Views From Beyond the Mirror

Sue Gillett’s monograph on Jane Campion’s films establishes Campion as a cinematic poet of heterosexuality, “warts and all”. Gillett’s intention is to assess Campion’s part in the modern struggle to forge a woman’s point of view for mass distributed cinema and she praises Campion for crafting a “visual language for female subjectivities”, without denying the asymmetrical gender power imbalances in patriarchal Western society. If Gillett is correct, as I think she is to a large degree, then she has in her sights a woman who, as director, has admirably dragged victory from the jaws of defeat, discovering a poetic of evolved love between men and women without waiting for the cultural revolution that will effectively replace – in the bedrooms, boardrooms, and streets of the industrialised countries – the venerable domination pattern of gender relations with a fully realised dynamic of mutuality.

Gillett’s book considers the films of Jane Campion in separate chapters organised in chronological order, working its way from Sweetie (1989) to In the Cut (2003). Gillett’s motivation for this organisational plan is to study Campion’s aesthetic development and the evolution of her themes, of which much more below. As a prologue: what I find arresting about Gillett’s ordering of her commentaries is that her own rhetoric alters noticeably as she moves through Campion’s stages of development as a director. She begins with unusually personal statements and moves toward much more conventionally distanced criticism. Speaking of Sweetie, Gillett begins by alerting her readers to her biases, allowing us intimate contact with her, almost as if we were reading her diary:

I am definitely not impartial before Jane Campion’s films. Why is it that I am so fascinated, so in love with them? Why do they shake me up in a lasting way? When the lights come on, I don’t want to go back to ordinary things. I want to dwell, to go in deeper, stay in that world that has so much reality for me. (15)

The critic as Jane Campion heroine going to the movies. By the chapter on The Piano. Gillett has shifted her address to the reader. Now, she is not speaking of her own sensibility, but as if, taking us by the hand, she were leading us into not only the world of the film’s heroine Ada (Holly Hunter), but inside the very person of the character. She begins the chapter with one and a half pages of quotations from Ada’s voiceover fused with her own voice as if she were Ada, or someone there with Ada on the screen. The critic entering the Jane Campion film.

In stark contrast, when we reach her chapter on The Portrait of a Lady (1996), we find Gillett in ordinary critical mode, applying a standard critical framework:

Language is a problem for many of Jane Campion’s women: Sweetie talks too much…Janet’s talent for the written word is undercut by an excessive shyness…Ada, of course, is altogether mute…In contrast, Isabel is, at least before her marriage to Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), quite self-assured in her speech. (57)

For the rest of the book, she continues to stake out this approved distance from her reader. I cannot help thinking that these unexplained shifts are connected with something Gillett has to say to us about the evolution of Campion’s films that she hasn’t yet verbalised. My guess is that she is noting in a subjective way how in Campion’s initial films the power of image outweighs the authority of narrative structure, while in her more recent films Campion re-establishes the control of narrative over image.

The first three chapters lead the reader through Campion’s early films, each one concerned with a female protagonist who is blocked somehow in her attempts at self-definition and self-expression. Gillett perceptively notes that Campion is more interested in breaking conventions of gender representation by exploring these women on their own terms than she is in bemoaning the restrictions of their limitations. Gillett assesses Sweetie, Campion’s first film, as a form of cinematic liberation even though it concerns the unavenged havoc wrought by father-daughter incest. Gillett sees Campion’s triumph in her refusal to impose a certainty on the representation of incest within a dysfunctional family in which two sisters are turned against each other by the seemingly unintentional domination of mother and daughters by the father. The central narrative event – an assumed, hinted-at incest – is never shown or located in time. Instead, we are told, Campion refuses to separate it out from memory and fantasy. In refusing the distance that would give such certainty about a specific event of incest, says Gillett, Sweetie uses the filmic medium to convey the experience of trauma the way victims of abuse feel it, “memory as an ever presentness of the body in the present.” Sweetie, then, can be counted as Campion’s initial success in recreating female experience of the limits of language, meaning, and comprehension in telling the feminine story. With such a rhetoric, I would add, the objectification of women is not possible, nor the use of the screen as part of the Lacanian mirror stage, when a distanced image of ourselves suggests an unattainable perfection.

The Lacanian metaphor of the mirror plays a major role in Gillett’s commentary on An Angel At My Table (1990), an episodic rendering of the troubled life of Janet Frame, a New Zealand writer. The liberating representation of female experience that Gillett finds in this film is its rejection of the Lacanian understanding of the female self-image as a mirror image that traps us in “a closed specular economy”, confining us within narcissism and masochism. Rather, Campion transforms the mirror into an image of openness, like that of a window. One of Gillett’s clearest examples of what she means directs us to the scene in Angel when Janet attempts to create the “right” feminine pose by practising before her mirror. This image, as Gillett insightfully points out, frees the spectator from the usual identification with a falsely naturalised idealisation of female beauty. Instead, Campion confronts us with Janet’s desire to satisfy social ideas about women as a form of submission to a contrived feminine to-be-looked-at-ness that is an applied technology, not an essential part of who we are. Campion creates her own version of the screen as mirror, one that counters the tendency of the screen to function as an intimidating reflection of perfection, in order to illuminate our complicity in our own subjection when we attempt to conform to a patriarchal feminine ideal.

The Piano (1993), my favourite of Campion’s films, is less satisfyingly critiqued. The film is a genuinely enigmatic portrait of heterosexual love that examines the confusion that surrounds male and female desire within a rigid, patriarchal society. Here, Campion chronicles a romantic triangle that develops between Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill), a landowner in an isolated spot in New Zealand; his mail order bride, Ada (Hunter), a pianist, who cannot or will not speak; and George Baines (Harvey Keitel), a man who works as Stewart’s foreman, organising the Maori workmen who perform menial tasks of labour on Stewart’s property. Gillett spends most of her effort defending The Piano against critics who accuse Campion of heterosexism and of diminishing Ada by “relegating” her to happy domesticity with Baines at the end of the film after giving her so much freedom as a rebel against conventional marriage and men. The essay struggles to assert that Ada is not diminished, but is hampered by Gillett’s willingness to allow the critics with whom she disagrees to define the conversation. I too disagree with those critics, but I doubt that Ada’s warm and fuzzy union with Baines, with which some critics take so much issue, is as much the point or the power of the film as is Campion’s achievement of a portrait of a woman undefined by men. Probably, this chapter would have worked better if Gillett had followed the strategies of the two previous chapters, exploring the liberating aesthetics of Campion’s privileging of image over narrative to portray women.

The last three chapters – about The Portrait of a Lady, Holy Smoke (1999), and In the Cut – follow the development of a new Campion heroine, a confident, articulate woman. Moving away from bewildered and bewildering heroines of films that are important for the way Campion revolutionises the visual and aural gender technology of narrative film, Campion arrives at the more conventional film protagonist. In these movies, we follow women who effectively occupy the place of the assertive protagonist conventionally reserved for men, aggressively negotiating, with varying results, the enigma of male will-to-power within the terms of heterosexual passion. Gillett is eloquent in her analyses of how Portrait‘s Isabel (Nicole Kidman), Holy Smoke‘s Ruth (Kate Winslet), and In the Cut‘s Frannie (Meg Ryan) confront male hostility toward women, in its various forms and intensities.

In these final chapters, as the films become more linear, so do Gillett’s commentaries. She concentrates on a clear pattern of female empowerment that renders each heroine successively stronger and more successful in creating a promising prognosis for heterosexual love. And here is where Gillett becomes most pressing in her discussion of Campion’s importance as a pioneer in the creation of non-didactic filmic romances impacted by the feminist agenda. In The Portrait of a Lady, Gillett sees headstrong and independent Isabel at a preliminary stage of feminine self-realisation, overcome by the deceptively domineering Osmond (Malkovich), her wings clipped when she marries him under the mistaken impression that she has found the way to freedom in commitment. Campion ends the film entertaining only the merest possibility of Isabel extricating herself from a stultifying marriage. With Holy Smoke, Gillett sees headstrong and independent Ruth taking a step further into a realised mode of female self-determination within patriarchy and a step away from constricting conventional heterosexual role-playing. When she finds a life of freedom and commitment in India, Ruth is deceived into returning to Australia by her family who has arranged for P.J. Waters (Keitel), an American “deprogrammer”, to save her from what her family believes to be brainwashing by a foreign culture. Ruth not only foils their plans but deprograms Waters of his sexist assumptions about women. They do not become a couple but establish a love relationship of respect that transcends space, each pursuing his/her own life with a special place in the heart for the other. In In the Cut, Gillett identifies Campion’s most evolved heroine, Frannie, a headstrong and independent writer and teacher, who finds herself in the path of a rampaging, unidentified serial killer, who may or may not be the man with whom she is sexually involved. As Gillett nicely points out, Frannie’s task is not only to defend herself, as was the case with Isabel and Ruth, but to identify which man is her enemy. Taking the implications of this plot to a higher level, Gillett permits us to see through what might easily be misconstrued as a standard suspense film, to note Campion’s nuanced and subtle feminist suggestion that what women must do goes beyond an amorphous form of intention to resist domination; rather, we must isolate specifically what aspect of masculinity threatens women. Frannie’s initial inability to make the necessary distinction among masculinities almost costs her her life, but she finds the wherewithal to achieve her goals and is ultimately free to pursue love with a man who may be able to honour the personhood of his lover. Gillett explores Frannie as the first of Campion’s protagonists since Ada in The Piano to achieve anything close to the satisfaction she seeks in heterosexual union. She also explores Frannie’s similarity to Ada as a Campion heroine who directly confronts the violence involved in the unsatisfactory choices that threaten heterosexual women, as well as the differences between these two heroines. More evolved than Ada, Frannie is not stuck in a pattern of mute resistance. She is a heroine making very hard, life-and-death choices that Isabel and Ruth only began to approach, and which the sisters in Sweetie and Janet Frame were incapable of even imagining.

Gillett’s slim volume makes for good reading. A monograph, it neither can nor claims to be exhaustive. And it will not endear Campion to those critics wary of the smallest suggestion that achieving intimacy with men is among the central issues in women’s lives. But Gillett’s essays do not in the least imply that Campion is a post-feminist filmmaker who tells us that the feminist agenda is now irrelevant because it has already been achieved. That is the kind of poet of marriage and coupledom that I object to, and I object to critics who misread Campion as one of that ilk. So does Gillett. If anything, her criticism suggests that Campion is dedicated to tracing the feminist agenda through a culture still aggressively sexist but slightly more open to the penetration of its dogmas by the voices of women now equipped to fight toe-to-toe with their men for a co-creation of heterosexual experiences.

Views From Beyond the Mirror: The Films of Jane Campion, by Sue Gillett, The Moving Image, Number 7, ATOM, St Kilda, 2004.

About The Author

Martha P. Nochimson is the author of five books, including The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood and World on Film: An Introduction, and is working on a second book about David Lynch. For 26 years a Professor of film at New York University and Mercy College, she is now an Associate Editor for Cineaste.