Film-making is not about whether you’re a man or a woman; it’s about sensitivity and hard work and really loving what you do. But women are going to tell different stories – there would be many more stories in the world if women were making more films.
Jane Campion is at once trailblazing and defiant. She has been the focus of much attention as one of the few leading women of her craft, yet has always stressed that her role is first and foremost as a storyteller. This acclaimed director professes not to belong to any clubs or political agendas. Instead she simply states the obvious truth: that women are drastically under-represented before and behind the lens.
Born to literary, artistic parents, Campion grew up immersed in New Zealand’s theatre scene. Following an anthropology degree, she shifted to art school and later, on discovering that the moving image best fulfilled her artistic ambitions, she went to film school.
Her first feature film, Sweetie (1989), has been labelled “a beautifully strange and compelling film debut” that is “bent out of shape with an almost intangibly mystical precision.” It set the precedent for her work and its otherworldly tone, rooted in a personal, small-scale drama. It also featured credible female characters centrally – another common feature of her films in an industry habitually lacking three-dimensional representations of women.
We should mandate that 50% of films produced are made by women… Instantly the culture would change.
Campion has spoken of the struggles she faces by trying to depict real women. By “real” I mean women that make no attempt to appeal to the viewer: they are unapologetically themselves. She challenged the male critic class who complained that her female protagonist in An Angel at My Table was despondent, and targets US macho culture in particular, suggesting that “those men probably find women very threatening and difficult, unless they’re packaged like sex objects.”
Her most famous film, The Piano (1993), is unlike any film I’ve ever seen. It contains the common elements of a story – essentially, a beginning, middle and end – and yet they are all put slightly out of kilter, producing an ethereal, distorted reality. Perhaps this is what Campion referred to when she claimed to want the film to seem as if shot underwater. Roger Ebert hits the nail on the head, stating “It is one of those rare movies that is not just about a story, or some characters, but about a whole universe of feeling.”
The Piano follows the story of the silent Ada and her marriage to a stranger in New Zealand, where she also captivates a neighbour – Baines – through her piano playing. Each scene aches with emotion and frustrated yearning, and Campion focuses more on this than the eventual satisfaction of these desires. She dedicates a scene to Baines caressing Ada’s piano naked with fetishistic gravitas (which makes me less embarrassed about a simple Facebook browse of my latest romantic interest). An item of clothing is removed with each visit Ada makes to Baines, building a seething sexual atmosphere. When they do eventually have sex, you instead watch the scene play out through her daughter, who peers through the cracks in the wall.
Campion’s art school training shines through her visual, emotive method of working. Sue Gillett stresses the importance of the “unsayable” and “unseeable” in Campion’s films; they are multi-sensory. The protagonist of The Piano never speaks aloud, and during the filming of Bright Star Campion developed a silent language based on hand signals: “we didn’t talk, we kept the head out of it.”
I picked up a biography of Keats. That’s where I found the answer; he said he wanted a life of sensations, not thoughts, and I understood that I was trying to photograph sensations.
Campion rejects emotional manipulation, aspiring to leave the story open for the audience to emotionally experience in a way personal to them. Bright Star (2009) is a masterpiece of such delicate directing. She uses a still camera for most of the film. The result is that each shot contains a tender lightness, whether in a room crowded with butterflies or in a scene mourning the loss of love.
Bright Star is in many ways “classic Campion”. Exploring the world of Keats, she focused not on the famous poet and man, but instead the seamstress, lover and woman Fanny Brawne. Many biographers derogated Brawne as meddlesome, but Campion gives her heroic status as a woman who had only needlework to express herself in society.
Campion looks at the common narrative. She then looks at the edges to discover and play with a wealth of untold stories, often of women and often of how they were using what little means were bestowed upon them by society to be heard. As the enclosed worlds of her characters are opened to greater emotion and vision, so too is the experience of the audience, who are taken into a place of heightened sensitivity, reverie and ultimately, being.