Losing The Way:
Introduction (December 2021): The initial appearance of this essay, over two decades ago, was enough to get me disinvited from a number of conferences and publications in their planning stages at the time; I had stomped on a Sacred Cow, and was made to pay the price! Much has changed in film culture since then, and also in Jane Campion’s career: I happen to think that the two TV seasons of Top of the Lake (2013 & 2017) are the best things she has ever done. But, in other respects, little has changed: the worshipful cult surrounding this director has re-emerged in full force with the release of The Power of the Dog (2021). I reprint this essay now because some of the core problems with Campion’s art that I diagnosed in 2000 – clumsiness with narrative construction and particularly the imbalance of story to style – have also re-emerged, with startling and crippling clarity, in her latest, wildly over-acclaimed film. The following essay (originally devised for the mainly literary audience of a New Zealand journal) partially re-weaves material from various other book and movie reviews on this website pertaining to the “Strange Case of Campion”.
I know of no graver, more dramatic or damning critical pronouncement upon a filmmaker than the one made by Cahiers du cinéma in 1993 in relation to Wim Wenders – a director who, only six years previously, at the time of his greatest triumph, Wings of Desire (1987), had been elected to guest-edit the magazine’s 400th issue. But, after Until the End of the World (1991) and the Wings of Desire sequel, Faraway, So Close! (1993), after a few uncertain docos and fiction shorts, Antoine de Baecque of Cahiers decided, brutally, that Wenders had “lost his way”. (1)
More or less suddenly – after a few false steps and bad calls – Wenders plunged from being a revered icon of personal, poetic cinema to being a berated symbol of artistic sell-out, inflated ambition, lame humanism and bourgeois, consumerist sensibility. And that opinion was shared world-wide, intuitively, in an instant: in Melbourne, as Cahiers was casting its severe judgment on Faraway, So Close!, the joke went around that watching the film was rather like enduring a two-and-a-half-hour music video of “We Are the World”.
Can we take this as yet another handy index of the fickleness of critics and the intelligentsia, of cultural fashion, of the international Film Festival and arthouse circuit (a guru this year, washed-up the next)? Or – as Bruce Springsteen once sang – “maybe something worse”: namely, the truth?
After all, artists – in every field of the arts – can, and do, lose their way. The logic or the alchemy of factors governing such disastrous career slippage can be cruelly intangible. Some artists – we know this all too well – are in tune with their world, their audience, perhaps even themselves, for only a short window of time. What gels, for a while, is some hard-to-pinpoint correspondence between the language of an artist and the desires of a crowd. They move together, in parallel formation, in the present tense – it is a moment, a cultural and historical moment, that can seem like eternity as it is lived, but that nevertheless reveals itself, when it ends, as only a moment.
Then, so easily, everything can go out of alignment: suddenly the artist speaks to the past, his or her style smacks of cliché, the authentic voice is no longer audible, aesthetic judgment appears (on so many levels) skewed and misguided. Tastes – and cultural taste is such a mysterious thing – have changed. Then artists have to scramble, madly, for a place on the comeback trail – and their once noble Quest for personal expression (the expression that previously came so naturally and freely) becomes, at some conscious or unconscious level, a desperate, mobile game of calculus, always with one eye on what’s new and in favour in any given cycle of the zeitgeist. Some of the richest talents of cinema – Bernardo Bertolucci, Preston Sturges, Miklós Jancsó, Jerry Lewis, Dušan Makavejev – have given us five, maybe ten immortal years in which they transfix the world stage as creators and cultural spokespeople, followed by an unforgiving career twilight from which not all of them recover.
Artists have many ways of riding out such periodic crises. They play chameleon, or explore collaboration, or stay put and wait for another audience to re-discover them somewhere, hopefully, down the line (as happens often in the annals of popular music). They can adapt, follow chance paths, trust wayward intuitions, as Wenders eventually did by turning to video and falling into a modest documentary project that became his most successful film ever, Buena Vista Social Club (1999) – and even Cahiers rallied back to his defense on that one. Luck can smile on artists who stick out their careers or find a way back into productivity.
But there will always be, once the trauma of losing way has taken place in the public eye, a nervousness in an artist, a malignant anxiety about public taste, critical reception, and cultural zeitgeist – a prickly over-sensitivity about the regard and opinion of the Other (the commentator, the viewer, society, the world).
Michel Ciment, the editor of Positif, which is Cahiers’ chief rival among French film magazines, tells another story that reflects – for me – upon both fickle fashion and awful truth.
With a friend of mine last June , without having seen one still from The Portrait of a Lady by Jane Campion, we wrote together the reviews that were going to appear. We knew in advance, without having seen one shot of the film, that it would be lambasted by the cinema press in France. What was our reason for this? The director was young, extraordinarily successful, the previous winner of a Golden Palm at Cannes and an Academy Award in Hollywood. And after this extraordinary success, instead of doing a simple, small film with a crew of five, she accepted 25 million dollars to make an adaptation of Henry James, with John Malkovich and Nicole Kidman in the leading roles. This insolence of such a successful woman making a huge production in the wake of all the heritage films (the Jane Austen, Joseph Conrad and E. M. Forster adaptations) would mean, we believed, that negative reviews would flourish.
And, without boasting, it happened exactly as we thought. (2)
It certainly happened exactly as they thought in the pages of Cahiers. Campion underwent the same flip-flop suffered by Wenders: from enthusiastic highlighting in the wake of the Cannes triumph for The Piano (1993), to a summary notice up the back of the mag for The Portrait of a Lady, dismissed as an emptily pretty, seamlessly commodified, merely decorative “poster-film” (it had previously said the same of Volker Schlöndorff’s Swann in Love  and Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky ). That switch took only three years and one movie – much less time and evidence than it took to crucify Wenders. Ciment presents this tale of critical misfortune as “an example of the prevalence of preconception in film evaluation”, and concludes: “The fight against prejudice and pigeonholing is, obviously, the first commandment of criticism”. (3)
I agree with that statement of position. But the experience of watching, many times over, Campion’s last two films, The Portrait of a Lady (1996) and Holy Smoke (1999), has been such an unhappy one for me that I cannot explain away my own disappointment as solely a case of blinkered vision or prejudicial preconception. As a critic and viewer, I have gone from being an intrigued, slightly bemused and sceptical observer of Campion’s early shorts, to a public supporter of Sweetie (1989 – a time when it looked, at first, like no one in the mainstream media would support it), through growing interest in the TV mini-series An Angel at My Table (1990), to intensely mixed feelings about The Piano. That last film, although admirable and affecting, strikes me as terribly uneven in its conception and execution alike, veering from passionate, inspired scenes (mainly those involving just Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel and their perverse contract) to thunderingly banal and clunky ones (just about everything involving Sam Neill and a gaggle of secondary, indigenous characters). And from there, I lurched into the abrupt and disconcerting disenchantment occasioned by the last two films (Holy Smoke I regard as a marginally better realised project than the all-out disaster of The Portrait of a Lady).
I must say it: Jane Campion has lost her way; her career has hit a period of steep decline. Whatever moved and grew and held together (often tenuously and precariously) in her work up until The Piano has fallen apart in these subsequent films. Meanwhile, something I can only regard as paradoxical and a little puzzling has taken place: Campion has become, more than ever within the period of her worst two films, a cult figure – particularly an academic cult figure for university teachers and their students, a fact that is reflected in the growing number of analytical books devoted to her. (4)
To become a cult figure is, in some sense, to move beyond mere, mundane, evaluative criticism and to achieve institutionalised sanctity (however fickle this canonisation, too, may turn out to be) – to become (as Stephen Crofts rates the achieved status of The Piano) “effectively unassailable”. (5) This makes me chafe: so much of Campion’s art and craft seems to me, after the last two films, unformed, lacking and full of gaping holes, unbalanced structures and mishandled intensities.
Academic criticism, of course, has a ready-made answer to this kind of complaint: such remarks are irrelevant and outmoded, because that’s the very point of the films to be unresolved, enigmatic and confronting. That’s what makes them modern, or postmodern, or deconstructive, or postcolonial – the fact that they resist classical unities and interpretations. But this mode of embrace, ultimately, explains little – neither how the films work (for those that love them) nor why they don’t work (for those who don’t or can’t love them). My hunch is that we cannot entirely bypass the realm of the classical – in particular, the traditions of storytelling – in the effort to honestly assess the strengths and limitations of Campion’s work and career.
– Jane Campion, 1996 (6)
Every great, original or innovative filmmaker finds – eventually – his or her own way of telling stories. Fiction is, for many artists of the cinema, a fearsome thing, a beast which can devour you before you have a chance to master and tame it. This is especially the case for directors who come from the wilds of experimental, independent and short film. Where the forms of abstract cinema or the essay-film (personal documentary laced with isolated scraps of fiction-effect) can be open-ended and mosaic-like, narrative brings with it a terrifying solidity: one stable, illusory world with its set chronology and geography; one bunch of characters, tied to their particular biology and psychology; the arc of exposition, development and resolution on all levels – thematic and stylistic as well as narrative. Fiction obliges its teller to grapple with craft problems of rhythm, of narration (how and when to release plot information), of suggestion and closure, that are essentially foreign to the non-narrative artist.
Suddenly, all the clichés bandied about within the mainstream industry – making films that move, that leap off the screen, that take you for a ride, with characters you can care about inside plots that make sense – are revealed to contain horrifying truths which feature-length filmmakers ignore at their direst peril. (Look, for instance, at the bold Australian filmmakers of the early ‘90s, including Tracey Moffatt, whose cinema careers – as distinct from their careers in the artworld or academy – cannot now progress beyond their first, overly ambitious, anti-narrative features).
Naturally, many fine filmmakers do not offer us classical stories at all. Surrealist or Brechtian, minimalist or maximalist: they scramble time and bend space, they complicate the relation of actors to the characters they play, and find ways around the so-called laws of verisimilitude and literalist logic. Yet all those who manage to forge their own kind of experimental fiction – from Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Chantal Akerman to Emir Kusturica, Kira Muratova and Guy Maddin – only do so after surviving that fierce, full-frontal encounter with the parameters and responsibilities of narrative. Only from such intimate knowledge of the enemy could they then extract the pieces and gears of the story-telling machine necessary for their own eccentric, self-styled visions, atmospheres and emotions.
Take, as a point of comparison, the case of Jim Jarmusch, and particularly Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999). Jarmusch has always kept his distance from the norms and rules of classical narrative. He has favoured minimalist story forms: films bigger on description (of behaviour, of a place, of a milieu, of passing or dead time) than on action, strictly speaking, in Stranger than Paradise (1984) and, even more radically, in its lesser known predecessor, the essentially experimental Permanent Vacation (1979); plots full of loose-limbed, jazzy digressions and seeming improvisations, as in Down By Law (1986); fictions made up of diverse, scattered parts, as in Night on Earth (1991). Dead Man (1996), his best and most ambitious film to date, strides boldly into the quasi-Symbolist and Surrealist areas of allegory and dream-play.
Yet, for all this, Jarmusch is an artist who works, almost every time, with the trappings of fiction (and genre, too) – and he has laboured patiently, long and hard, to fashion and develop his very own, customised brand of narrative. His films indeed spin plots, create characters and conjure worlds – all of them, at some basic level, reasonably stable and recognisable – but, like Luis Buñuel or David Cronenberg, he radically alters this construct, subtly, from within.
Ghost Dog is the perfect demonstration of this remarkable and distinct achievement: at every point, it redraws the standard contract of our belief in a story, what information we think we need to know, which necessary premises and violations of logic we will and will not accept. It gives us a story whose motor and most essential underpinnings (what sets it in motion, why certain characters make certain decisions and take grave courses of action that have fatal consequences) are – finally – quite inscrutable. In place of a traditional motor logic, it openly and explicitly generates its details, incidents and atmospheres out of quotations: from books read aloud, or cartoons glimpsed on TV sets.
Ghost Dog does this not at all in the spirit of rupture or distanciation – the radical-chic aesthetic of a previous generation – but for the sake of its own, poetic project. It is a film about the meeting and overlapping of modern and ancient ways, about cultural sampling as a way of life, a means of survival, a pattern for negotiating the planet’s present-day crises and enigmas. The story is deliberately mad, paper-thin, impossible, cartoonish; but it never ceases flowing, knitting itself together, building its moods and emotions. Because the rhythms of form and content are so perfectly controlled and realised, this imaginary, unreal, notional world (where a modern, urban gangsta lives as a samurai, where mobsters read sophisticated literature and muse about the “poetry of war”, where friends who do not speak the same language understand each other completely and intuitively) comes into existence and opens itself for us.
Ghost Dog’s sensations, its gestures and mysteries, have a coherent core that we can absorb and feel, even if we can’t immediately express or explain it in words of commentary – just like the best films of David Lynch (Lost Highway ). Like the mythic samurai, Jarmusch has found – and, for the moment, maintains – his way.
The jammed, tense car in Peel (1982) – mobile tomb for an imploding family – announces what I believe to be Jane Campion’s great, enduring, animating theme: confinement, especially women’s experience of confinement. It’s possible to argue that this is an intense theme of women’s cinema everywhere, but maybe especially so in Australia and New Zealand: the plot and imagery of films by Moffatt (Bedevil ), Monica Pellizari (Fistful of Flies ), Alison Maclean (Crush ), Sue Brooks (Road to Nhill ) and Gaylene Preston (Mr Wrong ) regularly centre on all manner of traps (literal, metaphorical, architectural, emotional) in which women find themselves enmeshed. It’s part and parcel, after all, of a modern-day, post-feminist, Female Gothic sensibility, an inevitable aspect of the urgent dialogue with classic horror, melodrama and film noir conventions. But in Campion’s work, the theme is given a vicious and all-consuming twist, becoming a true, intensely personalised, auteurist obsession or signature.
Confinement in her films is felt at every level of existence, from the most personal to the most social. “It begins with your family, but soon it comes round to your soul”, sang Leonard Cohen. That could be the motto of Sweetie because, likewise, in the fraught universe created by Campion, women feel trapped, suffocated, panicked by everything – even, one feels, their own skin. Clothes, for example, are an ever-present, recurring problem for these heroines: The Portrait of a Lady’s best image is the stark, overhead shot of Osmond (John Malkovich) stomping on the train of the dress worn by Isabel (Nicole Kidman) in order to stop her dead in her tracks, constricting her. Holy Smoke provides a nightmarish string of confinements for Ruth (Kate Winslet): a suburban home, the clothes she longs to tear off her body, interlinked arms in a family circle, the four bare walls of an isolated shack, even the oddly disquieting view of distant mountain ranges, finally the back of a truck where she ministers to the fallen PJ (Harvey Keitel). L. Cohen again: “This dove is never free”.
For all Campion’s women, confinement occasions desperate flight, a bid for freedom. Flight triggers a mad journey outwards, and then the sudden discovery of wide-open territory – an encounter with the unknown that is both liberating and terrifying. Falling, regression, unconsciousness, depression, alienation, a keen and crippling sense of loss or nostalgia – all these reflux states threaten the voyager-heroine. And there is also, always, the lure of perversity, vindictive and vengeful gamesmanship, a sudden flip-flop between the available positions of sadism and masochism (this power-play informs the strange contract between Ada [Hunter] and Baines [Keitel] in The Piano, and sets virtually the entire central plot of Holy Smoke). Kathleen Murphy expresses a similar sense of Campion’s world.
Think of all Campion’s virgins – girlfriends, sisters, writer, pianist, artist of the beautiful – as bright flames that flicker between creativity and nihilism, innocence and madness, epiphany and “the big, black nothing”. (8)
Campion’s films teeter with seasickness, uncertainty and irresolution; disequilibrium is their keynote, because no ultimate, true balance can be found – think of the endings of both The Portrait of a Lady and Holy Smoke. The entire journey is tearing and ambivalent – and potentially reversible – at every moment, because confinement is, besides being horrible, also deeply, even innately desired: Campion’s characters at some level yearn to belong, to depend (especially on powerful men, who are both their soul-murderers and their dream-lovers). In short, they want to be loved. Love and confinement are the two, extreme, charged poles of Campion’s cinema.
What classical, narrative form could possibly map such a quagmire of drives, feints and reversals? Campion made her first big splash on the world stage with three film-school shorts – Peel, Passionless Moments (1983, co-director Gerard Lee) and A Girl’s Own Story (1984) – that are, in various ways, non-narrative, or not-much-narrative. The first two are experiments in the episodic form, which is one of the major forms available to short filmmakers: Peel, subtitled “an exercise in discipline”, is a single vignette expanded mock-scientifically through diagrams and narration; while Passionless Moments strings together many incidents in a kind of observational or anthropological essay on social and personal behaviour in its off-kilter moments and exchanges (I still regard it, today, as her best and most perfect film). A Girl’s Own Story gets closer to a narrative – again, a dysfunctional family chronicle – but it still enjoys the episodic mode’s potential for digression: fantasies, memory flashbacks, a chintzy MTV-style song called “I Feel the Cold”. (9)
From the mock-objective essay structures of Peel and Passionless Moments, Campion moved, after the clumsily realised naturalism of the tele-film Two Friends (1986), towards another kind of episodic form: the fiction film that behaves somewhat like a dream, full of disquieting apparitions (as at the ending of Sweetie), digressions, discombobulated structures, situations and interactions that waver fluidly between the figurations of unconscious fantasy and realist representation. A film that offers us, constantly but unexpectedly, gateways into other worlds, other perceptions, other readings.
Characters will not necessarily possess or exhibit psychological solidity in such a film. Because identity is a chimera, malleable; even the laws of time and space, logics of all kinds, will not necessarily apply. But there must be some bedrock of reality, some anchoring reference-point of logic, sense and identity, from which this kind of film can depart and to which it can, in its way, return; otherwise the film just spins away into baroque elaborations, musical variations upon itself. An Angel at My Table, with its literally episodic structure, different actors to play the same person, and large leaps in time and geography, allowed Campion a first, relatively safe opportunity to bend and play with realist and biographical ground-rules. The Piano, in all ways the central achievement of her career to 2000, went much further.
In The Piano, Campion stages an absolutely stunning moment – reminiscent of a key image in Hitchcock’s profoundly dream-infected Vertigo (1958) – where the camera approaches Ada (Holly Hunter) from behind, as she dangles her hand in an odd manner, and closes in on the tight bun of her hair; this then cuts to a wild, unruly thicket of trees. It is as if the charged, fetishistic knot of hair offers a gateway to the unconscious itself, into which the film then eagerly plunges. When any dream-film (by Campion, Jarmusch, Lynch or Buñuel) emerges from such dives, the world it creates, the world it offers us to experience, will be utterly touched, transformed and enriched. This is an idea dear to Campion, with her explicitly spiritual interest in the world-as-illusion and identity-as-veil: “This earth can be transformed ... In the act of making a movie you are involved with those moments, those transformations”. (10)
The Piano, although it copped a great deal of overheated (even hysterical) negative commentary, kept all extreme options in a workable equilibrium: authentic period recreation and surreal flights of fancy, intimacy and melodrama, story and stylistics, characters and moods, respect for the classical unities and their merry violation. As in much art that captivates, whether fleetingly or lastingly, The Piano benefited enormously from the palpable, highwire tension precariously holding together these opposing elements likely to fly apart at any moment. Once the film was inducted – quite speedily – into the unassailable, international canon of the Modern Classics, an army of academic commentators found a flexible, reliable, indeed inexhaustible way of describing its tense equilbrium: The Piano was an Open Text – ambiguous, multi-layered, reversible. (11)
The biggest problem with posing Campion’s post-Piano films as similarly open is that one thus gives up trying to sensibly evaluate them, sifting what is well conceived or realised in them from what is not. Film Comment breathlessly hailed Holy Smoke as a “fearless, flawed, profound movie” – with the flaws going rather unstated and overlooked between evocations of the fearlessness and the profundity. (12) Certainly, one cannot deny Campion her motifs, her obsessions, her special configurations of form and content. The real question today is whether she can successfully bring these elements of her universe into a fictional form, and whether she can remake that form from within. Whether she can find and control the necessary articulations between logic and dream, character and apparition, world and illusion.
In many ways, The Portrait of a Lady is completely true to Campion as an artist: true to her distinctive moods and themes, true to her odd, eccentric style. There is the love and confinement of the female Gothic as filtered via Henry James’ astonishingly detailed and intricate classicism: the intrigue plays like a dark, melodramatic reversal of a romantic, Austenesque comedy of manners, with Isabel surrounded by starkly diverse suitors, from the sickly, passive Touchett (Martin Donovan) to the devilish Osmond. There is that skewed, defamiliarising perspective akin to that of a child or an alien, someone never properly introduced to the social world (and more subtly, less literally so than in the heavy-handed, naive work of Rolf de Heer). There is, even in this lush, period setting, a residual sense of what Freda Freiberg called the “bizarre in the banal”, which is the dominant characteristic of the director’s ‘80s work. (13) But the mere presence of all that is not enough: The Portrait of a Lady is the thinnest, most forced and least articulated of all her films.
It starts in the present tense, with an unusual prologue, recalling Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex (1967) with its stark, unmotivated framing scenes set in the 20th century. Campion shows us a gaggle of young women, and on the soundtrack we hear their scattered thoughts, hopes and doubts about romantic love – particularly of the obsessive, sacrificial, all-consuming, dependence-producing variety. Love and confinement, finding yourself and losing yourself: the eternal whirlwind, bridging James’ time and ours, is signposted. But why is this gesture necessary? It is as if, at the very brink of her most expensive, most demanding, most seductive project, Campion feels the need to spell out its relevance, to underline its metaphoric significance. This is an inauspicious display of nervousness, and one that indicates the first fraying of the line hitherto joining Campion and her loyal audience. Where Pasolini, with his time-shifting, stokes the deep mystery of a classic text – “the mystery that remains after the mystery is solved”, as Campion herself astutely says of the act of storytelling (14) – The Portrait of a Lady pulverises and literalises it.
Campion is palpably constrained by the classicism of her source material here, and her attempts to work with and against this grain lead to a breakdown of the fragile equilibrium governing her work. The worst aspect of her art – the tendency to heavy-handed symbolic overstatement, like the song in A Girl’s Own Story or the Bluebeard performance in The Piano – comes to the fore and runs riot in The Portrait of a Lady, for instance in the shots of girls fainting from having to fit into their confining, Victorian corsets. On a related level, Campion’s central effort to exaggerate the morbid, Gothic aspect of the story – by turning Osmond into a darkly demonic figure from the first moment we see him – instantly scuttles (as Robin Wood has rightly pointed out) the most basic premise of James’ tale; we have to understand why Isabel was attracted to this guy and thus so taken in by him. (15)
The stylistic ensemble of the film, its integrated patterns of movement and colour, decor and music, is inert. In TV interviews at the time, Campion described her film as being about portraiture – a guiding idea that I cannot see in any way productively related to the central intrigue. It’s a template imposed upon the fiction, rather than a means to express or explore it. Campion’s portraiture consists chiefly of an alternation between stark character close-ups during long, terse dialogue scenes. These shots are rendered with a special, maddening affectation: a slow, tracking movement of the camera around these faces, giving a cruising, sculptural effect that has been done to death in so many films by now (and which, like the prologue, makes us think uncharitably of TV ads). One senses that Campion is afraid of risking the cinematic properties of stillness – and thus never achieves the special kind of tension that distinguishes the work of Akerman or Manoel de Oliveira. Instead of tension, The Portrait of a Lady gives us a relentless, unvaried, wearing, murky wash of cruising movements, earnest music (by Wojciech Kilar), and a Kieślowski-like patina of burnt colours and hues. It is an airless movie; nothing in it has the breath or rhythm of life.
Campion may count, in this instance, among the many filmmakers who have been scared into submission by the traditional staidness of a period piece. Her contrary impulse toward breaking the rules finds a decisive but lamentable outlet. Between the major, storytelling blocks of the film, she exploits odd inserts. Details of unusual gestures, for instance, usually some unreadable play of hands (this is a certified, hidebound Campion motif which even the least sophisticated commentators notice, and it duly reappears in Holy Smoke). Sometimes she plays with changing the camera speed, as Scorsese did in the vastly superior The Age of Innocence (1993), cutting between the turgid drag of Isabel in slow motion and the bouncy jaunt of her bright, sassy friend, Henrietta (Mary-Louise Parker), in fast motion. And then there are all the tricks with reconstructed archival film, various lyrical and poetic inserts (eyeballs, phantom lovers), moments of pure contemplation of a figure in a landscape ... but, unlike in The Piano, such touches no longer pinpoint, reveal or switch anything in the central fiction. The ideal of the dream-film has been lost, and its gateways locked shut.
The Portrait of a Lady is full of baroque, fiddly, mannered images and off-beats in search of a too-vaguely defined emotional affect. It strikes me as a film without a central core – and the endless shots of Isabel weeping do not manage to fill that hole. Depressing and depressive, humourless and morbid, the film never manages to convince us that we should take Isabel seriously as a symbol of suffering womanhood. There is something phony, whipped up about Campion’s ode to female masochism here. And it is nowhere phonier than in its final scene, where, simultaneously, an equally vague euphoria or sublimity is hinted at and gestured toward – again, the euphoria of a transformation, some kind of life-changing epiphany.
Yet The Portrait of a Lady gives us no sense of how this woman (any woman) might actually get to the point of being able to change her life, or even wanting to change it; how she might grasp and negotiate the options that are available to her as a worldly woman with a head full of dreams and a heart full of desires.
Holy Smoke feels like at least three different films jarringly spliced together. The opening section, set in India, is unquestionably its best part – alive with mystery and supple suggestiveness. Dion Beebe’s cinematography conjures a culture utterly alien to Australian tourists like Ruth who vacillate between self-abandonment and bewilderment. A key theme – the difficulty of telling spiritual from erotic ecstasy – gradually insinuates itself into these early images and situations (as with the uncomfortable closeness Ruth experiences with the locals on public transport).
Then it’s over to Australia for a Muriel’s Wedding-style, gross comedy about suburban, family manners. In itself, this juxtaposition need not be a problem, need not be instantly disallowed (as so many negative commentaries on the film have presumed) – mood switches and broad clashes of tone have been a staple even of art cinema since Jean Renoir in the ‘30s, continued vigorously into the ‘90s by Emir Kusturica. Moreover, although much of the detail in this strand of the film evokes an anthology of recent Australian cinema of the quirky or Suburban Surreal style – thus smacking of commercial calculation to some jaundiced viewers – Campion is, in fact, being true to her own history as a filmmaker by returning to the sensibility of her early shorts. It is almost self-homage, a gesture which reveals (incidentally) how completely influential, especially in Australia and New Zealand, those shorts were.
The moronic, alienated behaviour, the affected patter, the overload of kitsch interior decoration in Holy Smoke – all this was already fully formed in A Girl’s Own Story. So, too – more worryingly – was the smug hierarchy of characters and their supposed inner selves (or lack thereof). For Campion, the behaviour of those raised within a shallow, suburban environment is equally shallow and despicable. Pathetic, unfaithful husbands, thinking themselves classy, chuck around a few foreign words (“C’est moi!” – Paul Chubb’s telephone greeting to his mistress in A Girl’s Own Story); a gaggle of family members blunders about, kids underfoot, oblivious to the real, deep issues. In Holy Smoke, the Baron clan is a gruesome, coarse, decidedly unspiritual bunch. It is only when Ruth escapes home and family that she at last becomes the soulful star of a serious art-film set within a brooding, expressive landscape. There is always a slightly distasteful hint of aristocracy to Campion’s voyager-heroines. The Stars transform, while the secondary characters remain fixed as nitwits.
The hot-house situation which subsequently develops between the kidnapped Ruth and PJ, the “exit counselor” from America, should, by rights, allow Campion to do everything she does best. Perversity, ambiguity, the struggle between mind, soul and body: it’s all there for the taking. The peculiar poetry of Campion’s manner – disembodied shots of fingers, hands, feet, shoes – briefly reasserts itself. A motif of flame (from cigarette lighters to a house on fire) cleverly condenses the ongoing philosophical argument about what really constitutes a person’s spark of soulful humanity (was Campion influenced here, I wonder, by a film she loves, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line ?).
But there is an uncertainty and desperation hovering over Holy Smoke – indicated, for example, by the odd, unnecessary, occasional insertion of PJ’s voice-over narration. Switching tones and using different plot threads for pointed contrast is one thing; dissipating the dramatic intensity in what feels like a desperate bid to spice up proceedings is quite another. In comparison with two other contemporaneous films by women about desire and obsession, Davida Allen’s Feeling Sexy (1999) and Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999), this one does not have the nerve to stay on the case and burrow into the chamber drama of two people figuring out their difficult relationship.
The film is unevenly pitched. In the kitsch thread, virtually all the scenes involving Sophie Lee as Yvonne are badly judged and barely watchable. Even more damagingly, many of the dialogues between Ruth and PJ are puzzlingly inert and undramatic: the staging becomes stiff, the words flow by indifferently, and the supposedly explosive chemistry between the leads is, for the most part, absent.
Perhaps less immediately obvious, but profoundly crippling in its effects, is Campion’s botched sense of what Pascal Bonitzer calls unreal, passionate time in relation to standard clock and calendar time, something every kind of filmmaker has to master: the jagged stations of the Ruth/PJ relationship, the phases and transformations they pass through, never convincingly tally with the succession of just a few days and nights. As in The Portrait of a Lady, nothing really builds, branches, culminates or resolves in a satisfying way.
Winslet and Keitel certainly approach their roles with energy and conviction. But they seem to be struggling with the lack of definition of their characters. Ruth behaves at some moments like a giggly, cruel teen and at others like a questing adult. PJ too often becomes a caricature of the ‘70s era macho male, an easy butt for satire. Again, Campion has a perfect right to use and explore characters who are multi-layered, quixotic, paradoxical, contradictory (as Altman or Rohmer do) – but we need to intuit a core logic to this characterological mischief, within a narrative and cinematic form that accommodates and justifies it.
The most disappointing aspect of the film is its lack of a truly consistent and expressive style. A decade before, in Sweetie, Campion’s vision was clamped onto the material like a pair of shark jaws: relentlessly, every shot and scene was made to look weird and internally disconnected (that relentless alternation of left and right diagonals with rhyming pockets of negative space). It wasn’t subtle, but it was certainly distinctive, strongly influencing a generation of independent filmmakers right around the world.
Holy Smoke marks the almost total dissipation of Campion’s once-unified style. Did she want to shake up her signature manner, transform it, open new possibilities? Fine. But in fact, rather alarmingly, she has adopted the mode of much current Australian art cinema, in what I think of as the Paul Cox syndrome: ordinary, often dully filmed scenes are capped off with sudden, expressionistic transitions (such as a dreamy hallucination) or injected with a heavy dose of slow-motion (abroad, the same mode cheapens American Beauty [Sam Mendes, 1999] and Boys Don’t Cry [Kimberley Swain, 1999]). Meanwhile, Holy Smoke’s music track alternates between kitsch memories (Neil Diamond) and an unmemorable, washy score by David Lynch regular, Angelo Badalamenti.
On a first viewing, I felt that Holy Smoke was a superficial film. By any conventional dramatic standards, it indeed fails to add up: characters appear and disappear; hints and intrigues that are heavily signaled go nowhere; and, in its final stretch, the script lurches wildly in all directions, searching in vain for a big frisson (Ruth pashing a girl, PJ in a dress). Second time around, the penny dropped, and the heretical thought occurred to me: perhaps, quite simply, Campion is not cut out to be a storyteller. All her films are full of narrative illogicalities, abrupt breaks, blocks of material bashed up against each other. Perhaps her attachment to striking, standout imagery, dream apparitions, thick atmosphere, and everything in the world that just never comes together into a satisfying, reconcilable whole (especially the contradictory behaviours of confused people) places her beyond every kind of nominal narrative unity. Perhaps she wants or needs to be, after all, an experimental filmmaker. But this is not the path she has chosen to travel, and she has never given any public sign that it’s where she wants to be (unlike Alain Cavalier, for instance, who boldly deserted commercial cinema for the sake of self-imposed exile in the avant-garde).
Her films are still open texts, still ambiguous, elusive and multiple – sure, but that can’t amount to very much when they have also become immobile, leeched of life, fixed in compulsive repetitions of signature-effects, facile fragmentation, and an ersatz sense of mystery. I have reached a strange and unlikely point in relation to Campion’s work: I prefer the commentaries of her most passionate and inspired fans (such as Sue Gillett) (16) to the films themselves. I prefer the Campion films that I encounter conjured in print – poetic, rich, coherent – to the ones I experience on the screen. And this, surely, cannot be a good sign for any filmmaker.
Jane Campion has lost her way. This is not to say that, like any other artist (Wenders or Bertolucci, say), she is incapable of finding her way again – an old or new way, next year or many years from now. Like so many directors in global cinema culture today, Campion probably became a self-conscious auteur too quickly, read and heard too much about herself and her Vision. Like one of her characters, she is dramatically caught between fulfilling market expectations and defying or defacing them – frozen, like Isabel Archer at the end of The Portrait of a Lady, between the twin magnetic poles of love and confinement.
NOTES (updated December 2021)
1. Antoine de Baecque, “Hélas pour Wenders!”, Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 471 (September 1993), p. 61. back
2. Michel Ciment, “The Function and the State of Film Criticism”, Projections, no. 8 (London: Faber & Faber, 1998), p.41. back
3. Ibid., p. 42. back
4. See Harriet Margolis (ed.), Jane Campion’s The Piano (Cambridge University Press, 2000); Virginia Wright Wexman (ed.), Jane Campion: Interviews (University of Mississippi Press, 1999); Felicity Coombs & Suzanne Gemmell (eds), Piano Lessons: Approaches to The Piano (John Libbey, 1999); there are also novelisations of The Piano by Campion and Kate Pullinger (1993) and of Holy Smoke by Jane and Anna Campion (Allen & Unwin, 1999). [Note on a note: Anna Campion is well worth a separate investigation, for the feature Loaded (1994) and especially the very revealing short featuring both her sister Jane and mother Edith, The Audition (1989), made during casting for An Angel at My Table.] The decade or so following this article saw the appearance of books devoted to the director by Sue Gillett (ATOM, 2004), Dana Polan (BFI, 2001), Kathleen McHugh (Illinois University Press, 2007), and Deb Verhoeven (Routledge, 2009), the last three each for a different publisher’s series on the Great Contemporary Directors; as well, novelist Gail Jones wrote a book on The Piano for Currency Press’ Australian Film Classics series in 2007. This period was capped by the anthology Jane Campion: Cinema, Nation, Identity (Wayne State UP, 2009), which contains several damning responses to my “disparaging” critique! Katherine Goodnow’s Kristeva in Focus (Berghahn, 2010) discusses, among its key case studies, three Campion films. Another book, on Jane Campion and Adaptation (Bloomsbury) by Estella Tincknell, followed in 2013. Individual essays across many journals are far too numerous to list here. Campion’s status in the academic canon has (almost miraculously, given the fickleness of global film culture) survived the relative paucity in her subsequent production rate: since initially writing this article, there has been only the intriguing, somewhat re-energised but highly repetitive In the Cut (2003), Bright Star (2009), two seasons of Top of the Lake for TV, and The Power of the Dog (2021) – as well as two shorts, The Water Diary (2006) and The Lady Bug, the latter a contribution to the anthology To Each His Own Cinema (2007) which is, by far, her worst work ever. back
5. Stephen Crofts, “Foreign Tunes? Gender and Nationality in Four Countries’ Reception of The Piano”, in Margolis (ed.), p. 139. back
6. Wexman (ed.), p. 179. back
7. Royal S. Brown (ed.), Focus on Godard (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1972), p. 61. back
8. Kathleen Murphy, “Jane Campion’s Passage to India”, Film Comment (January/February 2000), p. 30. back
9. 2021 note: A more recent re-viewing, and critical persuasion via Cristina Álvarez López’s “Foreplays #5: A Girl’s Own Story” – also reworked in the Blu-ray booklet for Out of the Blue (BFI, 2021) – has considerably raised my opinion of this film. back
10. Quoted in Murphy, p. 30. back
12. Murphy, p. 30. back
13. Freda Freiberg, “The Bizarre in the Banal: Notes on the Films of Jane Campion”, in Blonski, Creed & Freiberg (eds.), Don’t Shoot Darling! Women’s Independent Filmmaking in Australia (Melbourne: Greenhouse, 1987), pp. 328-333. back
14. Murphy, p. 36. back
15. Robin Wood, The Wings of the Dove (London: British Film Institute, 1999). back
16. Sue Gillett, “Lips and Fingers: Jane Campion’s The Piano”, Screen, Vol. 36 No. 3 (Autumn 1995); “More than Meets the Eye: The Mediation of Affects in Jane Campion’s Sweetie”, Senses of Cinema, no. 1 (December 1999); “Never a Native: Deconstructing Home and Heart in Holy Smoke”, Senses of Cinema, no. 5 (April 2000). See also note 4 for Gillett’s book. back
© Adrian Martin July 2000