The Auteurs: Jane Campion – Cinema Axis

Jul 14, 2021 11:23 AM
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Considered to be one of the most influential female filmmakers around the world, Jane Campion is someone who makes films on her terms. She has given a voice to female characters that hadn’t been displayed in a lot of films. Matching poetic imagery with stark stories about women struggling with their identities, Campion’s work has definitely made her standout against many of her contemporaries. She is one of four women in the world of film that has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, and the first woman to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. While she dabbles in all sorts of genres, including her most recent work in the television miniseries Top of the Lake, Campion puts her own ideas into her work to stray away from the convention of those genres.

Born in Wellington, New Zealand on April 30, 1954, Jane was surrounded by the world of theater being the daughter of both a theater director and an actress/writer. Though she had no interest in becoming an actress or being part of the theater, Campion was still fascinated by the world even as she pursued her interest in anthropology. This interest would eventually lead her to the world of art and film years later. Graduating from Victoria University of Wellington in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, Campion attended the Chelsea Art School in London while traveling around Europe for a few years. After spending time at the Sydney College of the Arts in Australia, studying painting, Campion became interested in film and made her first student short Tissues in 1980. This led to her getting a chance to study at the prestigious Australian Film, Television, and Radio School a year later where she made another student film called Mishaps: Seduction and Conquest.


Peel: An Exercise in Discipline/Passionless Moments

During her time at the Australian Film, Television, and Radio School, from 1981 to her graduation in 1984, Campion would make three shorts. It was there she met a few people who would become collaborators in various parts of her career: cinematographer Sally Bongers, editor Veronika Jenet, and a writer named Gerard Lee. Lee and Bongers helped Campion create a short that explored the world of a father trying to discipline his son entitled Peel: An Exercise in Discipline. The short revolved around a father, his sister, and his son taking a road trip where the little boy keeps throwing orange peels out of the car.

Campion infused the short with intriguing close-ups and arresting images that would become a trademark of her work in the years to come. Campion also put in images of the aunt peeing on the side of the road while her brother tries to find his son. It is one of the moments where Campion brings her own sense of feminist ideals to both shock and comment on the role of women.


Peel: An Exercise in Discipline was unveiled in 1982 as Campion was embarking on another short with Gerard Lee and Veronika Jenet called Passionless Moments. Campion served as her own cinematographer with another future filmmaker, Alex Proyas, helping to shoot the film. The black-and-white short chronicled a series of vignettes in which many people do mundane things throughout the course of the day. Some of these moments include a fat man doing yoga, a boy trying to get some food before a bomb goes off, a woman alone in her room, two neighbors eyeing each other, a man cleaning his jeans in a tub as he sings the Monkees’ Daydream Believer, and other stories.

Passionless Moments’ sense of style came from Campion’s desire to find something engaging in the mundane. She and Lee shot all of the vignettes in the course of a day and created images that were quite compelling. An example of this comes in the first segment where the fat man looks at words while turning doing his yoga. It’s among the many moments in the short that Campion wanted to show that even something mundane can be extraordinary.


A Girl’s Own Story/Two Friends

Campion’s third student short film, A Girl’s Own Story, would be an exploration into the world of sexuality from the perspective of teenage school girls in the 1960s. Once again enlisting cinematographer Sally Bongers, the film features a very distinctive black-and-white look to play up the world of the early 60s. A Girl’s Own Story is filled with references to the Beatles and complex adult themes. For example, one of the girls gets pregnant while her best friend deals with her parent’s crumbling marriage, supposedly due to her father’s extramarital affair. The film also features arresting images such a sequence near the end of the film where the teenage girls sing a song while Campion projects images of girls ice-skating over their bodies.

A Girl’s Own Story, along with Campion’s two previous shorts, was well-received by the film school and got the chance to play in the Un Certain Regard section of the 1986 Cannes Film Festival. The three shorts were major hits at the festival with Peel winning the Short Film Palme d’Or that year. Campion’s work with her student shorts, including another short called After Hours, lead to an opportunity to shot an episode of Australian television series Dancing Daze. The work that Campion was doing got her the attention of producer Jan Chapman, who would become another key collaborator in Campion’s career. Chapman eventually got Campion a job helming a television film called Two Friends.

The film was a project, written by Helen Garner, centered around the unique relationship between two girls, one straight-laced and the other a rebellious punk. Campion was intrigued by the story and opted for a loose documentary style to chronicle the dissolution of two girls’ friendship. Her decision to tell the story backwards over the course of several months was truly original. Two Friends premiered in 1986 in Australia and gave Campion some excellent notices as the film won an award for best television film from the Australian Film Institute.


After finishing her tenure with film school and getting work for Australian television, Campion decided to go on her own with the help of Gerard Lee. The two decided to collaborate on a project that Campion had in mind for some time. While Campion had other stories that she had been working on, she felt that this particular story, called Sweetie, would become her first feature-length film. The story is about a buttoned-up, not to mention superstitious, young woman and her relationship with her emotionally-troubled sister. The story delves into the lives of their dysfunctional family and how it affects the woman’s relationship with her boyfriend.

Campion and Lee based many elements of the story on Campion’s own life. The character of Kay is sort of based on Campion while the titular character is loosely based on Campion’s sister Anna. Lee created the character of Louis and loosely based on himself. The pair, along with cinematographer Sally Bongers, shot the film in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia at a place where they used to live during their film school days.

Production began in 1988, with Campion craving to create a film that had a beautiful look of suburbia. She cited David Lynch’s Blue Velvet as a major influence on the film as well as the work of Jim Jarmusch. Campion also wanted to make a film that started off as a story about a woman dealing with her repression, but changed tones with the unexpected arrival of her sister in the second act. Determined to find the right actors for the roles, Campion opted to do a lot of the film’s casting herself. The final cast included Genevieve Lemon in the titular role, Karen Colston as Kay, Tom Lycos as Louis, and the duo of Jon Darling and Dorothy Barry as Kay and Sweetie’s parents

Lemon’s performance is crucial to the film in the way she displays the character’s very destructive, yet childlike, personality. She is a young woman who has talent but no sense of boundaries. Sweetie’s tragic fall unknowingly brings the dysfunctional family back together in the film’s climax. During the final days of production, Campion received news about her mother’s suicide attempt. Unable to be there, her sister Anna had to be the one responsible for dealing with their mother’s situation. Campion would dedicate Sweetie to her sister for helping her at that crucial point in time.

The film premiered at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival where it got a nice reception as well as some boos. According to Campion, Bongers, and Lee, the reported booing was merely an exaggeration. Overall the film managed to do well at the festival despite coming home empty-handed. Sweetie also managed to raise Campion’s profile as a director in not just Australia and New Zealand but also internationally as well.


An Angel at My Table (Review)

The clout that Campion gained for Sweetie allowed her to return to New Zealand to take part in a very ambitious bio-pic about Janet Frame, one of the country’s great authors. Campion had been approached to make the film based on the fact that Frame’s writing was among one of several influences in her films. Collaborating with screenwriter Laura Jones, Campion took three of Frame’s autobiographies and turned them into An Angel at My Table.

Though the film was largely set in New Zealand, An Angel at My Table was a co-production between New Zealand, Australia, and Britain. This gave Campion all of the resources she needed to make the film she wanted to make. Campion gained a new collaborator in cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh who would become her choice of cinematographer for much of the 1990s. While Campion was familiar with the New Zealand landscape, she and Jones took the time to scout the locations in Britain, Australia, Spain, and France to see where Frame’s journeys as a writer took her.

For the role of Frame, Campion chose three actresses to play the character at different ages. She selected Karen Fergusson and Alexia Keogh to play the child and adolescent versions of Frame respectively. For the role of the adult Frame, newcomer Kerry Fox was chosen as her New Zealand heritage added authenticity to the part. Since the film was based on the books To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table, and The Envoy from Mirror City, Campion decided to use the three books to play up the film’s unconventional structure. The first act focuses on Frame’s troubled childhood, the second act is about Frame’s alienation with the world, and the final segment explores her bout with mental illness.

The film utilized very different color schemes to play up Frame’s moods as she loses herself in mental and emotional anguish over being published. The tone would change in the third act when Frame finally gets the chance to go around the world, and even gain some fame for her work. It is this choice in approach, as well as Jones’ script, that allowed Campion to stylistically deviate from the tropes of conventional bio-pics while still remaining true to the source material.

An Angel at My Table made its premiere at the 1990 Venice Film Festival where it won the Grand Special Jury Prize. This helped to raise Campion’s profile further among the international film scene. The film’s limited U.S. art-house release helped to introduce Frame’s writing to a new generation of readers. An Angel at My Table received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Foreign Film and received rave reviews, including a four-star review from the famed film critic Roger Ebert.


After two back-to-back international successes, Campion decided to retrieve a script she had been working on since the late 80s. The story revolved around a mute Scotswoman who goes to a New Zealand coast to meet her new husband. While there she finds herself falling for a forester who asks her to teach him to play the piano. Set in the mid-19th Century, it was a story that Campion wanted to tell as it recalled stories like Jane Mander’s The Story of New Zealand River and the fairytale Bluebeard.

Campion gathered her usual collaborators, including sound designer Lee Smith, production designer Andrew McAlpine and costume designer Janet Patterson, to come up with ideas of how to present the film using the New Zealand west coast landscape. Surrounded by jungle and murky waters, the region helped Campion to convey striking Gothic imagery that was also poetic. Since The Piano is largely told from the perspective of its mute protagonist Ada, Campion used Ada’s soft narration to add to the poetic tone of the film. The result is a film that offers a gripping look at the plight of a woman seemingly lost between the world chosen for her and the world where her true happiness resides.

The film’s casting was a very difficult process as Campion originally wanted Sigourney Weaver for the lead role of Ada. Weaver turned it down as she wanted to take a break from acting. Jennifer Jason Leigh was approached but was unable to take part due to prior commitments. French actress Isabelle Huppert and Holly Hunter both wanted the role, but it was Hunter who eventually got the part. The role of Ada’s daughter Flora went to a then unknown Canadian-born actress named Anna Paquin, who had been living in New Zealand. Paquin was only nine years-old at the time of her audition. Karen Colston and Genevieve Lemon from Sweetie were both cast in small roles. The rest of the cast was filled by British-New Zealand actor Sam Neill, as Ada’s husband Alistair Stewart, and American actor Harvey Keitel as George Baines, the man Ada falls in love with.


Production began in April 1992 in the New Zealand coast as Campion wanted to maintain a certain atmosphere in the film. She also desired to incorporate moments of improvisation that felt natural. An example of this can be found in the scene where Flora is shown doing cartwheels on the beach. The balance of innocence and dramatic tension would play out in several aspects of the film, most notably in the relationship between Ada and George. Ada’s initial repulsion of George, partly due to him keeping her piano, eventually turns into an intense sexual attraction. Campion decision to have Harvey Keitel do full-frontal nudity was considered both shocking and a form of feminist expression at the time.

Since Ada was a mute, it forced Hunter to create a performance that was both physical and emotional without relying on words. Hunter’s performance skillfully emphasized both Ada’s attachment to the piano and the huge burden she had to carry until the end of the film. Speaking of the film’s ending, Campion masterful vision, and the raw emotion it evoked, is what sets her apart from many of her contemporaries.

The film made its premiere at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival where it was a massive hit. Holly Hunter won the festival’s Best Actress prize and Campion made history becoming the first woman to win the Palme d’Or. Campion shared the festival’s top prize with Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige and his film Farewell, My Concubine. The film would garner many accolades including France’s Cesar Award for Best Foreign Film, a slew of awards from the Australian Film Institute, various critics’ prizes in the U.S. and Britain. The film was also nominated for 10 British Academy of Film and Television awards, where it won three awards in the Production Design, Costume Design, and Best Actress categories.

At the Academy Awards, The Piano garnered eight nominations including Best Picture. Campion’s directing nod made her the second female filmmaker to be nominated in that category. The film won three Oscars with Holly Hunter winning Best Actress, Anna Paquin taking Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Screenplay going to Jane Campion. The Piano was also considered to be a major landmark for feminist-driven cinema.


After a break from the success and accolades that she received from The Piano, Campion decided to take on another ambitious project that focused on a woman facing both her destiny and the choices she has made. Adapting Henry James’ 1881 novel The Portrait of a Lady, Campion’s film tells the story of a fiercely independent American woman, Isabel Archer, in the late 19th Century who receives a hefty inheritance from her uncle and is convinced by an American expatriate, Madame Serena Merle, to go to Italy. There Isabel loses her sense of identity when she meets and marries a manipulative American expatriate, Gilbert Osmond.

Casting Nicole Kidman in the lead role of Isabel Archer proved far easier in comparison to finding an actress to play Madame Merle. Susan Sarandon was initially cast but left due to personal reasons. Sigourney Weaver was also asked but turned it down. Barbara Hershey was eventually cast in the role; while John Malkovich was cast in the role of Gilbert Osmond. The film’s supporting cast included: Martin Donovan, Mary-Louise Parker, Shelley Winters, Shelley Duvall, Valentina Cervi, Viggo Mortensen, Christian Bale, Richard E. Grant, and John Gielgud in a small role as Isabel’s uncle.

Shooting in parts of Britain and Italy, Campion and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh strived for a natural look for much of the film’s first half. This was contrasted by the stylish second half which highlights the fate that Isabel has chosen. Campion created several surrealistic sequences to play up the decisions that Isabel makes that unknowingly alienates those who had helped her. Campion’s compositions and scenes showcase a woman who becomes lost and must face uncertainty about what to do.

The Portrait of a Lady premiered in late August 1996 at the Venice Film Festival to high expectations. Although it got an excellent reception from critics, The Portrait of a Lady did not live up to the brilliance of Campion’s previous film. Though well-received by art house audiences, the film was not a commercial hit. However, it did garner some accolades including Oscars nods for Barbara Hershey and costume designer Janet Patterson.


After a trio of very sprawling and ambitious films, Campion decided to scale back for her next project as it would be very different from her previous films. Campion wanted something a bit light-hearted that also played in tune with her fascination of women dealing with their surroundings and identity. Campion teamed up with her sister Anna to create Holy Smoke!, a film about a woman, Ruth Barron who travels to India and becomes lost in a spiritual cult. This results in her family hiring a man, PJ Waters, to bring her back to Australia. Of course things go very wrong and a battle of wits ensues. The film is both a satire on the world of spiritual cults, and an exploration of the dynamics between men and women.

Harvey Keitel reunited with Campion to play the role of the American deprogrammer counselor PJ Waters. The rest of the cast featured mostly Australian actors, including Genevieve Lemon in a cameo appearance. Pam Grier was cast in a small role as an associate of Waters. Campion biggest coup was getting British actress Kate Winslet to play the lead role of Ruth Barron. At the time Winslet was coming off the massive success of appearing in James Cameron’s award-winning romantic-blockbuster Titanic. While the film would mostly be set in Australia, Campion would get the chance to film parts in India and hired Dion Beebe to shoot the film. Campion also gained the services of music composer Angelo Badalamenti to provide a score that help to emphasize the film’s questions regarding spiritual enlightenment.

Campion maintained a loose presentation style that allowed the idea of spiritual enlightenment, and whether or not it could really happen, to resonate. Some of the most light-hearted moments of the film come when she is posing serious questions about sexuality, spirituality, and what it means to be a man and a woman. Barron and Waters frequently spar about the idea of gender to the point where Barron eventually convinces Waters to wear a dress and put on makeup.

Holy Smoke! premiered at the 1999 Venice Film Festival, and then the New York Film Festival shortly afterwards, to a mixed reception from audiences and critics. While there was a lot of praise for Kate Winslet’s performance, the film was considered to be a minor Campion film. Doing modestly well at the international box office, Holy Smoke! showed that Campion was not going to be defined as a filmmaker who only makes very serious films.


While working on The Portrait of a Lady, Campion and Nicole Kidman were interested in developing a film adaptation on Susanna Moore’s 1995 book In the Cut. Kidman was to play the role of an English professor who engages in an affair with a detective that she begins to suspects might be the mysterious killer in the series of murders that he is investigating. It was a project that intrigued Campion and Kidman to the point where they decided to approach Susanna Moore to see if she would be willing to team with Campion to write the script.

Five years into the development of the project, Kidman decided not to play the lead role of Frannie Avery, due to personal reasons, and ended up becoming a producer on the film. With the exception of cinematographer Dion Beebe, Campion decided to get an array of different people to collaborate on the film as it would be set largely in New York City. To replace Kidman in the lead, an unusual choice was made with Campion selecting Meg Ryan, who had been largely known for being in romantic-comedies, for the role. The rest of the cast would include Jennifer Jason Leigh as Frannie’s sister Pauline, Mark Ruffalo as the detective Malloy whom Frannie suspects, and an uncredited cameo appearance from Kevin Bacon as a former boyfriend of Frannie who also becomes a suspect.

Campion’s goal was to explore the linkage between Frannie’s fascination with the murders and her coming to terms with her own sexuality. Since this was Campion’s first attempt to make a film set in this particular genre, she had difficulty in both trying to flesh out the suspense and in bringing an element of surprise to the mystery. As a result, In the Cut ended up being Campion’s most polarizing, and uneven, work to date.

The film was released in late October of 2003 in the U.S. and saw Campion receive some of the worst reviews of her career. Many critics stated that the casting of Meg Ryan was a very bad idea. Though many felt In the Cut was Campion’s worst film, the picture still managed to do well worldwide at the box office, making a total of $23 million against its $12 million budget.


The Lady Bug (Review) /The Water Diary (scroll to bottom of post to watch)

After the disappointing reaction for In the Cut, Campion took a long hiatus from the world of feature filmmaking to become a producer for other filmmakers. The most notable film she produced was the 2006 documentary Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story by filmmakers Patty Kim and Chris Sheridan. It was around that time that Campion was approached by Cannes Film Festival organizer Gilles Jacob to take part in a project, celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the festival, called To Each His Own Cinema. Campion, the only woman to take part in the project, created a short specifically for the film.

The short entitled The Lady Bug is a simple story about a woman who acts like a dancing bug while a cleaning man tries to kill her. It is a short that represented Campion’s sense of humor while deviating from many of the other shorts in the project which often featured ideas about film or were set in film theaters. The Lady Bug was shown at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival as a special presentation and was not as well-received as other segments in the anthology. Campion would go on to take part in another anthology film project called 8, being one of eight filmmakers to make a short based on the eight Millennium Development Goals.

The short Campion made for that project was called The Water Diary and revolved around the subject of ensuring environmental sustainability. It explored the life of a family living in a barren land with very little water. The short featured Campion’s daughter Alice Englert as a young girl who, with a gathering of friends, is waiting for rain to come to the land. The short also featured an appearance from Campion regular Genevieve Lemon. Due to the visual effects used, The Water Diary has a feel that can only be described as a mixture of drama and quirky humor.


After a long period away from feature filmmaking, Campion decided to finally make her long-awaited return with a project about the final years of British poet John Keats’ life and his relationship with his muse Fanny Brawne. Based on Andrew Motion’s biography on Keats, Campion wrote script herself and teamed up with producer Jan Chapman to get film into production. With the exception of production/costume designer Janet Patterson, Campion decided to surround herself with a new team of collaborators that included cinematographer Grieg Fraser, music composer Mark Bradshaw, editor Alexandre de Franceschi, and sound editors John Dennison and Tony Vaccher.

The film marked a reunion between Campion and An Angel at the Table’s Kerry Fox, who played Brawne’s mother. For the role of Keats, British actor Ben Whishaw was cast and Australian actress Abbie Cornish got the part of Fanny Brawne. The cast also included British actor Thomas Sangster as Fanny’s younger brother Samuel, and American actor Paul Schneider as Keats’ friend Charles Armitage Brown.

In wanting to stay true to the period of the time, Campion used much of Keats’ writing to help push the story. Bright Star explored the ups and downs of Keats’ relationship with Brawne; includind how important Brawne was to Keats in those final years. Campion took a more restrained approach to the filmmaking as she wanted both the drama and the bits of humor to feel natural.

Campion and Fraser used a unique visual style to portray the evolution of Keats and Brawne’s relationship. Natural colors were used to maintaining an ethereal quality to look of the film. This provided a sense of beauty to the landscape Keats surrounded himself with. It also helped to amplify how his work drives Brawne and their romance. Campion also effectively used the titular poem as a key proponent in the story to document the impact Keats’ death in 1821 had on Brawne.

Bright Star premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival where it played in competition for the Palme d’Or. It was well-received with some calling it a return-to-form for Campion. Upon its release the film garnered lots of critical acclaim where it grossed more than $14 million at art-house theaters worldwide. The film also got a lot of nominations from various critics’ organizations including an Oscar nod for Janet Patterson’s costume design.


Campion’s most recent project has the filmmaker straying away from the world of film and returning to the world of television. The mini-series Top of the Lake explores the disappearance of a pregnant teenage girl through the eyes of the detective, Robin Griffin, trying to find her. The project would mark a reunion between Campion and her Sweetie co-writer Gerard Lee. The series not only tackled a woman’s troubled past but also the mysterious disappearance of the young girl. Part of the mystery includes Griffin trying to figure out who the girl’s father in a small New Zealand town that is full of secrets.

Gathering a small number of her collaborators including composer Mark Bradshaw, editor Alexandre de Franceschi, and sound editor Tony Vaccher, Campion knew that the project would be a massive undertaking. Campion called in Garth Davis to share the duties of helming the project. The cast featured a mixture of British, New Zealand, Australian, and American actors. Campion enlisted the services of Genevieve Lemon to play one of the women hiding out at a compound for abused and trouble women. The film also features Lucy Lawless in a cameo appearance. The main cast would include David Wenham as the local police leader, Detective Sgt. Al Parker, Peter Mullan as the drug lord Matt Mitcham, and Thomas M. Wright as Mitcham’s estranged son Johnno.

For the role of the mysterious sanctuary leader GJ, whom Matt Mitcham tries to fight over the use of his land, British actress Jennifer Ehle was considered but Campion decided to give the part to Holly Hunter. This would be the first time the two worked together since 1993’s The Piano. Campion wanted Anna Paquin to play the lead role of detective Robin Griffin but Paquin was unable to take part due to her pregnancy. American actress Elisabeth Moss, of Mad Men fame, got the part and spent time learning how to talk in a New Zealand accent.


The eighteen-week shoot took place in Queenstown and Glenrochy in New Zealand, with the latter posing as the fictional town of Lake Top, New Zealand. Campion wanted to create something where the lake would be symbolic of the dark undercurrent of corruption occurring in the town. It is the place where Griffin makes a startling discovery about both the girl and the things happening in her town.

The mini-series premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival becoming the first mini-series to play at the festival. Top of the Lake garnered lots of acclaim and attention; it eventually played on the Sundance Channel in the U.S. and BBC Two in the U.K. a few months later. The project once again solidified Campion’s position as one of the world’s best filmmakers. Top of the Lake received several Emmy nominations including for Best Mini-Series, Best Direction, Best Writing and nominations for Elisabeth Moss and Peter Mullan.

While there are reports that Jane Campion is no longer going to make films, and do television instead, there’s no doubt that she’s left a mark in cinema. She manages to stand out in an industry often dominated by men and has given a voice to women in the process. It’s very obvious that many of the female filmmakers working today have been influenced by Campion. Her films are engaging and resonate in a way that both men and women can relate to. Whether she is dealing with poetic love stories, unconventional suspense films, dysfunctional families, or those trapped by destiny and ideas, Campion always has something insightful to say. Only a filmmaker like Jane Campion can make these kinds of films. She brings weight and understanding to each one of the evocative stories she tells.

© thevoid99 2013