Wednesday, 4 May 2011
Starring: Genevieve Lemon, Karen Colston, Tom Lycos, Dorothy Barry
By Alan Bacchus
Sweetie is the house guest from hell, the firebrand bi-polar sister of Kay (herself a stressed out basket case) who shows up unwanted at the door of Kay and her boyfriend thus disrupting her attempt at a regular life of independence from her thoroughly messed up family.
Director Jane Campion replaces a precise, forward-moving narrative, a plot which can't be summarized sufficiently in a neat paragraph, with a meandering series of set pieces that sketch out the portrait of Kay and Sweetie’s kooky family. In between the odd comic framing and wackiness, there’s a danger brewing in Sweetie, a violent streak that we sense will erupt in an impending tragedy.
While not the lead, Sweetie earns the status of title character for Lemon’s commanding performance as a bottle full of energy. Her chubby body type and rock and roll attitude and attire threatened to overwhelm everything else. But Campion is smart to bring Sweetie in at the beginning of the second act, concentrating on establishing Kay’s own set of peculiar idiosyncrasies and inhibitions.
This is Jane Campion’s acclaimed first film, a most idiosyncratic effort, quirky but inspired and the sign of a director with a unique voice. It’s a decent start to her career, though the reliance on the show-offy wide angle lenses would later be discarded as a visual tool. Her subsequent films are certainly more rich, textured and emotionally engaging than the off-centre framing and perspective-shifting compositions.
The film’s closest cousin is clearly Holy Smoke, the 1999 Kate Winslet/Harvey Keitel film, which told the story of a cult de-programmer who combats the sexual persuasions of Kate Winslet. We can see striking similarities in the characterizations of the affable family members in both films, as well as the skewed sense of Aussie wit, a funny bone that is conspicuously missing from most of Campion’s other films. Like Holy Smoke, when the action switches from the city to the outback, things get even weirder. We don’t see anything comparable to a crying Harvey Keitel wandering the desert in lipstick and a dress, but Kay’s boyfriend Louis, her off-the-wall father and her mentally-challenged brother are weird enough, not excluding that David Lynch-worthy cowboy dance sequence.
Other connections to Campion’s other work are clearly her female hero Kay and the emotionally damaged Sweetie. Of course, there’s some sex, not the salacious graphic variety of The Piano, but it’s a strong theme that drives much of the conflict.
This viewing comes courtesy of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray, which features two of Campion’s acclaimed short films from the early 80s and other fine goodies, new and old.