The Films of Jane Campion
With The Power of the Dog marking Jane Campion’s return to feature filmmaking after a twelve year gap, we reflect on the New Zealand writer-director’s career as the latest in our series of filmographic retrospectives. As with our previous entries (Martin Scorsese, Ang Lee), we try to make our “rankings” (an inherently silly project) a little more interesting: instead of a numbered list from 9 to 1, we’ve placed Campion’s films into four thematic groupings, then tiered those groups based on how artistically successful we find each collection to be on balance. This whole endeavor is of course completely subjective, but — ideally — can prompt some additional perspective about an auteur’s trajectory.
Tier 4: Sisterhood
Two Friends (1986), Sweetie (1989)
Campion’s first feature unsurprisingly feels like a dry run for her next few films in particular; made for Australian television (though it played at the Cannes Film Festival in Un Certain Regard), Two Friends is rough around the edges but still effectively examines how a relationship between two young women — as close as family, it seems — can falter through the regular course of life. Most interesting on the surface is the fact that the film’s scenes are structured in reverse, but that now stands out as mostly an early experimentation with form rather than a particularly necessary narrative device: the film’s pleasures are derived more from the interactions within each scene than how they’re pieced together. Her true debut, Sweetie, is comparatively revelatory: quirky and dynamic, yet simultaneously melancholy, with a style that seems fully formed but — as we’ll later learn — represents Campion’s take on this particular story of an off-kilter family rather than a visual blueprint for her career. Sweetie handles mental illness with empathy and a lack of patronization, and — in the form of a wonderful Genevieve Lemon in particular — hints at just how good Campion would be throughout her career at directing complex, mesmerizing performances.
Tier 3: Control
The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Holy Smoke (1999), The Power of the Dog (2021)
Control and desire (spoilers for Tier 1) are frequently intertwined in Campion’s films, with the latter often weaponized in pursuit of the former. This trio epitomizes that utilization to varying — though never uninteresting — degrees of effectiveness. The Portrait of a Lady (an adaptation of the Henry James novel) leans heavily on stylizing the austere period trappings for its commentary, whereas Holy Smoke is probably the closest Campion has come to making an out-and-out comedy. Neither completely works — Portrait sometimes seems at odds with its setting and source material, and Holy Smoke has a thematic density that doesn’t quite cohere — but both clearly have strong ideas at their core and unique visual language that makes up for much of their other flaws. Of the two, Smoke is the one I find myself returning to more often when I consider Campion; perhaps I’m just fascinated by the absurdity of the premise (a back-and-forth game of sexual, emotional, and mental domination between a spiritual convert and the man hired to deprogram her), but I get the sense of untapped complexity at work — plus, and apologies to Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, Campion might understand the appeal of Harvey Keitel more than anyone. The Power of the Dog is the film from this tier that truly figures it all out though, sitting somewhere on the spectrum between Holy Smoke and In the Cut and The Piano, with the best elements of all three combining into something new and haunting. Suffice to say, it’s one of her very best efforts.
Tier 2: Artistry
An Angel at My Table (1990), Bright Star (2009)
Filmmakers are often (understandably) drawn to stories about artists, and the approaches directors take to presenting the artistic process on screen can offer a window into their own interests and tendencies. Campion, in her unique fashion, appears most interested in the humanity of the artists themselves — how, through love and loss, the human spirit persists, captures life’s moments, and sparks creation. An Angel at My Table examines the life of acclaimed New Zealand author Janet Frame, whose childhood traumas contribute to her institutionalization and eventually lead her doctors to schedule a lobotomy — which, in a real-life turn that sounds written for the screen, was cancelled after her first collection of short stories won a major literary prize. Bright Star unfolds the relationship between poet John Keats and his muse Fanny Brawne, tracing their paths from first meeting to Keats' untimely death. In both films, Campion makes sure she never puts the cart before the horse: by prioritizing the lives of Frame and Keats over their work, she allows the significance and majesty of their respective writings to become clear over the course of the films. Her stylistic deftness plays a major role in these films’ success as well, as slice of life realism infuses Angel while Bright Star has the rhythms and etherealness of poetry itself — so much so that, for me, it unlocked the beauty of the poetic form better than almost anything else ever has.
Tier 1: Desire
The Piano (1993), In the Cut (2003)
The contemporaneous reception to Campion’s two greatest films couldn’t be any starker. The Piano won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, was beloved by critics, and won three Oscars (Best Actress for Holly Hunter, Best Supporting Actress for Anna Paquin, and Best Original Screenplay for Campion) on eight nominations (including for Best Picture and Best Director, the latter of which made Campion the first woman nominated in the category. In the Cut, on the other hand, was nominated for zero Oscars, was generally disliked (and in some cases outright hated) by critics, and garnered the rare “F” Cinemascore. It’s funny, because the films are — at least thematically — perhaps the two most similar in Campion’s filmography. Sexuality, particularly feminine sexuality, are at the forefront in both, entangling desire, pleasure, fear, violence, and power in complex and often discomforting ways. The difference in response may partially come down to — again — Campion’s tendency to experiment stylistically. The Piano just feels like a prestige picture, gorgeous to look at and listen to (Michael Nyman’s score is an all-time great), whereas In the Cut feels...scummy, for lack of a better term, brimming over with the sorts of encounters we often think of as being best left in the shadows. But that’s part of the brilliance of Jane Campion: she almost always knows what a particular story needs, what it should look and sound and feel like. If she’s engaging with similar subject matter, she’s not going to just make the same movie twice — it wouldn’t make sense for In the Cut to evoke The Piano at a surface level, so why would she try? She trusts her instincts and she trusts her actors (it’s truly a shame that Meg Ryan’s In the Cut performance wasn’t widely celebrated), and she’s been proven right on both fronts time and time again, ultimately elevating her to the status of one of our greatest living filmmakers.