Female Filmmaker Friday: Sweetie, 1989 (dir. Jane Campion)
I saw this for the first time a few weeks back. It is Jane Campion’s feature film debut and it is fucking gorgeously shot. Shout out to cinematographer Sally Bongers for capturing Campion’s unique vision! It’s also really fucking bittersweet and strange. That said, I don’t really want to spoil the twists and turns too much, so mostly I’m going to focus this week on some arresting shots that have haunted me for the last few weeks.
Sweetie is really similar it tone to Campion’s 1982 short film Peel, which was an exploration of siblings and family. It won the short film Palm d’Or at the Cannes film festival, making Campion the first woman to win that award.
The first shot we see of our protagonist Kay in Sweeties is of her legs. She’s also the narrator of the film (though the narration is mostly at the beginning and the end). I just think this is a terrific shot.
We then get a series of close-up to Kay’s face. Actress Karen Colston is able to show so much emotion while simultaneously looking dazed the whole time. I don’t know how she does it, but it’s astonishing.
I love the composition of this shot. One thing I love about feature debuts is that directors while still do these amazing self-conscious, “arty” for lack of a better word, shots that often times they will abandon later in their career. Thankfully, Campion has kept a good mix of these kind of shots throughout her career.
Kay very isolated from her co-workers and doesn’t appear to have many friends (except a fortuneteller) at the beginning of the film and this shot really tells you all you need to know.
Later Kay winds up with a boyfriend (I don’t want to spoil how that happens, but it’s bold and unforgettable) and their first sexual encounter is as awkward as you would expect. I just really love this shot. It tells you so much about the characters and what kind of people they are and having the clothing hang in front of mostly-closed drapes adds a little salacious feel to the shot.
Kay’s boyfriend convinces her to try meditation when their relationship becomes strained. This results in one of the most hilarious non-confrontational verbal fights I’ve ever seen. It also brings us a pretty trippy, over-exposed dream that probably says more about the Kay character than I was able to decipher. It’s moments like this you remember that Campion started out as a fine artist.
This. Freaking. Shot. Kay is in a daze because of her home life and these bitches from work who don’t like her at all (partially for good reason) mock her any chance they get.
I am a big fan of dick shots in movies, as is Jane Campion, who has another great one in The Piano. This is so great because we have two naked people about to have sex, who are just casual and naked. There’s nothing erotic about this depiction of intimacy. We need more of this.
Genevieve Lemon plays the titular Sweetie, Kay’s black sheep sister who has a low I.Q., border-line special needs, who is just able to live on her own, but not really. This aspect of the film is really hard-hitting. Each member of the family – Kay, her mother and her father – have different ideas about what they should do with Sweetie. They’ve each reached a different place in life in regards to their relationship with her. It’s a great exploration of family dynamics, subversive, but never uncaring.
There’s a lot of feet in this movie. I love this shot because it’s just such a great way to show people impatiently waiting to go somewhere.
A great shot of desperation. It reminds you that Sweetie is stuck somewhere between being a child and being an adult. Utterly heartbreaking.
I love the distance in this shot. Jon Darling plays the father of Kay and Sweetie, a conflicted man who’s trying to hold on to his family as best he can.
This is just a great shot. Just gaze at it.
There’s a lot of shots like this in cinema, but I always love it because it’s such a universal feeling. Everybody wants to feel like they’re flying every so often, don’t they?
Another perfect shot encapsulating everything you need to know about Sweetie, and this time, her father.
More feet! This time Kay and her boyfriend Louis (Tom Lycos) are maybe going to breakup for reasons that are totally valid (and not related to Sweetie, but rather Kay’s neurosis). The separation they are feeling is conveyed simply through where they are positioned and what parts of them Campion keeps in the frame.
Another shot Campion uses again (in Bright Star!) I love that she’s gone on a bender drinking milk and now she’s just curled in a ball by some hedges. That’s so what Kay would do in a depression.
Kay’s ceramic horse collection plays a big role in depicting her relationship with her sister. She shows them to a neighbor early on in the film, describing how each of them is one of her family members (this is how we first hear of Sweetie), Sweetie then uses them to inflict pain on her sister and after a terrible incident at the film’s climax (which I will not spoil), they represent her perseverance.
Lastly, we get another great, understated shot of intimacy and reconciliation as Kay mends ways with her boyfriend. Sweetie is definitely more than just a collection of great shots, but actually one of the best and most subversive looks at family and relationships I’ve ever seen. A great debut from one of the greatest minds in all of cinema’s history.