First Films: Jane Campion's "Sweetie"

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This is the third in a short series of posts on directors’ first films—films often overshadowed by the blockbusters that come after them but that catch their makers at an important stage of evolution while providing plenty delights of their own.


“Has anyone here watched Top of the Lake?”

Sometimes, when you’re a teacher, you’ll say just about anything to break the silence your students seem bent on preserving. Sometimes, when your girlfriend is out of town and you’ve just started watching an awesome TV show, you’ll try to force it on just about anybody you can.

So why had I put off watching the show in the first place? Multiple trustworthy parties had recommended it to me. But Netflix’s archives are so deep—I was still catching up on my Parks and Rec, my Louie, my Portlandia. And by handily borrowing someone else’s HBO GO password, I had recently opened up a veritable Pandora’s Box Office: True Detective, Six Feet Under, Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones! Who had time for a detective mini-series set in small-town New Zealand? My students hadn’t even heard of it.

But at some point I found out that 2013’s Top of the Lake was created and directed by Jane Campion. One night I sat down on my couch and began streaming the first episode. Always a sucker for killer establishing shots (see Days of Heaven or No Country for Old Men), within minutes I was hooked.


And chancing upon a director’s latest work is the only excuse I need to go and watch her first, making (selective) pit stops throughout her career along the way. I had already seen The Piano (1993), Campion’s best-known film, but not Bright Star (2009), her take on the ill-fated romance between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. Nor had I seen In the Cut (2003), Campion’s adaptation of Susannah Moore’s novel about an English professor caught up in a murder case; nor An Angel at My Table (1990), her long and winning portrait of the life of celebrated New Zealand writer Janet Frame, based on Frame’s autobiography; nor Sweetie (1989), Campion’s bizarrely hilarious and beautiful debut.

Screen shot 2013-04-14 at 7.26.22 PMFirst things first. Sweetie isn’t about Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon)—at least not centrally. It’s about Kay (Karen Colston), Sweetie’s sister, a quietly bold and superstitious woman whom we get to know well before Sweetie herself makes her first appearance, 26 minutes into the film. In one of the first scenes, Kay visits a tealeaf reader. “There is a man,” the woman pronounces. “He is going to be important.” Turning Kay’s cup this way and that, she goes on: “What’s that? A question mark?” A minute later, frowning: “Oh yes, it’s on his face. There’s a question mark on his face, dear.” Soon afterward we meet Louis (Tom Lycos), who’s been engaged to his sweetheart, a woman Kay works with, for “what? fifty-five minutes.” A twist of hair hangs just so above a mole on his forehead. Kay wastes little time explaining the situation to him. “It’s just, well I’m destined to be with you,” she tells him during a parking-garage assignation. “Look, I wouldn’t bother you, but I think it’s true. It’s in the spirits.”

Standing by the portentously numbered thirteenth parking space, they decide to toss a coin—“for keeps.” Louis takes out a handful of coins and begins flipping them: Tails. Again. Tails. Victorious, Kay crosses to Louis and goes in for the kiss. He lets the rest of the coins drop to the concrete—brilliant—and before we know it the two are descending together, out of the frame and onto the floor.

Before the ten-minute mark we’ve hopped ahead 13 months. Louis is distressing Kay by planting an “anniversary tree” in their back patio. Trees bother Kay—in the film’s opening voice-over, she explains how when she was a child she used to fear the roots would crawl up under the house, under her bed. Her concerns now are more mature, at least on the surface: “What about the roots, Lou? They spread in under the house. That kind of damage costs a fortune!” That night she sneaks out of bed and uproots the sapling.

The film plays heavily on images of trees and roots, unabashedly cultivating a symbolic motif that doesn’t get its narrative pay-off until Sweetie shows up. Kay and Louis return home one night to find a window smashed, a pair of pants in the entryway, and rock music blasting. In Kay’s bed are Sweetie and her “producer,” a man named Bob. In his short essay in Sweetie’s Criterion Collection release, Dana Polan describes Kay’s sister as “a contagious force of disruption” who “derails Kay’s narrative and threatens to overwhelm all logic, all propriety, all emotions other than her sheer animalistic appetite and obsessive demand for attention.” Truly. She breaks Kay’s things, and always has; she just won’t listen, and never has. She even seduces Louis. Actress Genevieve Lemon herself comments: “I mean [Campion] wanted Sweetie to be this time-bomb.”

In other words, we soon understand that one tree, at least, whose invasive roots Kay fears is—well—her family tree.

sweetie1The film offers the version of family Kay prefers: a set of porcelain horses. The horses have names and familial relationships—Thunder, Blaze, Blaze’s mother, Gypsy. Frozen in conventional poses of action, the horses are miniature, maneuverable: when Kay’s done with them, she can pack them back up in their case and put them away. Not so with her real family, who one by one, following Sweetie’s literal break-in, grow disruptively into the film. Next her father shows up, toting a cooler packed with the saran-wrapped dinner plates Kay’s mother prepared for him before taking off on her own to be the cook at a jackaroo ranch. (This is Australia, remember.) During his stay, we see Kay’s father’s deep affection for Sweetie, highlighted in the wonderful scene where they try to wow Louis with Sweetie’s old chair flipping routine. Eventually the three of them—Dad, Kay, and Louis—set off for the jackaroo ranch, cruelly tricking Sweetie out of the car.

I won’t spoil the climax of the film following the family’s return, whole again. Suffice it to say it involves a naked Sweetie streaked with mud—and a tree. Sweetie is a film about sisters, and—like just about all, I think, of Campion’s films—it easily passes the Bechdel Test. But the film also continues on awhile beyond its climax, reminding us that it’s also a film about romance and heterosexual love—a woman’s fated relationship with an “important” man.

Again, in his Criterion essay, Dana Polan remarks on Campion’s films’ depictions of “the psychosexual realities of women’s lives”:

In her feature films, she homes in on the subjectivity of one woman, chronicling how, for better or worse, she finds her life irrevocably changed by a strong (but ultimately sensitive) man…. [A]ll of Campion’s features offer versions of this story, as if each were a piece in an overall experiment in which Campion as testing how women wend their way through the thorny terrain of heterosexual desire and dread.

In this way, Campion often puts the Bechdel Test to the test. In Top of the Lake, for example, a group of women set up a makeshift lakeside community to get away from the world and recuperate from their troubles. But their troubles are men. Some of them are obsessed with the men who’ve spurned them, and others are obsessed with having sex with men—especially, one woman confides, “big” ones. If such a scenario were created by a male director (and it might be wise to add here that Campion co-wrote the series with Gerard Lee, as she did Sweetie), I probably wouldn’t hesitate to throw up a red flag: what kind of male fantasy is this, anyway, where women, some of them naked, sit around hankering for oversized phalli? But when Jane Campion puts this on the screen, I hesitate, whether I should or not, and question my own judgments.

In a DVD bonus feature, Genevieve Lemon talks about the “heavy female input” that informed Sweetie. Besides Campion and the two lead actresses, there was cinematographer Sally Bongers, Lemon says, and Jane Castle, the camera operator, among “lots” of others in the crew. “There’s just a sense of security,” Colston adds, “with all those women there, that you can expose yourself a bit more, or perhaps you might have someone to run to if you need to.” That sense of security, that kind of exposure, may be what Campion needs of her actresses in order to touch those intense and very real “psychosexual” experiences she’s interested in. “It was very important to Jane that we looked real,” Colston goes on to say, describing how she had to put grease in her hair so that it would “look real and not beautiful—and I’d think, ‘Why are they making me ugly?’”


What’s real is often ugly, and Campion embraces that fact. I think back to that early scene between Kay and Louis, in the parking garage. Unbeknownst to them until now, their love is “in the spirits,” she says, almost as if referring to some powerful invisible system, say, that makes heteronormative matches—even ones that go tepid, like this one—seem natural, inevitable. But even as Campion parodies that system (the fifty-five minute engagement!), she gives Kay the dignity of functioning independently and desirously within it: it’s Kay who approaches Louis with news of their destiny—almost a spin on the “I-knew-when-I-saw-her-that-she-was-the-one-I-would-marry” trope—and Kay who moves to make the first kiss. You may not know it from the film’s title, but Kay is the main character here, the true center of our attention, the star, agent.


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