Australia (97 mi) 1989 d: Jane Campion
We had a tree in our yard with a palace in the branches. It was built for my sister and it had fairy lights that went on and off in a sequence. She was the princess; it was her tree; she wouldn’t let me up it. At night the darkness frightens me. Someone could be watching from behind them—someone who wishes you harm. I used to imagine the roots of that tree crawling, crawling right under the house, right under my bed. Maybe that’s why trees scare me. It’s like they have hidden powers.
— Kay (Karen Colsten), opening narration
It’s interesting to note that Jane Campion’s first feature premiered in competition at Cannes during the same year as the spat between Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Steven Soderbergh’s SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE, where Cannes Jury President Wim Wenders explained his controversial view that Mookie, the lead character in Lee’s film, did not act heroically, believing he did NOT do the right thing, so the film did not deserve to be recognized with an award. It generated all the headlines, as Lee’s film has had a profoundly greater effect on the cinematic and cultural landscape than Soderbergh’s film, the eventual winner of the Palme d’Or (1st Prize). Lost beneath the glare of the bright lights is this contemporary and curiously challenging film from Jane Campion, one of the more original first features on record, something of a head-spinning experience, a surrealist glimpse into family dysfunction where the sheer oddness of the experience touches a special nerve that will continue to enlighten us well into the future. Strong on visual style, performances, and comic originality, part of the appeal upon its release was the ambiguity associated with the ferociously individualistic character known as Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon), a mentally-challenged, behaviorally stunted character who is so out of control that her family is paralyzed and has no idea how to handle her, so instead her father Gordon (Jon Darling) spoils her, coddles her with compliments, and filling her full of illusions while treating her like a budding rock star, where she’s led to believe she’s talented and uniquely special, though there’s little evidence to support this. But as a result, Sweetie terrorizes her family by doing pretty much whatever she pleases, whenever she pleases, always wanting to be the center of attention, going into violent, emotionally disturbing tantrums when she can’t get her way, all of which has a tantalizing effect on everyone else. While she is the titular character, she’s not introduced until nearly a half-hour into the film, as instead the focus is on her more straight-laced sister Kay (Karen Colsten), an overly repressed woman that feels uncomfortable in her own skin, who seems to have spent her life trying to get out from underneath the shadow of her more domineering sister, but who certainly has her own unique peculiarities, among which includes a petrifying fear of tree roots, imagining them coming up through the concrete or under her bed while she sleeps, where subconsciously she literally appears threatened by the effects of her own family tree. At least initially, without seeing Sweetie, the audience hasn’t a clue what to make of this, but as events proceed, viewers get a much more intimate glimpse of the family dynamic, where Sweetie is so much more than just the black sheep of the family, continually restrained and mistreated, where the sad truth of the matter is that society even today hasn’t found an answer of what to do with emotionally volatile, yet developmentally arrested children who suffer from a wide-ranging condition known as pervasive developmental disorder.
While Campion films are always rich in characterization, which is why performances are always dramatically powerful and memorable, yet the off-putting and oblique angle of every single shot of the film is remarkable, where framing is perhaps the single most defining characteristic of the film, shot by Sally Bongers, a fellow student who became friends with the director at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in the early 80’s, and the first female cinematographer to shoot a 35-millimeter feature in Australia. At the time the film was released, many HATED the look of the film, including some at Cannes who booed the film, while others thought it ruined the movie as they couldn’t put people in the center of the frame, where it was subject to a lot of male aggression responding negatively to women finally expressing themselves differently. To a large extent, much of this happened at film school, where they were competing with guys that were attracted to spectacular shots and hogged all of the equipment, leaving the few female students to fend for themselves, having to discover a witty and more original way to tell the story. What’s perhaps most significant is that Campion and Bongers, like David Lynch, were graduates of prestigious art schools before they became filmmakers, where Campion was a painter, influenced by surrealist painter Frida Kahlo and sculptor Joseph Beuys, but felt limited by the medium, turning instead to cinema as an artform. While they also collaborated on two of Campion’s film shorts that were made during film school, the film is also informed by the writing skills of Gerard Lee, who they also met at film school, with Campion involved in a brief romance, becoming an Australian novelist who co-wrote and co-directed another earlier Campion short, while co-writing this film with Campion as well as one of her later works, 2013 Top Ten List #9 Top of the Lake. Yet it’s the look of the film that viewers must learn to navigate, where there is a complete lack of camera movement, an intentional awkwardness within the frame, always pushing people to the outer extensions of each shot, where the style itself creates an inner tension, beautifully edited, as is the trailer, Sweetie (1989) - Trailer (1:45), with a great sense of rhythm, accentuating the idiosyncracies in us all. Looking back over the years, it was this choice that identifies a cinematic originality, as it was actually an act of liberation to be so wildly different, where there was no one on the set to boss them around or tell them what to do, using a largely female crew, many of them first-timers, which was unheard of at the time, as they were instead free to be very intuitive and create the look they wanted. As a result, objects such as cracked concrete, carpets, curtains, and wallpaper are sometimes as important as the characters, as it keeps the focus within the frame.
It’s interesting that Campion had already written a first draft of THE PIANO (1993), but set it aside as she had the foresight to make this smaller, quirkier film first, feeling it was much more personal, and that a low-budget, more experimental style of filmmaking would be harder to get funding for later on, claiming she was influenced by the more intimate filmmaking styles of David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch, yet also Luis Buñuel and Australian director Peter Weir, especially their ability “to work beyond what you know consciously.” Opening to the sounds of Café of the Gate of Salvation, a white a cappella gospel choir from Sydney that sings in the black gospel tradition, a group that had never been recorded, but can be viewed on YouTube here 25th Anniversary Concert 5.11.11, yet they provide spiritual inspiration before the film even begins. The uniqueness of the sound, however, adds to the flavor of cinematic liberation, as this is a film that took the world by storm. The first sister we are introduced to is Kay, describing her unnatural fear of trees in the opening narration, so she relies upon superstition to help her understand the ways of love, where she visits a psychic that does tea readings, predicting a man with a question mark on his face will make a difference in her life. Soon enough, that man appears in the form of Louis (Tom Lycos, who according to Campion is the spitting image of Gerard Lee), who is already engaged to somebody else. That is no barrier to fate, however, as she meets him clandestinely in an underground parking lot where she seduces him with this strange idea that they were destined to be together, convincing him with the flip of a coin that persistently comes up tails. While he’s a sensitive and moody guy who thought he wanted a normal girlfriend, both of them have their own share of eccentricities, reflected by his love of meditation, and her rising anxiety, where one night she yanks a plant out of the ground by its roots, despite being planted in honor of their relationship, fearing some harm could come. Not knowing what else to do with it, she throws it under the bed, where immediately the couple starts having sex issues, deciding to sleep in separate bedrooms. The film jumps ahead 13 months. Perhaps the most Lynchian moment is when Kay attends a meditation class and continually interrupts, claiming it’s not working, but the instructor calmly and succinctly repeats the exact same instructions each and every time, like a prayer mantra. When they decide to make an appointment for sex, this turns into another absurd moment, beautifully framed with their heads cut off, where the magic just isn’t working, where they feel more like siblings than lovers, so they decide they’re just going through a non-sex phase. One of the fun moments of the film is the kid next door, Clayton (Andre Pataczek), a 5-year old who loves to shout from the back yard into Kay’s kitchen window, where they have to duck down to avoid being induced into playing with him, where he has all his toy cars lined up, ready to go. One of the classic moments of the film, viewed from the kitchen window, comes when he runs out of a tent and jumps into a tiny wading pool, like its all part of a spectacular circus act, where there’s a viewer impulse to break out into applause.
Coming home one night, they find the house broken into and loud music playing, where Sweetie’s entrance is like a bolt of lightning, an unbridled force of nature with no boundaries and no inhibitions, where Kay’s so embarrassed by her half-naked presence she doesn’t know how to describe her, initially telling Louis, “She’s a friend of mine. She’s a bit mental.” By morning, however, he discovers this is her sister, turning up with her boyfriend, Bob (Michael Lake), supposedly her agent, ready to sign her at the first opportunity, but really he’s just some junkie amused by the show she continually puts on. Having to explain herself, Kay indicates, “She was just born — I don’t have anything to do with her.” One of the challenges of the film was finding the right actress to play Sweetie, where they didn’t want her to be perceived as threatening or overly aggressive, but she couldn’t have modesty issues. Campion had previously seen Genevieve Lemon perform onstage without a stitch of clothes on, while in this film her sexually indulgent behavior and constant need for attention reveals a character that is amoral, incredibly inappropriate, and knows no limits, unbounded in every way, given a rebellious Goth and punk look. She’s charming and adorable most of the time, and always interesting, but she’s a wild child who loves playing with Clayton next door, as they are both mentally about the same age. Kay, on the other hand, sulks in her presence, as she’s the sensible sister, tidy and well-organized, where Sweetie is a moving tornado who has a way of breaking things, including Kay’s favorite objects, a set of porcelain figurines of horses set in various poses, where she gives each of them a name, like Thunder, Blaze, and Blaze’s mother, Gypsy. They are like alter-egos of her repressed interior world, suggestive of the Tennessee Williams play The Glass Menagerie, where the brooding sister witnesses them get smashed to pieces, ending up in Sweetie’s mouth when she sheepishly tries to hide the evidence. This incident mirrors a moment when Louis discovers the dead plant under their bed, feeling betrayed by his own, supposedly lucid wife. Sweetie’s innocence (and the film’s) is her greatest appeal, as she’s just a big kid that never grows up. When Gordon, her Dad arrives, having no place left to go, as he’s just been left by his wife Flo (Dorothy Barry), leaving him a week’s worth of prepared dinners on the way out, where they have no life together, as she’s tired of her husband always giving in to Sweetie, where she has him wrapped around her finger, so she disappears for a while, heading into the outlying territory. Having never established boundaries with his daughter, the most inappropriate scene of the film has Sweetie actually bathing her father in the tub, and probably not for the first time, which is suggestive to some of an incestual relationship, a view that surprised Campion, as that was not her intent, though it may rationally explain the family dynamic. Yet the real beauty of the film is that the inappropriate behavior is never explained, remaining ambiguous throughout. Like a kinetic force that never stops, Sweetie grows more and more out of control, testing the limits of everyone’s patience, with the family caught in a state of inertia, where they decide to take a road trip to visit Flo, but cruelly and deceptively leave Sweetie behind.
With music playing in the car as they head for the outback, Schnell Fenster :: Whisper  (3:48), getting out into the open countryside is familiar territory in Jane Campion films, revealing the redemptive power of nature, as Flo is living with the jackaroos (young Australian cowboys), working as their cook, where this entire segment feels utterly surrealistic. Finding his wife surrounded by a multitude of young men at a dude ranch, it’s all too much for Gordon, who storms off in a huff, taking the car to pout alone, yet the others are immediately welcomed, where it’s like being stranded at a Foreign Legion outpost in a Claire Denis film, made a decade before Beau Travail (1999), where the film turns into a fantasia of cowboy paradise and infinite happiness, where there are no problems to be found, with handsome, well-groomed cowboys dancing with one another, or with chairs, as they grab Kay as a likely partner, with Flo breaking out into song, beautifully singing a gorgeous country ballad, There’s a Love that Waits for You, where there’s a feeling of romance wafting in the breeze, away from the stress of the world, that even greets Gordon as he graciously returns, eagerly dancing with his wife, as the jackaroos seem to be having a therapeutic effect on their marriage, with terrific music by Martin Armiger. On the drive back home, Gordon has another spell of regret, torn by their deceitful actions towards Sweetie, where he’s stymied by the idea they can’t all get along, stuck in his own delusion, which seems to be the curse they all have to bear, as Sweetie remains a walking time bomb that at any second can go off. By the time they get back home, with relationships seemingly reconciled, all is not as it seems, as Sweetie goes off the deep end again, this time with tragic consequences, stripped naked in her treehouse along with 5-year old Clayton (who curiously asked in person if she was really a grown-up), in full view of the neighbors, as she refuses to listen to reason and come down, where the dreams and the fantasy collide with reality in an instantaneous thud, a sad and regretful moment, a fall from grace, as they are simply unable to move her out of the spotlight, forever remaining the center of attention, even after she’s gone, with Kay finding her broken figurines meticulously reconstructed, with some obvious parts still missing. But there is no more haunting moment than a memory of Sweetie as a young girl all decked out in a cute little pink sparkle outfit singing a song, "Sweetie"song YouTube (1:17), an innocent plea for love from her father as if summoned from the grave, and a reminder of what she could never obtain, being accepted for who she was. As powerful and unique as this film may be, so much is still left off the screen and out of the film, where there are open spaces that make it sometimes feel more alienating and distant, as if set in a kind of detached coldness, offering a feeling as if characters are continually under a microscope being scientifically observed, where the entire film becomes a lost memory, like a photograph, retaining a quiet innocence that through the passing of the years is hard to find. It’s curious that Campion, who is actually a quite sunny person (displaying a flair for laughter, claiming it is never inappropriate), is drawn to making films of such tragedy, where her mother who suffers from depression attempted suicide near the end of shooting this film, with her sister forced to look after her full-time, allowing Campion time to complete the last ten days of shooting. As a result, the film is dedicated to her sister. But it’s apparent to Campion that illnesses are real, as they have a tragic effect on families, where the open ended, non-judgmental attitude of the film has an enormous impact on families dealing with a similar situation. Despite Campion’s growth as a filmmaker and the accolades she’s received, this daring early work arguably remains her best film.