Ferocious, perverted and pure

Jane Campion’s strange and brilliant films—and her new television series Top of the Lake—make most onscreen portrayals of women look absurdly shallow
July 18, 2013

L-R: Robyn Malcolm, Georgi Kay, Holly Hunter and Elisabeth Moss in Top of the Lake—“a fairy tale world shot through with melancholy”© BBC/See Saw Films/Parisa Taghizadeh

“You don’t discover the truth just by developing a plot,” the filmmaker Jane Campion once told an interviewer who asked about her first feature, the elliptical and unsettling Sweetie. Campion’s famous ambivalence to plot may be a thing of the past—her latest project is the crime mini-series Top of the Lake, and no genre needs plot as badly as crime—but that quote still reveals something profound about her work. It recalls her contemporary, the British playwright Caryl Churchill, who shattered the rules of theatrical form in the 1970s and 80s with her feminist plays such as Top Girls and Cloud Nine.

Whereas Churchill makes her points by breaking the conventions of time and space (showing them unravelling over two centuries, for example), Campion, who disavows feminism as dogmatic, uses fragmented camera work and daring storytelling to show women fighting to seize independence and, if they can, love. She is as interested in portraying her characters’ psychology as the events that drive the story. To watch Campion’s films—from her 1989 debut, Sweetie, to her most commercial endeavour, the police thriller In the Cut—is to realise how starved you’ve been of these cinematic portrayals of women’s lives, ones that are sexual, poetic, intimate and real.

Top of the Lake, which will begin on BBC2 this summer, is Campion’s first major TV series. The plot seems ordinary at first. Elisabeth Moss plays Robin Griffin, a volatile detective who returns to the rural New Zealand town of Laketop to help her dying mother. After learning about the rape of a 12-year old girl, Tui—the daughter of a paranoid local druglord—Griffin joins the investigation and begins to uncover Laketop’s secrets and her own past.

Into these clichéd beginnings, Campion introduces her magic. Whereas crime series typically start as the murder or rape is occurring, in order to show maximum gore and create suspense, Top of the Lake opens seemingly at random, five months later, as the victim, now five months pregnant, wanders into the lake. Enter Griffin, a vulnerable and ferocious heroine, a refugee from the city. “Robin’s history is kind of a crime scene,” Campion told the Daily Beast. “She has to solve it for herself, and she has to become aware of it first.”

Liberated by her first foray into television, Top of the Lake is more fluid than anything Campion has done. It is the series of a thousand digressions. It turns from crime story to romance to family drama. Campion transforms Griffin’s fierce dedication to solving the crime into an account of a rural town being eaten from the inside by perversity, corruption and greed. Figures that seem villainous one moment appear lost and neglected the next. Here is a world that looks like a fairy tale, if a fairy tale were shot through with hard-boiled melancholy, detritus, and longing. And for the pleasure of watching this carnival, I forgive Campion the melodramatic plot twist, incoherence, or wacky line of dialogue. It’s worth it.

Campion’s films—with their formal experimentation, unsentimentality, and interest in women—could only have been made by a Hollywood outsider. Born in New Zealand in 1954 into a wealthy theatrical family, she was never particularly interested in film or show business as a child. She didn’t want to do what her parents did. Instead she acquired a degree in anthropology and, during her twenties, bounced around Europe, studying painting in London before moving to Australia. Eventually she became disenchanted with painting and in 1981 she entered the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. By the time Campion graduated, she had made three short films.

Peel: An Exercise in Discipline, the story of a boy whose father makes him pick up every piece of orange rind he has thrown out of the car window, won the Short Film Palme d’Or in 1986. Peel contains many of the cinematic techniques and obsessions that would become Campion’s emblems: the cool, anthropological approach to the world’s strange and violent rules, which are unexplained; the father’s excessive rage towards his son, also unexplained; the abstract dialogue, which makes us uncertain about who these characters are and what is really happening; the uncomfortable close-ups, such as the shot of the mother’s bottom as she is peeing (this is not the only shot of a woman peeing in Campion’s oeuvre); and the non-ending ending, in which things return as before.

Campion’s first three films, Sweetie, An Angel at My Table and The Piano mingle nastiness and pleasure to tell stories of, in her words, “what is not spoken” in women’s lives. Here Campion draws both from the surrealists and from her love of literature, which gave her the idea to treat women’s thoughts and feelings with the same attention as action. Inspired by the novels of Katherine Mansfield, Flannery O’Connor, and Marguerite Duras, Campion moves fluidly between the symbolic and the real to show how her characters toggle between fantasy and reality, sometimes successfully, other times at their peril.

Sweetie, a film about a tormented young woman who terrorises her own family, is her most apocalyptic example of this theme. Dawn is likely mentally ill and abused. But Campion reveals these details—which another film would present as sociological facts—in passing, without commenting on them. Instead she shows how the family, which is caught up in memories of Dawn’s charm as a young girl, convinces itself that Dawn acts out only because she is a star—the flimsy evidence lies in her ability to balance on top of an overturned chair. It is this denial that makes it impossible for the family to respond humanely to suffering. In one scene, Dawn’s sleazy boyfriend overdoses and her father unceremoniously gets up and leaves him there, lying on the floor. In the final scene, a twin to that one, Dawn dies by falling out of a tree house, naked, her body covered with black paint. The scene would be funny if there weren’t something grandiose about it, reminiscent of the Greek play Medea, where the villainous heroine is swept away by the Greek gods after committing countless atrocities. It is horrifying.

Campion’s third film, The Piano (1993), was a turning point in her career, in which her work began to offer more conventional structures and deeper pleasures. It tells the story of a mute Scottish pianist, Ada (Holly Hunter), who arrives in 1850s New Zealand with her beguiling illegitimate daughter. A marriage has been arranged to Stewart, a well-intentioned, dull virgin. Baine, (Harvey Keitel), an illiterate Scotsman gone native, takes piano lessons from Ada, seduces her—or rather they seduce each other—and they fall in love. Ultimately, they leave New Zealand and she begins to speak. They live mostly happily ever after. More romantic and visually gorgeous than her previous efforts, The Piano was Campion’s first love story, and her first film to fully explore female desire.

The Piano also marked a departure because of its explicit sex scenes. Campion began to make films in the 1980s, when many feminists were increasingly moving from condemning sex to celebrating pleasure in sex. Her sex scenes look seductive and cruel, intimate and sexy, trivial and comic. Baine (Harvey Keitel) touches Ada by pushing his finger through a hole in her stocking. Later, Ada tries unsuccessfully to seduce Stewart, who is terrified of her.

Whereas before Campion used the camera to show the fragmentation of women’s point of view, now she develops it to display women’s longing—or at least one woman’s longing. Instead of tracking a woman’s ass across the room—that tired Hollywood stand in for desire—the camera in The Piano lingers over Baine’s ass at least twice. This is partly a joke about Keitel, who has been undressing onscreen since his first movie, Martin Scorsese’s 1967 Who’s That Knocking at My Door? But I cannot think of any other movie that presents full frontal male nudity so casually and so honestly. Though Keitel was 54 when this movie was made, Campion poses him in the corner of his hut like a Greek statue.

There was one other way in which The Piano departed from Campion’s earlier work and prefigured her later films: it was the first time she directed Hollywood actors. The performances of Keitel and Hunter are so different from any they have given before or since that you almost feel sad for them. Keitel seems both tender and resigned—the opposite of his usual swaggering tough guy. Typecast in American movies as the feisty girl, here Hunter leaps through the muddy New Zealand forest in her crinolines like a gazelle fleeing a hunter. Campion catches her in close up, posing her to look like a portrait one would see on a daguerreotype—pale, wide-eyed, unsmiling, unmodern.

Since The Piano, this sort of reinvention has become one of Campion’s signatures. Whether period or contemporary, her pictures have succeeded in part because of her alchemical work with actors. One reason why her film about Keats, Bright Star, is superior to regular period films is Campion’s work re-envisioning the Australian Abby Cornish from a TV actress to Keats’s “minx” mistress. She brings to the role a gravitas in which every glance and gesture reveals her love, from studying poetry to her decision to become affianced.

Campion’s movies from the late 1990s and 2000s include some of our era’s most beautiful actors—Nicole Kidman and Barbara Hershey in Portrait of a Lady (1996); Jennifer Jason Leigh and Meg Ryan in In the Cut (2003); Kate Winslet in Holy Smoke (1999). Campion does the same thing for them that she did for Holly Hunter in The Piano. She makes them look unpneumatic, unairbrushed, and human. In the Cut reveals Meg Ryan as completely unlike the perky girls she played in When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. She is ferocious, severe, perverted and strangely pure.

Even if Campion rejects the label “feminist,” her interest in transforming these stars seems to emerge out of a recognisably feminist instinct: “I think they select women for roles in Hollywood on the basis of whom they’d like to have sex with,” she has said.

As striking is Campion’s willingness to let her female actors rage. In Sweetie, Dawn barks like a dog and bites her father’s hand. In The Piano, Ada slaps and punches Baines before they start kissing. It is refreshing to see female actors delivering a counterpart to the familiar Al Pacino/Nicholas Cage apeshit routine. The most formidable example comes in Top of the Lake, where Griffin breaks a bottle and shoves it in the chest of a guy she suspects raped her years earlier. (One effect of this outburst is to reveal Moss, who plays Peggy Olson in Mad Men, as an actor with far more range than previously suspected.) But Campion is too smart to turn these moments into some sort of generalising proof that her characters are rageaholics. It is just one moment among many. Griffin recovers in the parking lot, where her fury recedes into vulnerability.

Campion’s sensitivity to life’s complexity makes her work modern. But her commitment to representing women’s sadness, rage and passion makes it unique. The last word of Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls is “frightening.” Delivered by the teenage daughter of the play’s heroine, it is meant to reveal the destruction that the central character and the world have laid on the next generation. That’s how I feel at the end of every Campion film. I feel like saying “frightening.” And thank you.

Rachel Shteir teaches in the Theatre School at DePaul University and is the author of “The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting”