Jane Campion's debut feature film "Sweetie" (1989) is certainly an original. With its cast of eccentric outcast characters, it superficially resembles many an American independent film, but the consistently surprising selection of compositions makes this film nearly impossible to anticipate from moment to moment. While this makes for a meandering story, it also makes for a film that is uniquely fresh and genuinely pleasant on the eyes.
Despite the title, the film's nominal protagonist is Kay (Karen Colston), a superstitious, uptight young woman who tries hard to carve out an identity for herself, away from the controlling, poisoning influence of her dysfunctional family. She fails miserably in this task, largely because of the elemental force that is her sister Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon).
Sweetie arrives unannounced (and with a brick through the window of the front door) to disrupt Kay's life with her new boyfriend Louis (Tom Lycos). Sweetie didn't break the window out of maliciousness; she is incapable of malice, in fact. She did it because she the door was locked, and she wanted to get in. That's how Sweetie works. Though a full-grown woman, Sweetie's emotional development has progressed little (or perhaps I should say "differently") since childhood. Societal niceties such as politeness and emotional reactions such as embarrassment are simply not part of her make-up. Whatever Sweetie wants, Sweetie gets… or else there will be hell to pay. Once Sweetie arrives, dad and mom follow close behind, and Kay is reminded that the ties that bind last a lifetime, no matter how hard you try to escape them.
Though the film begins with Kay and is mostly told from her perspective, Campion doesn't restrict herself to any single point of view, or to any linear narrative. She isn't telling a full-blown story, so much as creating a patchwork quilt of moments, scenes, melodramatic conflicts that show the intense and knotted relationships that define this strange, yet strangely close family. Just as the film can switch perspectives without notice, the film can also cut to just about anything at any time. Scenes end abruptly; jarring cuts hurl strange images at the screen: an animation of growing tree roots, a good dose of full-frontal nudity, even dancing cowboys. Major characters appear from thin air as well. Sweetie isn't even discussed before her arrival. Nor are the parents who don't show up until halfway through the movie, yet play a major role from that point on. I am reminded of an old screenwriting teacher who told me never to write the word "suddenly" in my scripts, because everything in a movie happens suddenly. "Sweetie" is living proof of this wisdom.
Werner Herzog talks about the need to find new images in cinema, and avoiding the stale ones that permeate popular culture. Campion and cinematographer Sally Bongers find one fresh image after another, not only by sudden dislocations in the story, but also by finding original perspectives within seemingly simple scenes. In a scene of reconciliation, we do not see Kay and Louis speaking to each other, but only their legs as they speak; he tentatively reaches a socked foot out to touch her bare one, making for a moving and memorable shot. This is only one example of many such striking moments.
Genevieve Lemon's performance is also an essential ingredient in the film's success. She could simply indulge herself, and create an unfettered wild-child, but Sweetie is something more complex. She is innocent yet cunning as hell, and Lemon plays both sides of this conflicted personality quite plausibly. For all of Sweetie's quirks and temper tantrums, she never becomes either a freak show or a helpless victim. Sweetie may be a free spirit, but that same freedom shackles the very people that love her because, well, they love her, and have to indulge her endless whims. She's a far cry from Giulietta Masina's wide-eyed, whimpering puppy dog in "La Strada."
While "Sweetie" was Campion's first theatrical feature, her first big break actually came with the short "An Exercise in Discipline: Peel" (1982) which won the short film Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1986. Later, "The Piano" (1993) made her the first woman to ever win the (main) Palme d'Or, and only the second woman ever nominated for a Best Director Oscar (Lina Wertmuller being the first, with Sofia Coppola later getting nominated in 2004). She's also become a cultural commodity worth fighting over, as both New Zealand and Australia have battled to claim her as her own. Perhaps with the ascent of Peter Jackson, the Kiwis don't feel quite so bitterly territorial about Ms. Campion these days.
The film is presented in an anamorphic 1.85:1 aspect ratio. I should just start cutting and pasting from other Criterion reviews for this section. The restored transfer is immaculate: rich colors, sharp clarity, and whistle clean. What can I say? It's perfect.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo. The original monaural track has been remastered in 5.1. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
Though only a single DVD, this Criterion offering is loaded with great features.
The highlight is a collection of Campion's early short films: "An Exercise in Discipline: Peel" (8 min.), "Passionless Moments" (1983, 12 min.), and "A Girl's Own Story" (1983, 26 min.) "Peel" won at Cannes, but I think "Passionless Moments" is easily the best of the collection, a series of short-shorts, dots of time all tied together with a narration that reminds me faintly of the early films of Peter Greenaway.
"Making ‘Sweetie'" (23 min.) is a newly recorded video conversation between lead actresses Lemon and Colston.
"Jane Campion: The Film School Years" (19 min.) is a conversation between Campion and film critic Peter Thompson, recorded in 1989 for the Australian Television Radio and Film School (where Campion went.) It's not only the greatest recruiting tool a film school could ask for; it should be inspirational to any film student.
A Production Gallery features some nifty photographs by Regis Lansac.
The feature-length commentary offers some lively conversation and interesting insights from Campion, Bongers, and screenwriter Gerard Lee.
The insert booklet contains an essay by film scholar Dana Polan.
"The Piano" garnered Campion most of her fame, but I think "Sweetie" is, by far, her best feature film. Criterion has done a fabulous job finding the perfect features to supplement the main film, and provide a solid overview of Campion's career. This is a fine film, and a superb DVD release.