Feminism According to Jane Campion

by - Sunday, September 29, 2013

In the last week and a half, I have gone on a Jane Campion binge, partially because it is so nice to watch things about women that are also made by women (I also watched The Kids are Alright which weirdly worked in the triad, and some movie about the sixties and Diane Lane having an affair with Viggo, which defnitely didn't). First, I watched The Piano from 1993 and then later in the week, I watched Top of the Lake, the BBC miniseries.

The Piano blew me away as a pointed response to old Victorian stories about the straying woman. These female characters break away from boring domestic lives for a brief fling, but it comes to a tragic end. Flaubert killed her off for cheating (didn't Tyler Perry just do the same thing?). In The Awakening, Kate Chopin lets her heroine kill herself, and the death is pretty emancipatory, but on the other hand, she is still dead. (SPOILER ALERT) In The Piano, Jane Campion's mute (yet pretty badass) character considers dying, about half of her lines in the whole movie contemplate it, but she lives on. Just this choice, all on its own, is a pretty bold feminist response to old narratives about women and morality.

Campion was born in New Zealand and still works primarily out of Australia. Most people still know her for The Piano which received tons of praise at Cannes and the Oscars in the early 90's. She is one of only three women who have ever been nominated for an Oscar. Campion gets a lot of credit for being a female director, and even though it would be nice for her to not always have this additional title attached (couldn't she just be a great director, period?), you can find tons of quotes about the writer and director about how female artistic voices, especially in film, are often ignored. She said, "Women gave birth to everyone on this planet. No one, no one on this planet didn't come through a woman. It makes me furious that people don't seem to care what women think."

The Piano was made in 1993 and Top of the Lake premiered in March 2013. I have yet to watch everything that she made in the 20 years between, so forgive my omissions. At the same time, I have noticed a few really exciting trends in her work. Both works feature the gorgeous New Zealand landscape in a way that seems uneasy or unsafe. Both take their time in their story-telling, and the pace seems slower than I am used to (Top of the Lake has to be the slowest thriller in the history of mysteries, but that makes it work). This style seems so intuitively feminine, so different from what I am used to, because it is seeking out sensation and emotion rather than a constant narrative thrust. It doesn't constantly have to be "doing."

These works both feature a lot more humor than you might expect. They have a pretty dark humor, but Top of the Lake is especially hilarious when at the women's commune led by the mysterious, hilarious, and frank GJ (Holly Hunter is turning it out in this miniseries!).

 Both of the pieces also feature male characters who when boiled down are "the bad guy", but she treats them with complexity and sometimes kindness. They can be incredibly ugly, but we also have a sense of the contexts in which they are good. These aren't man-hating films, but they made me recognize the behaviors I excuse and the ways I empathize when I shouldn't. I actually checked myself as a feminist while watching them. Every character has multiple things going on. Campion explained in Interview that she doesn't condemn cruelty, but just sees it as another human condition. So her antagonist is never treated simply or antagonistically, but she tries to be truthful even to them.

Most importantly, she writes about women who are complicated and not even always likable. They often make mistakes and neither seem to feel that regular compulsions to please everyone around them. They aren't "nice" in the best way, but they are still admirable for their abilities, their loyalty, and their truthfulness. These women are often described as "crazy," "unbalanced," or "troubled" (Fincina Hopgood writes a great deal about this in Senses of Cinema), and the viewer can sense a social unease about who they are and how they function against more "normal" behavior. These women both had their primary relationships with other women (her daughter and her mother). Both are compelled by passion and sex, and they turn away from the relationships that they are "supposed" to be having for ones where they feel more fulfilled. Both have ambiguous pasts, and much is left unsaid about them (why is Ada getting sent so far away anyway? Why can't she talk?).

The interesting turn in Top of the Lake is that the miniseries seems to want to wrap up more of these things first left unsaid. Robin's history- why she left, what her relationship is with various characters, and her very dark backstory. At the same time, because some of the "resolution" comes from highly unreliable characters, the story remains ambiguous for other reasons (I won't spoil it, since it isn't 20 years old).

Campion's story in Top of the Lake centers around a highly patriarchal system in a very rural area and the ways it is disrupted (though not exactly changed) by one child, one young woman, and a slew of older women on a retreat. Though the story centers on a young female detective, some of the best sequences of the film center around this commune of women dealing with various traumas and dramas. We also get to see a much older woman take charge of her sexuality in one of the best sequences of the whole film. Campion is herself 20 years older, and she commented in a recent interview on the freeing effects of growing older: "I think one of the wonderful things about getting older is that I feel a lot freer. Once you've fallen off the 'Is she f***able?' category.You can just be and the world feels bigger and more interesting." They seem to be on the outskirts of society (called "Paradise"), but that ends up being a space of freedom, and it is a fitting place to end the story.

Campion is a great filmmaker to be watching now. Very often, artists are considered most interesting at the beginning of their careers. The Piano (and Sweetie, but I haven't seen that and I am going to guess most other people haven't either) introduced a style and themes that no one had seen before. That originality gained a lot of attention and acclaim, but as Campion's career went on, critics were less receptive, and saw archetypes emerge (I think this happens much more to outsider filmmakers like women, than those dudes who just ask the same questions over and over again). Top of the Lake shows how much nuance there is within Campion's style and how it can be stretched to a long television format. Even more interesting, Campion's experience allows her to reflect on her own past work and to explore questions of feminity and aging, which basically no one does. Ever. If The Piano is remarkable for letting a flawed woman live, Top of the Lake actually shows what a flawed woman life might look like later on.

 I would highly recommend that you watch both of these. Just give yourself some time where you can really pay attention, because New Zealand accents can be rough!

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