Female gaze: the women of Jane Campion
Ahead of our very special screening of In the Cut plus Q&A with Jane Campion (in partnership with Misc. Films), writer, blogger and filmmaker and Park Circus Ambassador Katie Hogan writes about the award-winning director's essential depiction of female strength.
Internationally known as the only female director to win the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Jane Campion is an auteur and advocate for all female filmmakers. She said recently that she had hoped for a ‘buddy’ to join her in the female directors winners category and was disappointed when Maren Ade didn’t win for Toni Erdmann*. Her films are considered feminist and explore the desires of women, delving into the creative minds of her characters as well as an exploration of their sexuality.
Campion’s female characters all have two things in common: they are set against a tide that they rebel against, sometimes through creativity, other times through their ideals and beliefs. They also explore their sexual fantasies, even if it may damage them. Some do this for love, others out of lust and the willingness to lose themselves in their own desires. Ruth from Holy Smoke! is taken in by a guru in India because she wants to feel enlightened but her true nature is cruel and bitter; only when she accepts what she has done and realises her own sexual powers can overturn a man does she start to feel control.
In The Piano, Ada expresses her emotions through her piano playing and uses music as a way to let go. When her piano is taken from her, her heart is broken. As she slowly lets another person in, she lets her inhibitions go and becomes her true self. Bright Star’s Fanny Brawne expresses herself through her clothes, bright colours and innovative designs but by discovering love with the poet John Keats, she has the urge to explore another person, albeit in an innocent manner compared to Campion’s other heroines.
Since making her award-winning film, The Piano, which she wrote as well as directed, Campion has been tied to the idea of ‘films about women’. Both a curse and a blessing, her breakthrough to international acclaim is haunted by that piano left on the beach to such an extent that all of her subsequent films' posters bear the tag "from the director of The Piano". Having had all her work subconsciously compared to the beautiful tragic romance, her characters aren’t given the recognition they deserve. This is particularly true of Frannie from Campion’s 2003 adaptation of In The Cut.
Although perceived by some as a film that yielded to the typical genre tropes, In The Cut can also be viewed as challenging film noir’s exploration of female sexuality. Frannie (Meg Ryan), a high school English teacher who collects memorable quotes, pretty phrases and dark words, finds herself embroiled in a dark and seedy world of crime after a young woman is brutally murdered. She goes through a period of self-discovery and erotic encounters with a police officer working the case. This break from her ‘normal’ shakes her to her core, but despite the danger she knows she is walking into, she is drawn like a moth to a flame into this new world. Frannie is seen as an object of desire by one of her students and then by Detective Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) who is taken with her after a couple of meetings; but unlike the femme fatale character in most film noir stories, Frannie is not so easily swayed, she isn’t led by her need for men but instead her want for sexual contact. Ultimately it is her curiosity that leads her down a dark path, but Campion makes Frannie her own hero and even has her draw blood to save herself.
Through each of Campion’s films, the characters are exposed at some point in the stories and experience moments of pure pleasure, even in the more innocent of love stories. They show that women can feel these emotions and that it is perfectly normal for women to discover and live out their fantasies. They aren’t glamourised or suffer the notorious ‘male gaze’, the characters and films are an erotic exploration of the female soul. This is what makes Campion such a unique and championing filmmaker.
Post-script from Curzon Cinemas
* We are delighted to be posting this piece in the days after Sofia Coppola's win in the Best Director category for The Beguiled at the Cannes Film Festival 2017 (becoming only the second woman ever to win, after Soviet filmmaker Yuliya Solntseva for The Chronicle of Flaming Years in 1961), and the week Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman is released (the first female-led superhero movie to be directed by a woman). Here's to all of cinema's wonder women.
Katie Hogan is a writer, blogger and filmmaker currently in pre-production on her new short film. She contributes to online magazine, Vulturehound in her spare time as well as working at Creative Skillset for the Trainee Finder team. She tweets at @HoganShogan
SPECIAL EVENT: IN THE CUT + Q&A WITH JANE CAMPION