Sydney Film Festival: Jane Campion Talks About Leading by Inspiration


These days Jane Campion – Palme d’Or and Oscar-winning film director – is celebrated for a vein of heartfelt cinema that is aching and quirky, rather than gushing. She’s also an intelligent and determined female pioneer who has had to struggle for her present standing in a male-dominated industry.

The Sydney Film Festival this week is showcasing and contextualizing her body of work. Its screening program includes all nine of her feature works, from “Two Friends” to “The Power of the Dog,” and a selection of her short films.

“For our 70th edition, we wanted to present a retrospective commensurate with the milestone, reflecting the audacious and boundary pushing filmmaking synonymous with our festival and region. There was no one more appropriate than Jane Campion,” said SFF director Nashen Moodley in notes ahead of the event.

On Saturday, the festival screened Julie Bertucelli’s 2022 documentary “Jane Campion, the Cinema Woman” ahead of an on-stage interview between Campion and critic and former SFF programmer David Stratton.

Conducted largely in chronological order, the interview quickly revealed that Campion’s broad-minded parents and Luis Bunuel, the master of surreal, had been early and significant influences. Campion recalled her mother taking her teenage daughter to Bunuel’s film about a housewife-prostitute “Belle de Jour.”

“[Bunuel] felt like a bolt of energy. Because he saw the world like I feel it too, It’s hard to be surreal and often apparently silly and funny. And, you know, of course, I take myself quite seriously,” Campion said.

Her theatre director father took the 16-year-old Campion to Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s controversial “Performance,” a crime drama involving the encounter between a rock star and a violent mobster that was banned in some countries, including Australia. “It felt like I was sort of stretching out beyond my capacity. And the film was inviting you to a new understanding of the world,” Campion said.

Both the stage interview and Bertucelli’s doc cited the uncomfortable Cannes response to Campion’s 1989 film “Sweetie,” a quirky tale of female best friends. Mass walkouts at the festival premiere left the director feeling “completely humiliated,” only for her to find crumbs of comfort from the divisive and domineering Cannes talent scout Pierre Rissient, who reassured her that “the right people liked it.”

“I (still) love that film. It’s really a film that you make before you know what you’re doing. And in a way …(reveal) some of your most intimate expressions,” said Campion.

If showing weakness and vulnerability exposes a creator to scorn and derision, building a defensive wall may be a natural response.

Even in Campion’s adopted hometown and surrounded by her friends, collaborators and admirers, the encounter with Stratton had a tinge of brittleness. Despite both living in Sydney and both being influential figures with global reputations, Campion and Stratton have seemingly only rarely interacted.

They appeared to have pre-arranged discussion of the relationship between filmmakers and film critics as one of their talking points. But they twanged each other’s strings over the event’s running order and quickly changed chord.

Among the chat’s carefully arranged melodies, the pair nevertheless hit upon some revealing refrains. These included how Campion had shied away from feature movies after “Sweetie” and conceived “An Angel at My Table” initially as a TV miniseries. (Campion’s more recent TV effort “Top of the Lake,” Stratton described as “bloated”). Discussion of the overseas filming of “The Portrait of a Lady” saw Campion admit, “I don’t know where my comfort zone is, actually.”

Campion described how Harvey Keitel (star of her “The Piano” and “Holy Smoke”) was “one of the first men that really opened up to me deeply and that I opened up to deeply. That’s really a gift. Across that gender separation,” she said.

The ditch between men and women was the recurring melody in much of the on-stage talk and throughout Bertocelli’s documentary.

On stage, Campion explained how producers at Pathe UK had obliged her to make the ending of her “In the Cut” film less tragic than the Susanna Moore novel it was based on. “It’s really moving to still want to please the man in her dying moments,” said Campion.

In “Cinema Woman” there are several ‘gender separation’ references, some understated, some quietly outrageous. One shows Campion at the Oscars numbering off the more than 300 men to have received best director nominations, while the tally of women nominees could be counted on a single hand.

In another, Campion is shown at Cannes’ sixtieth anniversary celebrations in the esteemed company of previous Palme d’Or winners. Campion is the only woman in the picture. And Bertucelli’s framing neatly captures the sneer of convicted sex offender Roman Polanski sitting just a few seats behind.

Further discussion with Stratton took in: relations with key collaborators (Campion admitted to being scared of cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh); the exceptional material she discovered in Thomas Savage’s book “The Power of the Dog”; and only partially controlling the outcome when president of a festival jury. “Sometimes you’re brokering deals to try and get the Palme d’Or and maybe the one that wins is actually not anybody’s first choice, but is everyone’s second choice,” Campion said after complimenting Cannes as “clean” and laudably free of backroom intrigue.

But questions from the audience inevitably returned to Campion as female film pioneer. Her finale was gamely positive.

“Lead by inspiration, by what’s positive, what you love. Make that the biggest thing in your life and it will give you the strength to do what you want to do. Don’t bother with the rest. Try the lens of ‘I love this idea. I want to do it’,” she said.

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