’s little sister, Toots (the whip-snarky Edie Martin), announces to their mother (Kerry Fox) that “Fanny wants a knife... to kill herself...” well, there’s gentle humor in it -- it’s all lovestruck exaggeration -- but also an almost literally pointed reminder that, you know, heartbreak wasn’t invented by Elvis Presley.
There’s palpable anguish onscreen here, all around. Earlier, it’s in John’s bewilderment at finding himself in love with one such as Fanny, all brash daring and foolish (or so he deems it) frippery: he doesn’t know what to make of women at all, he acknowledges, and doesn’t know why he’s attracted to her. (Ah, that loveliest and most infuriating conundrum: why are we attracted to this person and not to that person?) It’s in Fanny’s wallowing in the wonderful misery of being in love. It’s in John’s best friend and fellow poet Charles Brown, a bulldog presence who resents Fanny’s intrusion into the relationship of two men. (Paul Schneider [Lars and the Real Girl, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford] as Brown is almost terrifyingly aggressive, though often amusingly so, too, as if Brown were as big a mystery to himself as he is to John and Fanny; Schneider is a just-right mirror image to Wishaw’s delicate passion and brooding consideredness.) It’s there later, when Fanny learns that she and John will never be together again, in a grief so powerful it stunned me into sharing it.
All of the zeal of the Romantics and everything that concerned them is here in the cosy domesticity of Fanny’s home and family and in how Campion presents it to us: the cat that’s always underfoot, even when it’s not wanted; the collection of buttleflies gathered by Fanny and Toots that, in perhaps the film’s most simply beautiful sequence, flitter about Fanny’s bedroom. It’s there in the ardor between Fanny and John, which, for all its chasteness, burns burns burns; Wishaw and Cornish smolder together in a way that we don’t often see onscreen because their characters can never quite give in to their desire for each other.
It’s not only the best possible ode to Keats’ work, this lovely gentle poetic film, it’s the best possible ode to Fanny, as well: If she made him feel the way this movie feels, that must have been a powerful love indeed.
The New York Times (A.O. Scott) review September 16, 2009
John Keats was a Romantic poet. “Bright Star,” which tells the tale of Keats and Fanny Brawne, the love of his short life, is a romantic movie. The vernacular of popular culture and the somewhat specialized language of literary history assign different meanings to that word, but the achievement of Jane Campion’s learned and ravishing new film is to fuse them, to trace the comminglings and collisions of poetic creation and amatory passion.
This is a risky project, not least because a bog of cliché and fallacy lies between the filmmaker and her goal. In the first decades of the 19th century, some poets may have been like movie stars, but the lives of the poets have been, in general, badly served on film, either neglected altogether or puffed up with sentiment and solemnity. The Regency period, moreover, serves too many lazy, prestige-minded directors as a convenient vintage clothing store. And there are times in “Bright Star” when Keats, played by the pale and skinny British actor Ben Whishaw (“Perfume,” “I’m Not There”), trembles on the edge of caricature. He broods; he coughs (signaling the tuberculosis that will soon kill him); he looks dreamily at flowers and trees and rocks.
But these moments, rather than feeling studied or obvious, arrive with startling keenness and disarming beauty, much in the way that Keats’s own lyrics do. His verses can at first seem ornate and sentimental, but on repeated readings, they have a way of gaining in force and freshness. The music is so intricate and artificial, even as the emotions it carries seem natural and spontaneous. And while no film can hope to take you inside the process by which these poems were made, Ms. Campion allows you to hear them spoken aloud as if for the first time. You will want to stay until the very last bit of the end credits, not necessarily to read the name of each gaffer and grip, but rather to savor every syllable of Mr. Whishaw’s recitation of “Ode to a Nightingale.”
Keats’s genius — underestimated by many of the critics of his time, championed by a loyal coterie of literary friends — is the fixed point around which “Bright Star” orbits. Its animating force, however, is the infatuation that envelops Keats and Brawne in their early meetings and grows, over the subsequent months, into a sustaining and tormenting love. Mr. Keats, as his lover decorously calls him, is diffident and uneasy at times, but also witty, sly and steadfast. The movie really belongs to Brawne, played with mesmerizing vitality and heart-stopping grace by Abbie Cornish.
Ms. Cornish, an Australian actress whose previous films include “Stop-Loss,” “Candy” and “Somersault,” has, at 27, achieved a mixture of unguardedness and self-control matched by few actresses of any age or nationality. She’s as good as Kate Winslet, which is about as good as it’s possible to be.
Fanny, the eldest daughter of a distracted widow (Kerry Fox), has some of the spirited cleverness of a Jane Austen heroine. A gifted seamstress, she prides herself on her forward-looking fashion sense and her independence. She is also vain, insecure and capable of throwing herself headlong into the apparent folly of adoring a dying and penniless poet, something no sensible Austen character would ever do.
If it were just the poet and his beloved, “Bright Star” might collapse in swooning and sighing, or into the static rhythms of a love poem. And while there are passages of extraordinary lyricism — butterflies, fields of flowers, fluttering hands and beseeching glances — these are balanced by a rough, energetic worldliness. Lovers, like poets, may create their own realms of feeling and significance, but they do so in contention with the same reality that the rest of us inhabit.
The film’s designated reality principle is Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), Keats’s friend, patron and collaborator and his main rival for Fanny’s attention. For Brown, Fanny is an irritant and a distraction, though the sarcastic intensity of their banter carries an interesting sexual charge of its own. In an Austen novel this friction would be resolved in matrimony, but “Bright Star,” following the crooked, shadowed path of biographical fact, has a different story to tell.
Brown and Keats are neighbors to the Brawne brood in Hampstead in 1818, when the story begins. In April of the following year the poets are occupying one-half of a house, with Fanny and her mother and siblings on the other side of the wall. After nine months Keats, in declining health, is dispatched to Italy by a committee of concerned friends, but until then he and Fanny consummate their love in every possible way except physically.
Ms. Campion is one of modern cinema’s great explorers of female sexuality, illuminating Sigmund Freud’s “dark continent” with skepticism, sympathy and occasional indignation. “Bright Star” could easily have become a dark, simple fable of repression, since modern audiences like nothing better than to be assured that our social order is freer and more enlightened than any that came before. But Fanny and Keats are modern too, and though the mores of their time constrain them, they nonetheless regard themselves as free.
The film is hardly blind to the sexual hypocrisy that surrounds them. Fanny can’t marry Keats because of his poverty, but Brown blithely crosses class lines to have some fun with (and impregnate) a naïve and illiterate young household servant (Antonia Campbell-Hughes). That Fanny and Keats must sublimate their longings in letters, poems and conversations seems cruel, but they make the best of it. As does Ms. Campion: a sequence in which, fully clothed, the couple trades stanzas of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” in a half-darkened bedroom must surely count as one of the hottest sex scenes in recent cinema.
The heat of that moment and others like it deliver “Bright Star” from the tidy prison of period costume drama. Ms. Campion, with her restless camera movements and off-center close-ups, films history in the present tense, and her wild vitality makes this movie romantic in every possible sense of the word.
Slant Magazine review Ed Gonzalez
Jane Campion's Conspicuous Heroines Jessica Winter from Moving Image Source
Tim Hayes Critics Notebook
Campion’s Prudish “Star” Needs More Sizzle Eric Kohn from indieWIRE, May 15, 2009
Cannes '09: Day Three Mike D’Angelo at Cannes from The Onion A.V. Club, May 15, 2009
Cannes contender Jane Campion gives clarion call to women directors Charlotte Higgins at Cannes from The Guardian, May 15, 2009
Jane Campion, Where Have You Been? Eugene Hernandez at Cannes from indieWIRE, May 15, 2009
Melissa Anderson at Cannes from Artforum, May 15, 2009
Bright Star David Hudson at Cannes from The IFC Blog, May 15, 2009
Campion in Cannes Charles Ealy at Cannes from 360 Austin Movie Blog, May 15, 2009
Entertainment Weekly review [A-] Lisa Schwarzbaum
The Hollywood Reporter review Ray Bennett at Cannes, May 15, 2009
Todd McCarthy at Cannes from Variety, May 15, 2009
The Daily Telegraph review [5/5] David Gritten at Cannes from The Telegraph, May 15, 2009
Bright Star: at last a good film about poetry John Patterson from The Guardian, October 31, 2009
Cannes '09 Day 3: Rain, Romanticism Wesley Morris at Cannes from The Boston Globe, May 15, 2009
Los Angeles Times [Kenneth Turan] Turan talks with Campion at Cannes, May 18, 2009
Los Angeles Times [Kenneth Turan] September 18, 2009
Jane Campion Presents Another Resilient Heroine Joan Dupont at Cannes from The New York Times, May 15, 2009
Christopher Ricks book review on Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography, by Stanley Plumly (392 pages), from The New York Review of Books
Keats : Poetry of John Keats, at everypoet.com a selection of poems
John Keats a selection of sonnets
John Keats from Books and Writers
An Introduction to "Bright Star" an analysis of the poem
rom The Romantic Age, 1770 – 1870
TOP OF THE LAKE – made for TV A 95
Australia Great Britain (350 mi – 7 episodes) 2013
You can be very hard. And what I don't like is that you think it’s strength. — Robin’s mother Jude Griffin (Robyn Nevin)