SPOTLIGHT September 2021: Jane Campion, feminist filmmaker, Dame Companion and Lumiere Honoree
New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion is set to be honored with the Lumière Award during this year’s Lumière Festival, which take place in Lyon, France during October. This is the 13th presentation of the Lumière Award, and Campion will be the first woman director to receive the coveted prize. Actually, the Lumière Award is not the first French recognition of Campion’s cinematic achievements, nor is it the first for which she’s been the first woman honoree. She was the first woman director to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as the first female filmmaker to serve as president of the illustrious Cannes jury.
Fact is, awards are nothing new for Campion. To date, she’s won 55 (including Oscar, Independent Spirit Award, WGA and AWFJ EDA awards) and been nominated for another 53. In 2016, Campion was appointed a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her extraordinary services to film. But while awards and accolades are well-deserved recognition of Campion’s cinematic skills, they don’t shine a light on her feminism, per se, nor on the positive impact her career has had on furthering the cause of greater opportunity for women on screen, on film crews and behind the scenes. We illuminate that aspect of Campion’s cinematic impact in this month’s SPOTLIGHT.
BORN INTO AN ARTS ENVIRONMENT
Jane Campion was born in Wellington, New Zealand, on April 30, 1854, into a family embedded in the arts. She’s the second daughter of actress and author Edith Campion and Richard M. Campion, a teacher and theatre director. Together, her parents founded the New Zealand Players. However, although she was raised in an artsy environment, Campion initially eschewed pursuit of a career in the dramatic arts, and chose instead to study Anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington, graduating with a BA in 1975.
That academically oriented career plan didn’t last long. After expanding her cultural horizons while traveling through Europe, she enrolled in the Chelsea Art School in London in 1976, and eventually earned a graduate degree in painting in 1981 from the Sydney College of the Arts at the University of Sydney. Her study of painting lead her to explore filmmaking, and she has said that her filmmakers point of view has been strongly influenced by the painters she most admires, including Frida Kahlo. In 1981, she began studying at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, where she made several short films before graduating in 1984.
BECOMING JANE CAMPION, CINEMA AUTEUR
At the dawn of the 1990s, Campion emerged from a generation of new auteurs that included the likes of the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh. After directing several short films, she birthed her first feature film, Sweetie. in 1989. With its evocative voiceover and the photographic composition of each shot that upends normality to the point of discomfort, the unique Campion style shook up the cinema universe.
The following year, she injected her provocatively intense point of view into a screen adaptation of Janet Frame’s novel, An Angel at My Table, in which she directed three actresses at three stages in the life of one woman, locked up in an asylum, who finds escape through writing.
Her following work, The Piano (1993), established Campion as a major filmmaker. The film was a long-term project that began at the end of her studies, but it had been repeatedly postponed due to its scope and cost. The film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1993, and Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill and Paquin all earned widespread praise for their performances — including an Oscar for 11 year old Paquin in her debut film appearance. And The Piano also garnered her an Oscar nomination for Best Director and an Oscar win for Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen.
Campion followed The Piano with Portrait of a Lady (1996), a Henry James adaptation starring Nicole Kidman and John Malkovich; the New Age road trip Holy Smoke (1999), led by Kate Winslet; the thriller In the Cut (2003), a foray into genre film featuring Meg Ryan, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mark Ruffalo; and Bright Star (2009), about the passionate relationship between poet John Keats and his muse, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish).
CURRENT AFFAIRS: THE POWER OF THE DOG
This month, Campion’s latest film, The Power of the Dog, has its world premiere at the 78th Venice International Film Festival, followed by a special screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. It also will screen as the centerpiece selection at the 59th New York Film Festival on Oct. 1. Adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1967 cult novel, The Power of the Dog is Campion’s first film in a decade. Set on a Montana cattle ranch in the 1920s, the drama centers on melancholy young widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who comes to live with her sensitive new husband, George (Jesse Plemons). Their lives are increasingly complicated by the erratic, potentially violent behavior of George’s sullen and bullying brother, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose mistrust of both Rose and her misfit son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) leads to tragic consequences. The Power of the Dog, with its powerful female lead character, is scheduled to be released in select theaters on Nov. 17 before debuting on Netflix on Dec. 1.
WHY WE CHOSE HER
Jane Campion has furthered the cause of women in film by holding steady to her own aesthetic, making unique career choices, and delivering dazzling visual poetry with her distinctive directorial style. She has created a gallery of strong, complex, fully fleshed out female characters who rank among the most compelling in film history. She’s has provided actresses with opportunities to fully exercise their talents, receive due acclaim and be of immeasurable inspiration to audiences. Kudos to Campion for all she’s achieved and for continuing to birth projects that beautifully reflect the human condition and elevate women in film — Brandy McDonnell and Jennifer Merin