Twenty-five years ago last month, Jane Campion became the first, and so far the only, female director to win the Cannes film festival, with her wild gothic tale of repression and obsession, The Piano. When Campion broke through and was recognised as an auteur by her male peers — with the Palme d’Or and three Oscars in her handbag — feminists assumed that more women artists would follow in her wake. They were wrong.
There was no great bursting of the financial and cultural dam that held back women filmmakers. Instead their work filtered through in drips, excluded from directing blockbusters, and excluded from competition at Cannes and other festivals. “I think we got caught in a complicated supplicancy, a very sophisticated supplicancy,” says Campion.
But now, a quarter of a century later, Campion feels that time is up for supplicancy as the #MeToo movement reverberates in the film industry and beyond. “Right now, we’re in a really special moment. I’m so excited about it. It’s like the Berlin wall coming down, like the end of apartheid. I think we have lived in one of the more ferocious patriarchal periods of our time, the 80s, 90s and noughties. Capitalism is such a macho force. I felt run over.”
Dipping croissants into coffee in Soho on a trip from her home in New Zealand to London, Campion seems the last person anyone would dare to run over, with her iron will, silver hair and ready laugh. But even after The Piano’s success, Campion’s journey was never easy, and her insistence on a stubbornly female gaze in her work did not translate into big box office returns.
She made The Portrait of a Lady (1996) with Nicole Kidman, Holy Smoke (1999) with Kate Winslet, and In the Cut (2003), with Meg Ryan no longer playing the bubbly creature of romcoms but instead handcuffing a detective and having sex with him. That film is experiencing a renaissance; back then it was too much for the mainstream male critics. As Campion recently noted: “There’s this sort of mountain of corduroy you have to get through.”
So after In the Cut she took a break to look after her daughter Alice Englert, and reappeared in 2009 with Bright Star, the poet Keats’s story from the point of view of his lover Fanny Brawne. It was not until the massive success of the two television series of Top of the Lake (2013 and 2017) that the world caught up with Campion’s point of view again.
In 2017, Cannes premiered Top of the Lake: China Girl to acclaim. It was also the 70th anniversary of the festival and Campion joined all the male Palme d’Or-winners on stage. She was the lone woman. “I hadn’t ever really thought about the numbers of women and men that had won the Palme d’Or. I still really hadn’t taken it in. That was the most shocking thing I’d ever been involved in. If there had been no women it wouldn’t be an issue, but man after man came up. I thought, ‘Oh my God! What is going on?’”
Money, was the answer. The female talent is there, but the financial backing is missing in film, less so now in television. “I guess at this age I expect to make Top of the Lake as I want it, without any concern for other people’s opinions and taste. I just do what I want, and weirdly people love it.”
Many of the themes of Top of the Lake were hatched in The Piano. Wilderness; madness; colonial and immigrant stories, from the Maori community of New Zealand to Asian immigrants in Sydney; and above all, strange, bolshy women unbowed by life’s struggles.
“Rewatching my films is like digging up buried bones,” says Campion, who is 64. Yet when she saw The Piano again recently (she laughs that she could only find a French dubbed version, but at least the heroine played by Holly Hunter is mute), “I really felt excited by it. I thought, my God, this is a film told from a female point of view and nowadays that’s still so rare. Even when a story appears to be from a female point of view, it’s often an apology for it.”
The Piano is now a classic, unforgettable, with its powerful, surreal imagery, soul-scarring amputation scene, silent heroine, and above all, the erotic electricity played out note by note between Harvey Keitel and Hunter, seated at the carved rosewood piano in a hut deep in the bush.
Each watching of the 1850s drama reveals more riches. There is the mute but emotionally devastating performance by Hunter as Ada McGrath, a Scotswoman sent like baggage with her piano to New Zealand to marry a man she has never met. Hunter and Anna Paquin — who plays her young daughter — both won Academy awards, as did Campion’s screenplay. The musical score from Michael Nyman often takes the place of dialogue and the cinematography from Stuart Dryburgh shifts from the epic to the intimate. In writing and directing, Campion set herself a series of challenges: a wordless protagonist, a hostile landscape, a colonial conundrum; and then allowed the film to burst out of its own carefully constructed corset.
The image of a piano stranded with a woman and child on a volcanic beach beneath glowering cliffs epitomised Ada’s predicament in an isolated Maori and British community in the bush. But the necessary interior nature of Ada’s world, only allowed an outlet through music, sign language and facial expressions revealing contempt or wilfulness, subverts the male-controlled world. Sam Neill plays her husband Alisdair Stewart, who is silently outmanoeuvred by Ada, until his frustration turns to violence.
Eventually, the axe falls, but until then, “Ada was experiencing things for herself in her own body and she could close the patriarchy out,” says Campion. “It was really strong for me to see that, and also the intimacy, sexuality and sensuality from a more female point of view.”
Campion’s taste for wild passion in the wilderness was partly inculcated by the Brontes when she was growing up in Wellington, New Zealand, the daughter of theatrical parents. “I always loved Emily Bronte’s imagination. I feel like she saved my life, in the sense of giving me powerful female stories. To have that model for how a woman and an artist could be was very involving to me.”
Speaking of Wuthering Heights, Campion noted Catherine’s strength. “She was not pliant. She was firm of mind and conviction.” For the director, Heathcliff “was a dark metaphor for sexual drive, and Emily had a sexual drive, obviously, and she rode it like a horse.” Campion roars with laughter. “My psyche understood that at a time when it wasn’t being much explored in literature and film.”
Sealing these moments on screen, often more with pictures than words, is one of Campion’s great skills. “The most powerful experiences we have as humans are a combination of psyche, love and erotica, which can really lock you in an extraordinarily powerful way to experiences beyond what you know and beyond what you can control,” says Campion. “If you look back at those moments, they are often powerful awakenings, way beyond your comfort zone. There’s a sort of calling against decorum, against what’s best.”
She has always championed the unconventional, from her first feature Sweetie (1989), a punkish and ultimately devastating family drama about two sisters, one of whom is mentally troubled. Her second film, An Angel at my Table (1990), was a three-hour television biography of writer Janet Frame, which was so cinematic that it was given a theatrical release.
Campion was also fearless about tackling a film with a large cast of Maori actors, and while a few of The Piano’s scenes border on embarrassing in retrospect, she made the effort to find a Maori film director and advisers to work with her. “I had an easier time because I had been out of the country for a long time, so I was desensitised to this feeling that a white person couldn’t have a Maori character. I thought that was crazy when there was a chance for different roles.” There were complexities: some of the Maori actors did not speak their native language. “They felt shame about it, but they learned it. What they really found offensive was the pidgin English we had written, so we changed that and the problem went away. They wanted to work with me — they don’t like people charging in and creating ‘blackgrounds’.”
While The Piano has become a landmark of Antipodean cinema, it was in fact financed by a French company, encouraged to take a punt on Campion by the Cannes film scout Pierre Rissient, who died earlier last month just before this interview. “I’m a little bit subdued today because of Pierre,” says Campion. “He brought all my films to Cannes.” Rissient discovered her film Peel, which won best short in 1986.
Thanks to Rissient’s championing, The Piano was made and edited while Campion was pregnant with her first child by her husband Colin Englert (second unit director on the film). She flew out to Cannes in May 1993 to the premiere, but she was unable to stay until the end of the festival to pick up her Palme d’Or.
“I had to fly back before I couldn’t fly. I was there for the screening but it wasn’t really a good time because my blood pressure was shooting up, with interviews and managing the pregnancy. So I was back in Sydney and I heard that we’d won, which was amazing. Then really shortly after I found out my baby was seriously in trouble — born alive, and died at 11 days. That was the worst time of my life . I really didn’t enjoy any of the success. It almost felt like ‘at the cost of’, weirdly.” Campion still wears her scars painfully close to the surface. “For that time, it felt like that. I did six months of suffering and grieving intensely.”
Then she got pregnant with Alice, who now stars in Top of the Lake . Campion says the loss of her son, Jasper, changed her forever. “I am incredibly grateful for having that whole experience of that baby that did not live, because it put me in touch with that kind of suffering. It just changed my perspective forever. When you’ve had a death like that you become part of a club you never leave, and because of the love you feel for them, you never resent it.”
The experience resonates in her more recent work in Top of the Lake, in which Robin (Elisabeth Moss) reveals that in the past she was raped and gave the baby away for adoption. She searches for her lost child, and other stories feature surrogacy, miscarriages and loss. “This whole area of female experience is so unknown, but it’s like the equivalent of going to war, except no one makes movies about it,” says Campion.
But everyone is making television about it, from Big Little Lies to The Handmaid’s Tale, and Campion’s favoured actresses, Nicole Kidman and Moss, seem to be everywhere. “Hero stories are wearing thin. We have lived a male life, we have lived within the patriarchy. It’s something else to take ownership of your own story.”
Ever the iconoclast, Campion is going against the trend by writing her first male lead in her new (untitled) film. “Because at last I feel I can.”
–Guardian News & Media Ltd