Jane Campion made a splash in the mid-'80s with a series of short films that received considerable critical acclaim. Her first, An Exercise in Discipline: Peel, won the Short Film Palme D'Or at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival. In 1989, she parlayed her new clout into a full-length debut, and I can safely say that Sweetie is a film unlike any other I have ever seen. Well, perhaps it's not so original; for all I know, Sweetie could be the logical, for lack of a better term, progression from her shorts, which I have yet to see (though I note that the Criterion DVD of Sweetie, which I can assure I shall be ordering soon, collects her short films). Regardless, Sweetie belongs on the short list of the all-time greatest feature-length debuts, and it boldly announces a fearsome talent in Campion.
Campion opens the film on Kay (Karen Colston), a timid, mousy woman somewhere in her 20s, having tea leaves read by a fortune teller. The teller spins the usual yarn, but Kay hangs on every word, especially when the fortune teller mentions a man in her future with a question mark on his forehead. As fate would have it, she heads to work only to find that one of her co-workers has just gotten engaged to a man with a mole on his forehead that aligns cosmically with a wayward curl of hair to form the symbol. She meets Louis in the parking lot, tells him that they're meant to be together, and the two start having sex right there under a car, quite literally under Louis' fiancée's nose.
The film then jumps 13 months into the future, the first of many narrative ellipses. The couple, last seen lost in mutual infatuation on the concrete ground of a parking lot, are moving into a house together. We can only assume things have been going well, as Louis celebrates the occasion by tearing out their clothesline to plant a tree. "It'll be our anniversary tree," he chimes. But Kay, already shown to be superstitious, remarks that the leaves are yellow and, despite reassurances that all the plant needs is water and light, she begins to fret that the tree will die, symbolizing a doomed relationship.
Here, the cracks in an otherwise arty but still relatively straight-faced story begin to form. Kay, distressed that the tree will die and take their relationship with them, tears out the sapling in the middle of the night and hides it under the guest bed. Soon after, she catches cold and moves into the guest bed, though she declines to return to the marital bed when she recovers, looking relieved not to have to worry about sex anymore. For his part, Louis doesn't seem to mind too much either, and when the two get in bed at one point to try and have a go at it, both of them undress methodically as if it were a job, and they come to a mutual agreement that it feels too much like mating with a sibling.
Before Kay and Louis can figure out where they stand with their relationship, however, Kay's family comes out of the woodwork, collectively suffering from their own issues. Kay's parents, Gordon and Flo, have decided on a trial separation, though why or how they've reached this stage they don't tell us. Flo heads off into the Outback, and Gordon comes to live with Kay for a while to keep his anger and grief in check. Gordon's appearance causes a subtle amount of stress in Kay's life, as she too must try to glean what happened between her parents as she tries to salvage her own relationship.
But whatever discomfort her father caused cannot compare to the re-emergence of her big sister Dawn, a.k.a. Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon). A spoiled brat that never outgrow being a child (and not in that playful way we refer to people as "big kids"), Sweetie breaks into Kay's house when no one answers the door, and her sister and Louis return to find Sweetie clearly in the middle of a romp with her new "producer," Bob. We glean from interactions between Sweetie and Gordon that the father doted upon the daughter and favored her above both the other child and the wife. His enthusiasm for whatever attention-grabbing trick Sweetie pulled as a child has ingrained in her a pathological need to be the center of attention.
Sweetie's return sets up a Freudian nightmare of sibling conflict: Kay, the paranoid superego versus Dawn the unrestrained id. Dawn, now overweight and hanging on to a junkie as her producer/agent in total oblivion that her dream of being a star died long ago, is seductive and wild. But she also acts like a petulant five-year-old and, as we are presented this story from Kay's perspective, Sweetie is presented as a tormentor of souls; in a brief flashback, we see only Gordon fawning over Dawn, but no younger Kay nor Flo. One cannot argue, though, that this middle-aged, spike-haired Loki sows a certain level of peevish disruption among the other characters, most notably in Louis, who, suddenly sharing living space with someone with a sexual appetite, finds his own sex drive reawakened, further straining his and Kay's relationship.
Yet Campion gives us enough space to draw our own conclusions about Sweetie. Kay, unsympathetic, cold and demonstrably selfish -- she tore apart a seemingly healthy relationship just because an old bat read her tea leaves -- is not exactly an ideal person herself, and Sweetie's actions betray as much psychological imbalance as Kay with her paranoia and superstition. When Kay at last tires of Sweetie's hellraising antics she kicks her sister out of the house, and Dawn's reaction is to run to Kay's room and shove Kay's collection of miniature horses into her mouth. It's certainly childish, but when she spits them out we see that the horses were fragile and they've broken, cutting up the roof of her mouth. In that immature tantrum is a very serious will to self-harm, which is revisited at the end when, in protest, she climbs nude into a treehouse and stomps its unstable floor. She's so trapped in a failed childhood that people speak to and about her as if a kid; even Louis, who only just met her, tries to calm a vengeful Kay when Sweetie tears the sleeves off of Kay's blouse. "We've already talked about it," Louis states calmly as if he and Kay were parents discussing their daughter's misbehavior, "and I think she knows what she did is wrong." As much as she is annoying, egomaniacal and borderline psychopathic -- she growls and barks like a dog when angry -- the chief sentiment I felt towards this creature was pity.
But if Sweetie is, by her placement in the title and at the top of the opening credits, the impetus of the film's story and Kay is the true protagonist, then Gordon is the key to unlocking all of this. Clearly he still believes in Dawn, and the scene where he jubilantly encourages Dawn to show off her "chair trick" -- involving her simply standing on a chair, tipping it forward and "riding" it down without falling -- is a moment of pitch-black comedy and a subtle level of psychological horror. The sheer banality of it is funny, as Louis cannot even pretend to care about it and walks away bored. Yet the way that Gordon pushes his daughter to perform this little party trick, and her own excitement at the opportunity to show off, demonstrates how both are trapped in a world of delusion, each unwilling or unable to see the reality of their lives or to inform the other. One night, Kay spots Dawn helping their father bathe, the nonplussed look on all their faces suggesting that sort of thing isn't new and that perhaps none of the have ever heard of an Electra complex. After Kay, Louis and Gordon head to the Outback to reconcile Gordon and Flo, the mother implies to Kay that the reason for their separation was his continued dotage upon Dawn.
I was struck throughout the film by Campion's visual style. For the first 20 minutes or so, I almost expected Sweetie to concern the slow suffocation of middle-class domestication à la American Beauty or its ilk. In reading this description of the plot after Sweetie's arrival, you might expect a searing family docudrama along the lines of, say, Secrets & Lies. But Campion has a decidedly off-kilter style, at least at this stage of her career. In some ways, her use of high, awkward angles, color saturation, and bizarre, depraved dream sequences invokes David Lynch, or at least a mainstream version of the modern David Lynch, who is quite mainstream itself. Thus, I wouldn't call her style surrealistic by a long shot, but at every moment Campion seems to be setting up the story as more a fable than a document of one twisted family. Strangely, the most interesting aspect in her script (co-written with Gerard Lee) is the gaps in narrative: what happened in that 13 months that turned lovesick "destined" lovers into a frigid pair who acted as though they'd been trapped in a loveless marriage for decades? What exactly is the deal with visual flourishes like that odd cowboy dance out where Flo moved for the month? Campion gives us only one flashback, which itself offers no information that cannot be gleaned from the rest of the film and, I suspect, exists only to provide us with an image of the young Dawn to be used at the end of the film. Visually, her most striking element is a number of extreme close-ups that isolate characters, even when they're in the middle of a dialogue.
That isolation adds a larger element to Sweetie's themes, which include a subtle commentary on how negligent or doting parents can affect a child's psyche into adulthood (one could also take from that a more feminist viewpoint of how these two fragile women were warped by the men in their lives). It suggests that these characters, or all of us, can't connect with each other: Kay's frigidity prevents physical connection with Louis, Sweetie's insanity prevents self-awareness which isolates her from others, and Gordon's delusion prevents meaningful connection with any of his family, despite desperately wanting to keep them all together.
Sweetie ends on a tragic note, but one that perhaps signals the potential for change. The death brings out Kay's humanity at last, which she could share with her boyfriend; we see a close-up of Louis' feet, soon joined by Kay's, and the gentle, cautious game of footsie suggests sexual reconciliation. Then the real coda follows, and it's truly one of the creepiest scenes in any film: Gordon has a vision of the young Dawn, singing off-key but adorably so. I'm not entirely sure what to make of this: has Gordon at last seen the real Dawn, the one who never grew up, only more grotesque? Is this what he always saw when he looked at his daughter, incapable of processing that his little angel grew up to be a demon? Is this a hallucination that provides comfort, or is it torture? I don't know, but frankly I can't decide which interpretation disturbs me more. I'm never complaining about my family again.