Jane Campion draws you in to the female experience. From Janet Frame (Kerry Fox) of An Angel at My Table, to Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) of The Piano to Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) of Top of the Lake, throughout her career Campion has brought compelling, rebellious women to life. She has stated that she always creates female
protagonists because she enjoys projecting herself into her characters and that “being a woman, I like to have heroines.” Her films and television series Top of the Lake consistently prioritise female subjectivity in response to patriarchal oppression. But like many female filmmakers, from Kathryn Bigelow to The Spy Who Dumped Me’s
Susanna Fogel, Campion often resisted the labels of “female director” and “feminist director” despite (or perhaps because of) being heralded as both. Critics and academics alike have called her films feminist and yet she has had a complex relationship with feminist ideology as well as the word itself.
One of Campion’s earliest films, 1984’s After Hours, was made at the request of the Women’s Film Unit of Australia and is probably her most overtly feminist film in its realistic portrayal of workplace harassment. The 25 minute short follows Lorraine (Danielle Pearse), an office worker who is sexually assaulted by her male boss and her struggle to convince her peers to believe her story. Years later Campion dismissed this film, saying she didn’t like that it “had to be openly feminist since it spoke about the sexual abuse of women at work.” At the time she felt constrained: “I don’t like films that say how one should or shouldn’t behave. I think that the world is more complicated than that.” This interest in telling women’s stories and yet avoiding what she clearly viewed as the restrictions of feminism is evident in much of her filmmaking. She is fundamentally focused on female subjectivity and often portrays heroines with rather masochistic tendencies.
The Piano, Campion’s best known and best loved film for which she became the first and only female winner of the Palme d’Or, remains an evocative, beguiling work that introduced her complex female protagonists to international audiences. Ada, a mute woman who is shipped across the world like cargo to marry a colonial landowner she has never met, might appear to be the epitome of Victorian repression in her funereal dress. But Ada has made the choice to be silent, a choice which is never explained and yet is completely understandable. As a woman denied her agency by society, is there any point in speaking at all? Ada is in fact transgressive in her choice not to speak, refusing to play the role of the sweet-natured, obedient wife. Her piano acts as her voice, which her new
husband Stewart (Sam Neill) attempts to silence when he refuses to take it with them to their new home.
However, Campion’s portrayal of female sexuality is perhaps less feminist than it might initially appear. Forester George Baines (Harvey Keitel) buys the piano from Stewart and strikes a deal with Ada: she can win it back, under the pretence of teaching him to play, if he can watch her play and perform sexual acts. While some moments are erotic (Baines gently touching her leg through a tiny hole in her stocking), these scenes of coercion, particularly in the wake of Weinstein, are undeniably uncomfortable. Initially she reluctantly complies, but they eventually embark on a consensual affair.
Ada is liberated by realising her sexual desire, and yet her relationship with Baines is founded on his manipulation. At the end of the film, after an innocence-shattering climax, the couple have a happy domestic life together and Ada is learning to speak again. Is the notion of Ada as a feminist heroine undermined by her love for a man who coerced her into stripping?
Campion’s next three films, Portrait of a Lady, Holy Smoke and In the Cut continued to explore female sexuality and the allure of dangerous men, as well as betray Campion’s own disillusionment with romantic love. From The Piano onwards there’s a clear link between her protagonists as victims of violence and oppression as a punishment for
pursuing their desires. Portrait of a Lady’s Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman) is trapped in a loveless marriage and Holy Smoke’s Ruth (Kate Winslet) is vulnerable to Harvey Keitel’s PJ, although she has her revenge. In the Cut is a particularly interesting subversion of the male gaze’s obsession with the eroticisation of death, reframing it from a female perspective as Frannie (Meg Ryan) is inexorably drawn to a policeman who may or may
not be a serial killer. Bright Star is somewhat of an outlier in Campion’s work in its lack of psychosexual transgression, innocently portraying the real life romance between poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and dressmaker Fanny Brawne (Abigail Cornish), although Fanny is one of Campion’s creative female protagonists.
It wasn’t until the first season of her highly acclaimed television series Top of the Lake that Campion began to shed the symbolism a little and explore feminism more explicitly. Not since After Hours has Campion portrayed institutional misogyny with such realism. Detective Robin Griffin is called back to Lake Top, her hometown, and is swept up in the investigation into the pregnancy of twelve year old Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe), the daughter of the local kingpin, Matt (Peter Mullan).
Robin must face two very different forms of misogyny in Lake Top. The first is that of Matt, a brutal patriarch who treats his dogs with more affection than his thuggish sons. To his fury, a New Age women’s retreat suddenly establishes itself on land he claims is his. He is initially humanised by a romantic relationship with one of the women but he soon turns violent. He deliberately nearly hits her with his car, using a chilling phrase associated with abusers: “See what you made me fucking do.” He hurls misogynistic abuse at the women, accusing them of polluting “his” land with “menstrual waste” and calling them “unfuckable.” Robin is horrified to discover Matt is in fact her father, suggesting that misogyny is ancestral, unavoidable.
The second comes in the form of Robin’s workplace environment, particularly stemming from her superior, Detective Sergeant Al Parker (David Wenham). At every turn Robin is undermined by apathy and hostility from her male colleagues. Al attempts to coerce Robin into a romantic relationship and later drugs and possibly rapes her while she’s unconscious. It eventually emerges that he runs a paedophile ring, of which Tui was a victim. While the upfront misogyny of Matt is repulsive, it’s the normalised, institutional sexism of the police that masks true horror and is all the more insidious.
The second series, Top of the Lake: China Girl, was more muddled than its predecessor. Several years after the Mitcham case Robin returns to Sydney and investigates the murder of a Thai sex worker named Cinnamon (Thien Huong Thi Nguyen). Assigned the puppyish Miranda (Gwendoline Christie) as a partner, she discovers the illegal surrogate business that caters to upper middle class couples. The case becomes entangled with her finally meeting her teenage daughter Mary (Alice Englert), who she gave up for adoption.
We still see Robin as a lone female voice in her workplace who must endure unwanted sexual attention and Miranda is ridiculed because of her lack of conventional femininity. And yet Miranda is an absurd caricature of an overly emotional woman who worships Robin but must endure her open hostility. The two women eventually reconcile but the majority of their screen time has seen them at each other’s throats. Mary constantly lashes out towards her adoptive mother Julia (Nicole Kidman), another slightly absurd caricature, this time of a second wave feminist, and adores her violently misogynistic boyfriend Alexander (David Dencik). There’s little female solidarity here.
While continuing to prioritise female subjectivity, this series primarily explores motherhood, especially in the context of surrogacy, and in typically Campion fashion all questions remain unanswered. But its complexity is undermined by its poor treatment of its Asian sex worker characters. The title, China Girl, is a play on words that alludes to the
nationality and gender of the murder victim (who is Thai rather than Chinese), while positioning Robin, a white woman, as a fragile porcelain doll. While Campion has spoken about visiting brothels in Sydney and speaking with Asian sex workers, these characters feel underdeveloped and fundamentally disposable. This may mirror how society views them, but it feels cruel from a director who portrayed a powerful bond of experience between Robin and Tui, both survivors of sexual violence, in the first series. To have utilised these women’s real experiences but to deny them subjectivity seems exploitative. A subplot about a men’s rights activists group that spirals into violence shows promise but is also underdeveloped, and the return of the first series’ Al transforms a sickeningly realistic character into a horror villain. It’s arguable that Top of the Lake: China Girl is overall more nuanced in its exploration of the fraught nature of motherhood. But while the irst series used the genre conventions of a “quality” television crime drama to explore explicitly feminist and implicitly post-colonial ideas, its sequel is a female-focused noir that is more frustrating than feminist.
Despite the questionable feminist credentials of China Girl, Campion herself appears to have come full circle in terms of being a visible female director and of exploring feminism in her work. While reluctant to condemn the coercive Baines in The Piano (“I don’t think you can bring 2018 standards to 1850,” she said in an interview with Empire magazine), overall she has become far more vocal. At a BFI event for China Girl in 2017 its co-writer Gerard Lee said “it’s a complicated problem because if you sort of force feminist ideology into a story or a film funding body’s policy, the danger is you’re going to get a story where you can predict the end.” Campion responded with “That’s complete rubbish,” an echo but complete reversal of her response to her film After Hours. 25 years in from The Piano her work remains impossible to neatly define and categorise, as wild and tangled as the forest that envelops Ada and Tui. What unites her films and series is transgressive, determined women who rebel against the constraints of patriarchal society.
However, in a recent interview with The Guardian she revealed that in her next project she intends to write a male protagonist. Perhaps her career is about to take a fascinating turn. In any case, her extraordinarily powerful depictions of the female experience will continue to intrigue and infuriate while cementing her position as one of the most important female filmmakers of all time.
By Laura Venning
Laura Venning is a Film and TV Production grad from London about to embark on a Film Studies MA. She’s particularly interested in female directors and Australian and New Zealand cinema. Her favourite films include A Matter of Life and Death, The Piano, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Cléo from 5 to 7. You can find her on twitter at @laura_venning