|Jane Campion, director of An Angel at my Table.|
Jane Campion, Agnieszka
Holland, Nancy Savoca, Gillian Armstrong, and Kathryn Bigelow are
five of the most compelling directors working today. All of them,
with the exception of Bigelow (her films are send-ups of male posturing),
make movies about the tug of war between women, men, and their
families; about sexuality, betrayal, loss, and growth. In a movie
world where most of the business and creative decisions are made
by men, these women have maintained their independence, and their
New Zealander Jane Campion is perhaps the most successful
of this quintet. Campion has fierce confidence in the raw material
of her own imagination, which is a realm as fertile as a rain forest,
as perplexing as a force of nature.
In Sweetie and The Piano, her narratives
break many of the structural rules, but still manage to pay off
dramatically. Sweetie, a tale of two very strange sisters
as opposite as speed and valium, is one of the oddest films you’re
ever likely to see. The movie twists the definition of normal sibling
relationships, sex, and the nuclear family. In the process it plays
havoc with our cinematic expectations. Even the frame is radicalized:
overhead shots trap characters in comers, the camera crops faces
in half, the tempting elements of a composition lie just outside
the screen’s reach.
In The Piano, Campion brilliantly uses the
New Zealand jungle, its prehistoric flora and the Maori people
as a metaphor for the intense, primal passions her characters grapple
with. This is a movie about sex as an elemental force. When Holly
Hunter sheds her black frock and beds down with Harvey Keitel,
you can sense a shift in the natural order of things.
Campion’s women are concerned with finding their
place in the world. They are in search of their voices. In Sweetie,
it’s the title character’s misguided notion that she has the talent
to entertain; in The Piano, it’s Ada’s music; in An Angel
At My Table, it’s Janet Frame’s brilliant writing.
An Angel At My Table is adapted from Frame’s
autobiographies. A celebrated New Zealand writer/poet, she spent
eight years in a mental hospital after being misdiagnosed as a
schizophrenic. Campion has imbued the character with her deep compassion
for women who follow their inner compass, rather than society’s
rules. It is a moving film, not as oblique as Sweetie, nor
as tragic as The Maw, but equally engrossing, with the deft
symbolism that marks all of her work.
The vision of Polish writer-director Agnieszka
Holland finds its power in incidental events, innocuous moments which
shift a gear in history. Her best films, Europe Europa, Olivier
Olivier and The Secret Garden, take a child’s perspective
on life’s random horrors. An earthquake kills Mary’s parents in The
Secret Garden; an ignored teenager takes a cigarette in Olivier
Holland uses an odd close-up, a throwaway phrase,
a haunting image, to build her films slowly. Time, and the things
we do to fill it, are as crucial to her stories as the climaxes.
Even in her claustrophobic early work, Angry Harvest, there
is an accumulation of desperation, a sense of people trapped by
circumstance who are moved to self-discovery and sacrifice
Europa Europa, over simplified, is about a
boy trying to take a really good piss. The film is best in the
scenes where the kid – a Jewish teenager hiding out in Hitler’s
army-attempts to reverse the deadly giveaway of his circumcision.
Its triumphant final scene – he pees in a field – mirrors the exhilaration
of Mary and her friends in The Secret Garden after they’ve
restored life to her uncle’s moribund estate
Holland, Campion, and Brooklyn’s Nancy Savoca like
to play their narrative cards in the order you least expect. The
unhurried pace of their films, economical in detail and nuance,
is a refreshing change from the bland frenzy associated with many
male directors. They trust their audience to discover the small
miracles in their stories
Savoca’s three films to date, True Love, Dogfight,
and Household Saints, are as idiosyncratic as they are tough;
she’s not afraid to portray her characters unsympathetically up front,
and then let them win us over or not on their own terms. Dogfight features
Lili Taylor as one of the unwitting contestants in a Marine prank:
the winner is whichever jarhead brings the ugliest date to a party.
Savoca spins a deeply resonant fairy tale about an ugly duckling,
a handsome prince, and the hard-won love that blossoms when no one’s
expectations are fulfilled.
Household Saints sneaks up on you in more
discomfiting ways. Just when you think you’ve got the movie pegged
as a pangenerational tale of Italian-American working class families,
it mutates into a strange parable about a daughter’s suicidal,
religious obsession. Only in the film’s final frame do things connect.
By then it may be too late, but you admire Savoca for gutting it
Her best film, and most straightforward, is her first, True
Love, with Annabella Sciorra as a woman about to get married
to a guy who wants to spend his wedding night with his buddies.
Savoca explores the complexities that exist even in relationships
between people who aren’t that complex to begin with. There is
an abundance of truth in this film, never watered down, and delivered
with a zing.
Savoca shares with Campion and Holland a respect
for the men in her movies. Male directors who specialize in "boy
movies," and even many who attempt films about male/female
relationships always find ways to condescend to their female characters.
If women aren’t sexual props then they’re story props, one-dimensional
cutouts with cardboard flavored personalities.
But Savoca, Campion and Holland don’t shortchange
their male characters. Even if their behavior is stereotypical, even
if they don’t break new ground, their drawbacks are fully explored.
The butcher who wins his wife in a poker game in Household Saints,
the shattered husband who leaves his family in Olivier Olivier;
the father who struggles to hold his dysfunctional family together
in Sweetie: These are men confounded by events beyond their
control. They’re allowed to crumble onscreen, and then rebuild themselves.
In Australian Gillian Armstrong’s The Last Days
of Chez Nous, the most engaging character is the husband
(Bruno Ganz), who maintains our sympathy even though he has an
affair with his wife’s sister. And in Mrs. Soffel, Mel
Gibson delivers the only three dimensional role of his career
as a prisoner on the lam with Diane Keaton
Armstrong’s films are beautiful to look at, but they
sometime miss the verve that Holland’s and Campion’s work possesses.
Her Little Women, despite its popularity, lacks an edge.
The March family is a passive bunch, thoroughly and contentedly
polite. But Armstrong portrays women as strong and tormented as
the worlds in which they live. Judy Davis in both High Tide and My
Brilliant Career, Keaton in Mrs. Soffel and Kerry Fox
in The Last Days of Chez Nous are women who break convention
Kathryn Bigelow, on the other hand, has found
her place in a distinctly male genre: the hard-core action picture.
Her films are breathless, backhanded missives to her female peers.
She seems to be saying, "I can do it just like men … and I
can do it better."
Bigelow’s first movie is a plotless biker film, The
Loveless, in which her cinematic eye treats leather, chrome
and Willem Dafoe’s naked rear-end with equal erotic affection.
Next is Near Dark, a tense vampire pic set in a rural
white-trash milieu. Bigelow’s fondness for over stylization and
hard light got die best of her on her next film, Blue Steel,
about a cop ferreting out a mysterious serial killer. The movie’s
action is flat and pretentious. But Bigelow got back in the boys’
locker room and kicked it into overdrive with Point Break,
a rocket of a film about bank robbing surfers. Bigelow’s camera
is on some kind of Benzedrine rush; one long camera track near
the start of the film puts similar, celebrated moves in The
Player and Touch of Evil to shame.
Bigelow, Campion, Armstrong, Savoca and Holland would
no doubt rebel against being ghettoized as "women" directors.
But their sensitivity, compassion and intelligence sets their work