A rather nasty tradition of satire directed against suburbia has become a part of Australian culture, at least since the emergence of Barry Humphries in the '50s.
An unmistakable whiff of smug, middle-class superiority wafts through the films, plays, novels and TV skit shows and situation comedies (of the Fast Forward or Kath and Kim variety) that portray a suburban wasteland populated with narrow-minded, conservative, repressed grotesques. In many respects this is a deeply despicable comic tradition. Devoid of any real social curiosity or human tenderness, it too often gets away with its reductive understanding of normal people as congenitally stupid.
Picture this scene: A young suburban bank clerk goes to a local clairvoyant to have her tea-leaves read. The clairvoyant is an older woman with a familiarly flat Aussie whine, prefacing her gems of wisdom with such phrases as "well, dearie ... ". To complete the picture, she has a handicapped son. He has a moon-face and pebble glasses, sports gaudy summer wear, and tussles with the young woman for possession of her teacup.
If someone had told me that this scene appears near the start of Jane Campion's Sweetie, I may not even have attended the screening. And that, as it turns out, would have been my loss.
The great surprise of Sweetie is that, given its suburban premise, it manages to be affecting, poignant and even a little profound. To be sure, Campion has her quiet laugh throughout at the absurdities of the suburban settings and the lives it contains. But so much more is happening. Campion is genuinely interested in understanding the situation of ordinary people's emotional limits and frustrations, their conservatism and their yearning.
The film starts with Kay (Karen Colston), who needs a clairvoyant because her life is strangely uncertain, unsettled. Her first impulse is always towards order and restraint, but fate has something else in store for her: a sudden, passionate affair with the virtual stranger Louis (Tom Lycos). The affair spells the end of Louis' engagement to another woman at the bank where they all work.
After this romantic upheaval, however, the film suddenly jumps ahead to the moment when Kay has settled back into her normal state of neurotic, sexless restraint. The so-called "plot" of the film proceeds entirely, in fact, through such leaps and gaps. The next big shakeup is provided by the loud arrival of the title character, Kay's sister Sweetie, a gregarious, libidinal, somewhat mentally unbalanced child-woman. From this point, the film becomes a study of interactions: between different female types, between women and men, between children and parents. There are perverse alliances (Sweetie and Louis, the possibly incestuous link between Sweetie and her father); disappearances (Sweetie's hapless junkie boyfriend); and unexpected transformations (in Kay, and her mother). There is also a large minor cast of New Age oddballs, dancing jackaroos and ebullient children.
Sweetie explores a dizzying array of themes and ideas. The film is a meditation on the problem of lost love, and how to rekindle it (mainly through "sex and courage", as the clairvoyant helpfully advises Kay), through an ambivalent exploration of the sometimes hellish binds of family life, and through a musing about the ways and the shapes of female sexuality.
On all topics, Campion seems to entertain both a superstitiously mystical point of view on the one hand, and a solidly sceptical brand of realism on the other. Pinning down where she exactly stands in anything is virtually impossible, but this uncertainty is part of the thrill.
Sweetie is certainly a strange film, defying most of the rules of conventional Australian cinema. One reviewer, on its release, predictably complained that it is "wayward, problematic". Yet it is notable how many critics and viewers, subsequently, totally embraced it. What overcame the initial resistance?
Sweetie has something special: not only a tender heart, but a sense of conviction, a will to communicate a unique vision. Campion, a true filmmaker, speaks not only through her script and her actors, but through the mysterious but unmistakable tone she gives to the film.
In short, Sweetie is not an easy film to verbalise, but it is certainly an easy film to admire, and even love.
© Adrian Martin October 1989