Jane Campion was the first woman to be awarded the Palme D’Or prize at Cannes Film Festival for The Piano, a film which also earned her a nomination for Best Director from the Academy, the only second woman to do so. Sadly, while she was experiencing career success, her personal life was suffering.
The same year she won the Palme, she had just lost her son, Jasper, who died when he was 12 days old. “The full impact of my success never hit me. I was grieving, really, throughout that whole year. It was a very difficult period, but at the same time it also protected me from any overblown thoughts. I was just struggling to exist,” Campion told The Guardian last year.
While Campion went on to helm other projects she found interesting, critics didn’t seem to share her feelings. After The Piano was The Portrait of a Lady, then Holy Smoke!, and In the Cut, but as each was released, the films struggled to find audiences and live up to Campion’s own expectations. “I really loved Portrait, even if it didn’t satisfy people’s expectations about what I should be doing. It’s complex, because life isn’t a career.”
After having another child, her daughter Alice, Campion took a few years off from filmmaking in the early 2000s, giving her time to not only raise her daughter but rethink her work. Her return to directing was a bio-pic of poet Keats, Bright Star, a film which she describes as a rebirth for her.
Campion, who is still the only female Palme d’Or winner, has remained involved with the Cannes Film Festival, despite the recent focus on the festival’s lack of female directed films. In 2014, she was the president of the Cannes jury. “My sense is that Cannes is very interested in new voices in cinema, never mind where it comes from or the sex of it,” she says, addressing the festival’s lack of women. “[The problem isn’t to do with the festival,] it’s to do with who funds films in the first place.”
She points out the film school enrollment is 50/50 and that women do well in short film competitions, but when it comes to features, “Men trust men more.” Campion only sees the issue being resolved if there’s someone willing to demand equality for women. “My feeling is we need an Abraham Lincoln figure to get in there, and say – especially when it comes to public money – it has to be equal.”
But Campion encourages women not to focus on the disadvantages they might face. “When I talk to young women film-makers, I say: don’t think about this too much. Being a director is very tough, and you need everything you’ve got just to do your best job. You doing a brilliant job is your best support. Just get on with it. 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.”
With Campion’s best known work having serious and dark tones, like The Piano and more recently, her Sundance TV series, Top of the Lake, it’s interesting to shift gears between those projects to a contemporary comedy, Holy Smoke!, which is an update on a Hollywood classic, a screwball battle of the sexes.
Campion wrote the screenplay with her older sister, writer and film director Anna. As Kathleen McHugh states in her book on Campion, the sisters wanted “to explore sexuality and spirituality as pursuits people engage in to ward off what one of the film’s characters refers to as ‘the big dark nothing’.”
Ruth Barron (Kate Winslet) travels through India with her friend and falls under the spell of guru Baba, joining his troupe of followers. Ruth’s family, however, thinks Baba is the leader of a cult and conspire to trick her into returning to Sydney. Her mother travels to Delhi with the news that Ruth’s father is ill. But it turns out her mother’s real illness–she has an asthma attack–is the catalyst for Ruth’s trip home. Once back in Australia, her family performs an intervention on Ruth and introduces her to cult deprogrammer P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel).
At first, Ruth refuses to engage with Waters, but once he starts questioning her faith in Baba and stripping her of her religious garments (her sari), she starts to fight back, both verbally and physically (she arranges the rocks outside the hut to spell out “Help”.) Waters performs this intervention without his assistant and lacking his partner, he finds himself becoming attracted to Ruth. In time, Ruth allows him to seduce her.
The old Hollywood staple of the screwball comedy might stop there. The duo on screen has finally stopped their verbal sparring long enough to realize what they both seek can be found in each other. In Campion’s version, however, this is hardly the case. Now it seems Waters is under Ruth’s spell, much like she was under Baba’s. He starts talking about what they can do to make this work, but meanwhile, Ruth has realized her sexuality allows her to strip Waters of his machismo.
Anthropologist Piya Chatterjee points out that it is no accident that Campion mines the Indian tradition. “…a tradition [Indian] that from the beginning has seen spirituality and sexuality as completely entwined and has revered and, more importantly, feared the power of the female principle and female sexuality.”
Some male critics were uncomfortable with Ruth stripping Waters of his masculinity. Variety‘s David Rooney said the film might appeal to some audiences but would turn off others. “Mainstream audiences may be unwilling to surrender to the pull of a unique journey that strips away its characters’ masks and refuses easy solutions, and many men especially will find it too confronting.”
The film received mixed reviews, but the Venice Film Festival awarded Jane Campion and Kate Winslet the Elvira Notari prize, named after Italy’s earliest filmmaker.
Despite tepid critical reception to many of her films, Campion continues to write and direct. Last year, she announced she’s adapted Rachel Kushner’s novel, The Flamethrowers, which is set in New York’s art world in the 1970s. In addition, Top of the Lake is returning for a second season, with actress Elisabeth Moss back as Detective Robin Griffin, and Campion writing and directing.