6. Sweetie (1989)
In 1989, Jane Campion’s feature debut Sweetie, written by Campion and Gerard Lee, established her as a powerful filmmaker with a singular artistic voice. More than thirty years later, it is as affecting as ever.
Sweetie tells the story of polar opposite sisters Kay (Karen Colston) and Dawn (Genevieve Lemon) aka ‘Sweetie’. Kay is reserved, keeping all of her obsessions and fears bottled up, while Sweetie is loud and unruly, bulldozing her way through life. When Sweetie breaks into the apartment where Kay lives with her boyfriend Louis (Tom Lycos), she sends Kay and her parents (Jon Darling and Dorothy Barry) spiralling, exposing the tangled, ugly roots of their family tree.
Sweetie is a horror movie masquerading as a family melodrama. Through the mundane domesticity that Sweetie quickly unravels, Campion shows us just how frightening intimacy and love can be.
It is also a movie about symbols and what can happen when we give them too much power. Kay, for example, is obsessed with mysticism. She only falls in love with Louis because her tea leaves said that she would. Kay is also deathly afraid of trees and pulls one (meant to represent her love) out by the roots.
Even Sweetie is more of a symbol than a person. Campion doesn’t really have much compassion for her at all. At times, the camera feels like it’s gawking at Sweetie as if Campion finds something deeply funny about her mental instability. Campion is deliberately ambiguous about Sweetie’s mental illness – if she actually has one – and it feels insensitive, almost cruel at times.
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5. Bright Star (2009)
Bright Star chronicles the real life love affair between Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) and famed romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw), before the poet’s untimely death of tuberculosis at just 25 years old.
Bright Star is an outlier in Jane Campion’s body of work. Where most of the director’s films are tinged with loneliness and isolation, this movie is exactly as its title suggests: shining, brilliant, and utterly sincere. It’s a film about how brightly first love can burn and how cold it feels when it is unfairly extinguished.
Campion was inspired to make this movie after learning about Keats’s life and reading his “passionate” letters to Fanny. Her admiration shows; there’s love and respect in every frame of this movie. Cornish and Whishaw are magnetic together. They’re not volatile in the way most of Campion’s pairings are. They don’t challenge one another – they nurture. They’re warm and gentle, their kisses light as butterfly wings. Bright Star is certainly more romantic than erotic, and by Campion’s standards it could even be considered chaste. And yet desire is still very much alive in this film, from Keats’s gentle caress of Fanny’s hand when they are finally alone, to how they press themselves against the same wall on opposite sides, desperate to feel each other’s touch.
Jane Campion’s films are heavy and often existential. There is always a sense of unease that permeates them. Comparatively, Bright Star is a breath of fresh air. The movie is bathed in light and lace, colored by the love that Keats and Brawne share.
Despite how good it is, Bright Star seems to have been forgotten, lost in the shuffle of Campion’s better-known works. To date, it is her only movie that is virtually impossible to find on streaming. This is a shame, because Bright Star illustrates the range Campion has as an artist more than any of her other movies.