On the strength of the three Jane Campion features I’ve seen – her first two, Sweetie and An Angel at My Table, and her latest, Bright Star – I find myself tempted to list the director among my favorite filmmakers. Her exploration of sexual politics, often as they relate to the patriarchal family system, has a richness of character so bereft of, well, most films, really, but certainly movies about sex. An Angel at My Table takes the extreme family dysfunction present in her debut and first masterpiece, Sweetie, and re-frames it around a biographical story of epic entropy, that is to say a quietly personal tale that feels like a saga due to its length and the extraordinary abilities of its auteur.
The subject of Campion’s film is Janet Frame, whom we meet as a round-faced girl with a striking orb of curly red hair and who eventually becomes New Zealand’s poet laureate. Janet, or “Jean” as she is mainly called in the first segment, is a shy young lady, so shy that she even runs away from the camera when it places her in close-up as her adult voiceover somewhat nervously introduces herself.
As with all shy people, of course, Jean wants nothing more than to fit in. In the first major scene, young Jean nicks coins from her father’s coat pocket and buys her classmates chewing gum in a quiet attempt to win some support; for once, a kid did bring enough for everyone. But that doesn’t satisfy the teacher, who forces Janet to come to the front of the class and stand before her classmates until she admits where she got the money to buy gum. The children, fickle bastards that they are, then whisper accusatory statements among themselves directed at their erstwhile hero, who can choke back tears only because she knows they would only incur greater ridicule and shame. I’m reminded of an old Jerry Seinfeld joke: according to an old poll, the majority of participants said that their primary phobia was public speaking, beating out death. “That means that at a funeral,” Seinfeld quipped, “more people would rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy.”
Jean’s home life offers scarcely more happiness. Her father, Curly, is a cantankerous sot, capable of extreme outbursts when he’s had one too many. Her brother, George, suffers from convulsions and seizures in a time when any form of mental illness was regarded as weakness. Over the course of her life, She enjoys close bonds with two of her sisters, Myrtle and Isabel, but she loses both at key points in her life to drowning.
Even before Myrtle and Isabel pass, Janet still needs to make a friend outside the family, which she finally finds in Poppy, another reserved young girl. In their spare time, they re-enact the abuses they suffer – derisive teachers and violent fathers – in the same fashion one might expect them to hold imaginary tea parties. They form a strong friendship, the sort of bond two quietly lonely people forge that is so often mistaken for romance because it is no less deep and is often so much more so. Naturally, forces conspire to keep the two apart, for so few experience such a bond that they fear and despise it out of confusion and jealousy.
(Incidentally, Melina Bernecker, the actress who plays Myrtle, strongly reminded me of Melanie Lynskey, the lead in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. Heavenly Creatures, despite also being based on a true story, now strikes me as something of a counterpoint to this first installment of Angel’s self-contained trilogy: in An Angel at My Table, the two friends are successfully separated by ignorant parents, while Heavenly Creatures plays out as something of a demented “What if?” re-telling of Jean and Poppy’s friendship.)
I suppose I should admit before I go any further a possible bias toward the film, but I felt a deep personal connection to Janet Frame. As she fumbles and stammers her way through her teenage years and into adulthood – by the way, the casting of Karen Ferguson as the child Janet, Alexia Keogh as the adolescent and Kerry Fox as the adult is so flawless you’d swear Campion had filmed this throughout a single actress’ life – I saw much of myself in this redhead. I suffer from paralyzing social anxiety and nervosa, and, like Frame, I find myself accosted at times by well-meaning people who tell me I should get out more and speak to people. As a serious proposition, such a suggestion is akin to saying that the best way to cure cancer is to not have it in the first place.
But if my shyness makes a connection with the film’s content easier, it also permits me to see more easily just how much it gets right. Kerry Fox walks through her scenes – quickly of course, in an attempt to get away not only from everyone but perhaps that damn camera that keeps watching her – with a recognizable look in her eyes that conveys both deer-in-the-headlights fear and a desperate attempt to suppress that fear for the sake of normalcy. Various people comment on Janet’s hair, both its red color (seriously, being a socially averse ginger is like being a person with bee allergies dousing himself in pollen every morning) and its gigantic, bulbous shape, none of them can understand that Janet would like nothing more than to wrangle the thing into a normal hairdo. As she enters puberty and young adulthood, Janet’s teeth begin to decay, adding yet another aspect of herself that the aspiring author/teacher wishes to hide from the world. The unseen arbitrators known collectively as “they” say that the best acting is the kind you don’t notice; Fox spends her time on-screen trying not to be seen, period. Campion visually highlights Janet’s reserved nature all over the place, most memorably when the young woman blows out a candle that the scene darkens in a light iris effect to contain Janet, even though she blew out a candle in the middle of the frame and not the edge.
Campion’s visual style is nothing less than exemplary. She has a peculiar talent for making her static shots seem vivacious and lithe and her mobile shots so delicate and interesting that you hardly notice the movement at all. Take the scenes in the mental asylum, where Janet eventually finds herself after suffering a nervous breakdown when an evaluator sits in on one of her classes to judge her: all the usual suspects of mental institution movie scenes are present – shrieking lady, quietly mumbling dude, shivering young thing who oscillates between piteous frailty and wiry danger – yet Campion uses them less for shock value than irony. Here is a character committed for her inability to speak to people, forced to live in mass quarters with strangers, strangers who bark and scream and cry from dawn to dusk to dawn once more. That irony is compounded by the fact that Janet is never more left alone (barring the traumatic electroshock therapy) than she is at the asylum; she tries to refuse using an open bathroom with so many people about, but a nurse coldly tells her that “nobody’s watching,” and indeed all the other patients standing behind the nurse lolling their heads never seem to make an eyeline match with Janet’s stall.
Campion’s cheek pervades the film. The dance in the asylum is at once darkly comic and a scene from the most unsettling horror movie never filmed. Before Myrtle drowns, the Frame family takes photographs of themselves on a day off. When they receive the developed prints, the girls notice that Myrtle was nearly blocked entirely from view; a few scenes later, we hear of her death, the symbol of modernity (she earlier took a job as a radio actor) and free-spirited living in Janet’s life rubbed out before it was completely erased. A shot of Janet headed to Europe on a literary grant following the release of her first full novel places her on the stern of a boat in front of what must be a composite background, yet the next shot looks straight down at the wake of the boat’s propellers as the camera slowly tilts up to the horizon, which now looks natural and beautiful. Perhaps the funniest part of the film involves the touching interlude wherein Janet first finds love with an American in Spain, leading her to take a break from writing to enjoy herself for once just as the visuals reach their most poetic tone. (The shots of her swimming nude recall scenes from Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt.)
As a writer, Campion cedes nothing to her visual style. Through Janet’s life Campion examines social and sexual mores and the ever-conflicting hypocrisies of the patriarchy. Patrick, an Irish tenant who lives in the ratty apartment building in London where Janet stays during her time in England, practically forces himself upon her, adopting the wooing tactic of simply acting as if he’d already married the lady he’s courting. Yet he asks Janet more than once is she’s “fancy-free,” i.e. a virgin, underscoring the double standard of sexuality that has always existed in so-called civilized societies. Men typically make most of the decisions in her life, from her father to the headmaster who sends her to private school to the psychology professor who recommends her institutionalization to the doctor who nearly lobotomizes her to the publisher who asks her to write him a best seller instead of these critical darlings. Janet acquiesces to these men not because of her adherence to gender roles but because she’s simply too skittish to dare raise her voice in protest (ironically, Janet is given a social independence denied to women of the day despite being more desperately concerned with keeping up social appearances and fitting in than the fussiest and vainest of upper-middle-class housewives). The greatest distillation of the film’s subtext comes in an early scene between the Frame girls and a young classmate they pass on the way home. In their conversation, the Frames mention that their mother belongs to a Christian sect that translates to mean “lovers of Christ.” The other girl, a Roman Catholic, mentions that nuns are called “brides of Christ.” Christianity is a religion founded in part on dogmatic principles promoting patriarchy and sexual repression, yet various sects refer to female followers in sexual terms relating to Jesus, whom we are told was chaste.
Campion’s pacing is what you would call “deliberate,” a phrase that has been by now lazily and ignorantly accepted to mean “slow” and “dull.” She lingers on shots that could end earlier and inserts some that might not have existed all, all to paint a more complete picture, visually and subtextually. She devotes the time to openly and honestly deal with a woman’s first period instead of sniggering and treating it as some sort of freakish occurrence as is the case in so many modern productions (then again, given the degree to which Hollywood starves its actresses, perhaps menstruation is something of a freak occurrence over there after all). These extra moments ensure that An Angel at My Table never loses its focus on Janet Frame and the details of her life as Campion uses it as a springboard for her own thematic preoccupations. As such, her portrait of a fascinating individual is long enough to prevent a vague idol worship of its subject yet short enough to leave certain parts of Frame’s young adult life to our own research for the sake of adding meaning under the narrative to justify what we do see. Personal connection be damned: anyone who cannot see this for a grand masterpiece on a small scale must be blind.