I never realized just how important Jane Campion has been to my own life until yesterday. Netflix was having a brunch to celebrate here in Telluride. Mark Johnson and I wanted to attend even though parties aren’t really my thing. But this was no ordinary party. This was a party for Jane Campion and her latest film, the Power of the Dog. I had already been awake much of the night thinking about it. I could not get the face of Benedict Cumberbatch out of my head. Or any of the performances. It is a dazzling, uncompromising work by one of the greatest directors of all time. So of course, I would suck it up and go.
Publicists were kind enough to introduce us to Kirsten Dunst, who plays Rose, a woman who never quite got it right when it came to men and is now stuck in a marriage with a man who is never there alongside the sadistic Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch). Dunst was politely talking to the round robin of Oscar bloggers and critics, as one does. We next moved on, quickly, to Benedict Cumberbatch who was equally generous with his time and discussed some of his character’s motivations.
And then, of course, they said “you have to meet Jane.” And of course, I COULD meet Jane. I could do that, right? All you have to do is put out your hand and shake and say “Hello, I loved your movie and your whole career and by the way you have had an enormous influence on my life.” That’s all I had to do. Shake, speak, leave. Jane stood up, I was introduced to her and the experience suddenly brought me to tears and I could say nothing to her. I was just in tears, you know like those people who waited all night to meet Princess Diana and then could do nothing but blubber in her presence? That was me.
I had about two minutes to compose myself and try to say “Nice to meet you,” etc. She said, “That’s okay, we love crying women.” And then she gave me a hug. When I tried to explain why this happened to me to Tomris Laffly at another party later the same thing happened. And once again I could not speak without crying. What is WRONG with me?
Now, of course, as I type this I’m crying again. What I wanted to say to her, and to explain to Tomris, is that when I was growing up in the 1980s and coming of age as a woman who dreamed of bigger things there was only Jane Campion as an example of a female director who was as good as her male counterparts. She was better than most of them, in fact. She was so good she was living proof that women could be just as visionary behind the camera, just as brutal, vulgar and dark, just as fearless, just as original. She could have her own thumbprint with her work where you immediately knew you were inside the world of Jane Campion.
Now, things have changed obviously. Women have been elevated, mentored, encouraged and are directing and releasing movies all of the time but back then this just didn’t happen. And the way Jane Campion was treated by Hollywood is something I have never forgotten. It isn’t that she stopped doing great work, it’s that time had not yet caught up to her – there wasn’t a place for her back then. Not in the post-80s box office driven cinema. And you know what Jane Campion never did? She never sold herself out. She never SOLD OUT. If taking it to the “next level” meant signing onto crap projects, she was never on board.
She was, to me, someone people should have thrown money at to make movies, to be given the same kind of respect other auteurs of her caliber have received. So to see her come back with The Power of the Dog, her best film (and she’s only made eight) and to do it, as she joked, at 67 is the kind of miraculous thing that brought me to stupid, soggy, girly tears.
The Power of the Dog is the film every director at the Telluride Film Festival was in awe over. You could just hear them buzzing about it. Why, because they KNOW. They know what an uncompromising vision looks like. Will it disturb people? Yes. Is it sometimes uncomfortable to watch? Absolutely. Does it pull back at all? No. Is it a joyful time at the cinema? No. But my god, it is brilliant. This is not a film that is going to give you any easy answers. In fact, Campion has adapted the novel to remove those easy answers to leave you with your own thoughts and where they might take you. This is the genius of Campion, and all of the best directors who are interested in giving you something you have to think about later. And then think about again. And then think about some more.
This is a film about unconventional human connections. Gay men who suffer when they must marry women, women who suffer when they marry gay men. Men who find each other somehow and then suffer because they can’t be who they are without being mocked and teased at best, brutalized at worst. It is about a son who loves his mother because she is the only person who understands him.
The film is based on the 1967 novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, and adapted by Campion, and is about the contrasts between what it took to survive in 1920s Montana and what it means to be human. Most will say it’s about “toxic masculinity” because that’s an easy way in. But really, it is more expansive than that. Masculinity wasn’t a choice. It was an adaptive trait. How else would humans have been able to dominate all other living things? How else would they be able to conquer civilizations, build empires and become trillionaires? Whatever judgment you put on them you must then reconcile with a world absent that force.
Campion’s films often have monsters as men in them, like the character Sam Neill plays in The Piano. Here that character is the sublime Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank. He can’t live with who he is but he can’t be anything else so he must overcompensate by being a bully. He showcases his cruelty not just for his own entertainment but to advertise that he’s not a “sissy.” When he encounters Rose’s son, Peter (an excellent Kodi Smit-McPhee) he sees everything he’s spent his life trying to hide.
Peter is somehow a mirror image of Phil, and Phil an outward manifestation of something Peter lives with but rarely shows outwardly. This isn’t just about the two men being gay – this is about something darker. But to talk about it any further would be to give too much away.
The two best films of the Telluride film festival could not be more different. Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast and Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog sit on opposite ends of the human spectrum. Both do, however, deal with our internal conflicts as a species between cruelty and kindness, between love and hate. What both of them have in common, however, and why they stand out is that their directors knew exactly what they wanted to say and how to say it.
Both films exist on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Belfast is taking you to a place of sweetness and light, remembrances of things past. The Power of the Dog is taking you somewhere unknown, but there is darkness in it, unpredictability in every frame. Both films end on a bittersweet note – what happens had to happen and one must live with the consequences.
In Campion’s film, every detail is considered, even when it isn’t explained. The language of the novel is pared down but still manages to put pictures in our minds. Campion’s film is similar in that she has stripped it clean of flabby dialogue and exposition. The sense of place is so strong – biscuits coming out of the oven, the smell of horse sweat. The silence of the landscape. And as usual, she has infused the film with eroticism.
To know Jane Campion’s work is to know that whatever you’re about to see you are going to be surprised, sometimes perplexed, often grossed out, sometimes disturbed and all the while you’ll be hit with some of the most visually stirring filmmaking you’ve ever seen. When I was a young woman I used think only men could make the best films. David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock. It wasn’t until I saw Jane Campion’s films that I realized women could be that good too.
Of course, people today would find that a sexist observation to make but it’s an honest one. We force the narrative that the only thing that has kept women from being the best directors is a sexist industry. It might be cultural, the idea that women are discouraged from expressing themselves in ways that might be deemed “unattractive.” It might be that men are better visually because they evolved as hunters and women didn’t. But whatever it was, the simple fact was that men were better to my mind. Until Jane Campion came along.
Now we’ve had two women in 93 years of Oscar history win Best Director. Both won because they are visual storytellers. It is a different industry than it was in the 1990s. All of these decades later, Hollywood is finally ready for Jane Campion.