& How to Watch Them:
Sweetie (1989): Campion isn’t appreciated enough for her comedy and this, her second feature film (and often considered her official debut), is her funniest. It’s also deeply emotional and has a lot to say about the pressures of relationships, familial and romantic. But its idiosyncratic sense of humor is what makes it so great.
An Angel at My Table (1990): There’s so much warmth and understanding in this miniseries/long feature about Janet Frame. Despite the amount of struggle in Frame’s life, Campion never allows her telling to be maudlin. She focuses instead on Frame’s psychology, her wants and desires, and achievements. It’s honest about her circumstances, but never hopeless.
The Piano (1993): This is probably Campion’s most famous film and won her an Oscar for its screenplay. If I had to choose I’d also say it’s her best. And if I had to choose a best film of all time period I would also choose this one. It’s romantic, it’s funny, it’s upsetting and inspiring and complicated. If you only watch one of her films choose this one, but it’s also even richer in the context of her filmography.
The Portrait of a Lady (1996): I went to a talk with Campion where she described her approach to period pieces with “They’re just people in different clothes.” That’s evident in all of her period films but especially in this adaptation of Henry James’ novel. It begins with contemporary women and feels like it’s about a contemporary woman despite the rest of the film taking place in the 19th century. Nicole Kidman also does some of her very best work in this one.
Holy Smoke! (1999): Somebody could write a three volume study on Campion’s treatment of race, colonialism, and fetishization. All of her films have white women protagonists, but almost all of them engage with race in some way. Sometimes this feels problematic, but it’s always thought-provoking and complex. This film is especially dense in its exploration of Western ideas about Eastern philosophy and religion (as well as in its portrayal of gender dynamics). Oh and it’s really funny and has amazing performances from Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel!
In the Cut (2003): Ignore its notoriety! Yes, this is the movie where Meg Ryan is naked. But like the sexuality in all of Campion’s films its not exploitative and is important for the story. It’s really frustrating that this film and Ryan’s wonderful performance were overshadowed by people reducing it to its nudity. It’s actually a fascinating thriller about how dangerous it can feel to be a woman sexually drawn to men.
Bright Star (2009): “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Campion tells the story of a poet by creating film poetry. It’s probably her most conventional film, but it’s also one of her best. It’s truly as romantic as Keats’ poetry and her longtime collaborator Janet Patterson does her best work on costume and production design.
Top of the Lake - China Girl - S2:E1 (2017): This is really two very different miniseries connected by their central character. The first one is a taut crime drama with just enough of Campion’s idiosyncrasies to keep things interesting. Like An Angel at My Table and Bright Star, it’s still great despite being more conventional. But the second part, China Girl, is what really has my heart. It’s messier, more complicated, funnier, and more accomplished than the first. After the success of part one it really felt like Campion just let herself be completely free in her creative expression. And it’s glorious.
Dear Jane Campion,
The first time I saw one of your movies I didn’t know I was a girl.
I was fifteen and had spent my adolescence watching the Canon of Great Macho Movies, or as the patriarchy calls it, "the Canon." And then I saw Bright Star. And then I saw Sweetie. And then I watched everything you’d ever made in less than two weeks. It’s hard to describe how meaningful it was to finally feel like I saw myself on screen, especially since at the time I was presenting as a boy and didn’t have the language to believe anything contrary. I just accepted that for some reason I was a male teenager who felt a deep kinship to your many heroines. They thought how I thought. They cared about what I cared about. They acted, not how I acted, but how I wished I could act. They were stubborn yet vulnerable, wildly intelligent yet prone to bad decisions. But you always respected them. You always let them lead and never judged. I wanted to be like these women, these real, complicated, fascinating women.
And now I am one.
But I’m still discovering things about myself and I’m still discovering things about your films. You ask questions but don’t feel the need for definitive answers. Your films are explorations, not statements. Holy Smoke! and In the Cut are both so weird and dense and entertaining and I love them so much. I love all of your films, the perfect perfect ones (shout out to The Piano the best film of all time) and the messy perfect ones. I’m grateful for what they meant to me as a teenage “boy” and what they mean to me as an adult woman. Thank you for showing me what it means to be unapologetically female.