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The Unbound Discipline of Jane Campion

From ‘Sweetie’ to ‘The Piano’ to ‘The Power of the Dog,’ the New Zealand director has told stories about resistance and subversion with an unflinching hand

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Editor’s note, March 24, 2022: With the Academy Awards approaching on Sunday, March 27, revisit this essay on one of the favorites in the Best Director race, originally published in February.

The subtitle of Jane Campion’s award-winning 1982 short Peel is An Exercise in Discipline, an apt phrase for such a rigorously executed, elliptical nine-minute film. In a car barrelling down a country highway, a brother and sister bicker while the man’s young son rhythmically bounces an orange against the dashboard before discarding the peel out the open window. For some reason, the father loses his temper at this harmless act, stops the car, and demands that the boy retrieve every piece from the side of the road. Suddenly, Peel shifts into genuinely surrealistic territory: without any explanation, the grown-ups become frozen in place while the kid pogos joyously on the top of the parked vehicle, a sinister non sequitur suggesting either the breakdown of the family unit, the waning of authority, or perhaps the power of cinema to turn the quotidian into metaphysical mystery.

Campion was 32 years old when Peel won a prize at Cannes for best short film. Seven years later, she made arthouse blockbuster The Piano and became the first female filmmaker to win that festival’s prestigious Palme D’Or—and only the second to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar. As of this writing, Campion looks like a good bet for her second Oscar nod (and maybe even a historic win) for The Power of the Dog, which, like its predecessors, is above all an exercise in discipline—an exquisitely stitched revisionist Western whose characters are all holding their cards close to the chest. Equal parts smitten and pitying after meeting widowed, diminished road house proprietor Rose (Kirsten Dunst) during a layover on his ranch’s annual cattle drive, George (Jesse Plemons) asks for her hand in marriage. His new bride’s surprise at this apparent love connection is matched and surpassed by that of George’s brother, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose white-hot skepticism threatens to burn a hole straight through the pair’s nuptials and singe Rose’s quiet, distressingly effeminate college-age son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). As in Peel, the tensions in The Power of the Dog are familial, with a sense of intergenerational conflict embedded in the mutually loathing—and yet eventually strangely intimate—relationship between Phil and Peter, whose contrasting ages and manner belie their shared commitment to a kind of self-preserving secrecy.

A withholding movie about withholding characters can be frustrating, but like most of Campion’s best work, The Power of the Dog uses obscurity as an onramp to curiosity. With the confidence of an artist who’s not only open to interpretation but happy to be misunderstood, Campion chips away at conventions and reduces the connective tissue between her scenes until it’s just dangling strands; the beauty is in the loose ends. Taking off from the spacious prose of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, she invites us to project our own suspicions—and prejudices—into her wide-open, widescreen frames (shot with virtuoso skill by cinematographer Ari Wegner). The result is an immersion in a place somewhere between a comfort zone and a twilight zone, where the familiar tropes of the Western collide with the symbolism of the subconscious. “[Our] dreams are inscrutable [to us] for a reason,” Campion told The New York Times last November, drawing a bead both on her unique preparation methods for The Power of the Dog—enlisting a dream analyst to help channel her creativity—as well as the film’s beguiling tone. Like so much of Campion’s work, The Power of the Dog is sleepy around the edges, albeit in a lucid way; the slow, droning pace doesn’t move you to drop off so much as plunge in.

The undertow was never stronger or deeper than in Campion’s astonishing and confrontational 1989 debut feature, Sweetie, which perplexed Roger Ebert at Cannes in 1989: “I imagine,” he wrote cautiously, “most people will have a hard time with [this film].” The source of Ebert’s discomfort—and the bizarre, unstanchable life force of the movie—is the tour de force performance of Genevieve Lemon as the title character, a middle-aged woman whose retreat into a precocious, grotesque performance of adolescence and childhood creates an impossible living situation for her parents and younger sister, Kay (Karen Colston). In an essay for the Criterion Collection, Dana Polan writes that Sweetie’s arrival into the narrative “threatens to overwhelm all logic, all propriety [and] all emotions other than her sheer animalistic appetite and obsessive demand for attention.” But for all of her ultimately destructive power, Sweetie’s refusal to tone down her persona also has a sort of warped logic. In a society where maturity is synonymous with conformity and female agency of any kind is denied, the character’s bulldozing immaturity is both a desperate coping mechanism and a willed state of grace.

There’s something similarly mercurial about Janet Frame, the novelist heroine of Campion’s formally brilliant (and fact-based) 1990 character study An Angel at My Table, which follows its protagonist at three ages: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Campion was struck by Frame’s writing and its vivid depictions of trauma and the wildly melodramatic narrative that existed beyond the pages; after being institutionalized for much of her life, the New Zealand–born Frame was scheduled for a lobotomy before a collection of her short stories won a major literary prize. An Angel at My Table is just as stylized as Sweetie, but its mix of probing close-ups, jagged cutting, and impressionistic lighting cues isn’t intended as an alienation effect; here, Campion wants us to experience the world through Janet’s anxious but perceptive subjectivity. The claustrophobia of occupying such a fraught headspace is real, but so is the sense of catharsis that gets orchestrated in the home stretch.

The political significance of Campion’s festival-circuit ascent can’t be overstated: Just by being programmed regularly against the alpha-male European auteurs of Cannes, Campion was taking on the mantle of a cultural warrior. Her great champion turned out to be the hardiest, Frenchest cinephile of them all—the critic and programmer Pierre Rissient, who connected Campion and her producer Jan Chapman with the short-lived production company Ciby 2000, which had previously worked with Pedro Almodóvar and David Lynch. Not only was Chapman and Campion’s new project, an original screenplay entitled

The Piano, requiring a larger budget than the director’s previous works, but the only way it was going to get made at the right scale was with the participation of an international star. Because Campion had cultivated a reputation as a brilliant technician with an unconventional style, there was interest from above-the-title names including Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Isabelle Huppert; the lead role ultimately went to Holly Hunter, who went on to win a Best Actress Oscar in a demanding and iconic role.

Hunter’s Ada is, in her way, as odd and iconoclastic as Sweetie or Janet Frame. The film opens with her being deposited on a beach in New Zealand with her young daughter, Flora, and her piano, the latter of which seems at least as important to her as her child. Ada, who has been sold into marriage on the seventh continent by her Scotsman father, is unable or unwilling to speak with her own voice, instead using Flora (played by Anna Paquin) as a cryptic translator. Her preferred mode of communication is musical, and when her new husband (Sam Neill) separates her from it, she sinks into despair—a woman alienated from her instrument and her agency. The wild card in this fable-like setup is Baines (Harvey Keitel), a retired sailor who’s more attentive to Ada’s needs and thus willing to manipulate her by trading sexual favors for detached piano keys—an arrangement pitched somewhere between sadism and liberation.

The explicit eroticism of the sex sequences between Hunter and Keitel—including the latter’s full-frontal nudity—drove The Piano’s word of mouth, and served as a counterpoint to the limpid, windswept beauty of the film’s coastal imagery. Rewatching the film almost 30 years later, what holds up most are the evocations of pain, whether via images of Hunter’s silent, stricken face or, more viscerally, a sequence of amputation that doubles as a character being severed from her own sense of artistry. What’s at stake in The Piano is nothing less than the desire for expression, and Campion’s ability to evoke fears of creative estrangement even as she exerts control over every aspect of the filmmaking process borders on the uncanny. The investment in bigger production values and international distribution made by Campion and Chapman resulted in one of the most profitable independent releases of the decade, as well as a pile-up of awards for the director. Only the borderline-premeditated coronation of Steven Spielberg for Schindler’s List prevented her from repeating her triumphs in the Best Director category at the Oscars, although she did walk away with a prize for Best Original Screenplay.

At that point, Campion was poised as a major international filmmaker with the skill set to bridge the 20th and 21st centuries—a refined literary sensibility with a serrated edge. And yet for most of the ’90s, the filmmaker found herself in a weird form of prestige-picture purgatory, mounting a gorgeously designed yet dramatically inert adaptation of Henry James’s 1881 novel The Portrait of a Lady—yet another story of a free spirit bridling against social conventions—and then trying to recapture the heat of The Piano in the self-consciously goofy deprogramming drama Holy Smoke! Given the choice between Portrait’s poised, period-piece stiffness and the irreverent and irreligious satire of Holy Smoke!, the latter is the better film, and yet its whimsy and sexual frankness seem strained, as if Campion were doing too much heavy lifting to produce something light and spontaneous.

Campion’s true film maudit, however, was 2003’s In the Cut, a critically maligned erotic thriller that has since been largely reclaimed by a younger generation of online cinephiles. And for good reason: compared to the glossy, neutered product of contemporary brick-and-mortar studios and streaming services, In the Cut’s textured, tactile depictions of sex and violence feel like transmissions from a less repressed (and more aesthetically adventurous) era of filmmaking. As Justine Peres Smith observes, when In the Cut was first released, the media fixation on star Meg Ryan’s willingness to sabotage her squeaky-clean rom-com image and do nude scenes paralyzed any hope of smart critical thinking about the movie itself. “‘She took her clothes off for this?’ [a critic] scoffed for the Detroit News, echoing a prudishness in the film’s reception. Dismayed by … the film’s subversion of the male gaze, most reviews were negative and dismissive.”

Subversion is indeed the name of the game, as Campion juxtaposes the free-floating, almost ambient sexual yearning of Ryan’s character, Frannie—a high school English teacher—with the grisly predations of a serial killer whose dismembering of his female victims’ bodies is depicted as a fetishistic act of depersonalization. In the context of a genre that treats women as grist for the mill—think of Se7en and its head-in-the-box ending—In the Cut’s strategic gore signifies not as exploitation but critique, and between the somewhat mechanical plot points of the script, the film meditates on the way people pursue (and become objects of) desire. Working for the first time in an American setting, Campion depicts New York as a fugue state of unsavory surveillance and stolen glances; besides toying with the numbing conventions of serial killer films and going decapitation-for-decapitation with Se7en in the shock-horror department, the film evokes the psychic wounds of 9/11 without ever speaking the event’s name out loud. In the Cut is not without its flaws, most of which reside in the script, but it’s also an example of how visual eloquence can transform pulp into something at once savage and refined.

2009’s Bright Star dramatized the final years of the 19th-century English poet John Keats, effectively pairing it with An Angel at My Table under the heading of artistic biography even as it displayed a very different sensibility. Where Campion’s handling of the life of Janet Frame emphasized the writer’s loneliness, Bright Star is a full-bodied romance that gives equal attention—and ultimately emotional primacy—to Keats’s lover Fanny Brawne, played in an emotionally translucent performance by Abbie Cornish. The disparity between the young Keats’s economic impoverishment and the richness of his verse is conveyed in swooningly romantic terms, and the film pulls off the difficult balancing act of showing Fanny in thrall to his brilliance without reducing her to a sounding board or a muse. In one beautifully conceived sequence, Fanny creates a butterfly garden in homage to her ailing, absent partner, and the cutting patterns suggest that she possesses the same sense of lyrical craftsmanship—and that her medium is the same natural world that Keats sought to capture in his verse.

It’s telling that Campion has directed only five theatrical features in the nearly 30 years since The Piano; like a lot of gifted, ambitious filmmakers staring down an increasingly lopsided industrial landscape, the director decamped for television in the 2010s, sacrificing theatrical prestige for the creative control that goes with being an A-list showrunner. Originally premiered at Sundance in 2013, Top of the Lake’s running theme of female resistance against a ruling, violent patriarchy placed it squarely in Campion’s wheelhouse. Set in a small New Zealand town mourning the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl, the first season enfolded elements from several of the director’s features, such as police procedurals (In the Cut) and cult worship (Holy Smoke!), while also featuring returns from past collaborators like Holly Hunter and Genevieve Lemon. (The second series, subtitled China Girl, included a juicy role for Nicole Kidman.)

Like In the Cut, Top of the Lake occasionally gets caught in the grinding gears of its own narrative, but its gorgeous landscapes—verdant summers and chilly winters—are as cinematic as anything in Campion’s big-screen repertoire. The rapturous, raw beauty of nature, as well as its barely submerged savageries, are privileged in The Power of the Dog, whose title quotes the King James Bible—“Deliver my soul from the sword, my darling from the power of the dog”—but also refers to an oddly anthropomorphic mountain formation that looms over the characters. If the stark horizon lines and buzzing Jonny Greenwood score can’t help but evoke There Will Be Blood, Campion is very much her own artist, and in her first largely male-focused movie, she develops a visual language that emphasizes the tension between pride and privacy—between the blustery performance of masculinity and feelings better left unseen.

In the film’s most gorgeously composed sequence, Cumberbatch’s Phil lounges naked by the riverside, clutching a handkerchief whose significance is not yet known to us—or to the onlooking Peter, who serves as our voyeuristic surrogate. Running down the best shots of 2021, I wrote that the ardent, eerily quiet long take of Phil lying in the sun with his face veiled beneath a prized fetish object serves as “a dent in [the character’s] armor, or maybe a closet door pried ajar.” It’s a measure of Campion’s artistry that she sums up the psychology and tragedy of a complex character in such a fleeting, meticulous image—an exercise in discipline hinting, like so much of her cinema, at the compulsions that challenge and exceed it.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.