Jane Campion’s characters reek of suppressed passion. Endowed with a stubborn resolve, they are defined by their refusal to compromise. Filmmaker and artist Miranda July, who considers Campion an indelible influence on her own career, has chosen to highlight three of these short films – An Exercise in Discipline – Peel (1982), Passionless Moments (1983), and A Girl’s Own Story (1984) – on Thursday, July 14, at The IFC Center.
Though Campion’s films are, today, defined by their visual and aural sensuality – sweeping shots, careful period details, operatic Michael Nyman scores – these films eschew this sumptuousness. Her eye is quirky and idiosyncratic; she often zooms so close to her characters, sunburnt skin and all, that she wants to make us uncomfortable. These characters are familiar to us; they aren’t movie stars playing dress-up, but the people we know in our own lives.
Such a trope is present in An Exercise in Discipline – Peel (1982), which won the Palme d’Or for Best Short Film at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival. At first, the film seems to have a politely colorful, sunny visual style. On closer inspection, though, we realize that it’s rather bare. Muted oranges, yellows, and reds populate the screen, mirroring the frustration that boils just under the surface of this pleasant veneer. The title is ironic, for the characters are anything but disciplined. They grate on each other. Patience wears thin. The film begins when a short-tempered, angry young father, driving along a country road, chides his son for littering orange peels along the road. He insists that the young boy pick them up, while the boy’s aunt whines that she’ll miss her favorite television show.
Thus begins nine minutes of a rather introspective look into these three characters, all of whom refuse to acknowledge how clearly dysfunctional their family is. The short taps into how we can’t bear to stray from order. We, like these characters, often find ourselves agitated when others tamper with our routines. It’s our territory, and we don’t want anyone to infringe upon it. This is human miscommunication on the most basic level.
With Passionless Moments (1983), Campion extracts meaning from a fragmentary, fissured style. She searches for truth in ten episodes that record everyday routines – an overweight man doing yoga, a younger man mediating on the meaning of “Cheer Up Sleepy Jeans” while doing his laundry. Each of these vignettes is narrated by a deadpan narrator. His dour, sarcastic voice outlines the banality of each situation for us, allowing us to question the futility of these moments we spend alone.
The film is wryly funny. The narrator is biting and sardonic. Yet the film is, too, quietly philosophical. Each character wades through the tedium of everyday life, the kinds of motions we go though each day, and we’re supposed to wonder whether these have any meaning. The short is filmed in a bare, black-and-white style that further lends itself to this tone of psychological isolation.
The film that is perhaps most in tune, thematically, with the rest of Campion’s oeuvre is A Girl’s Own Story. Here, she turns her lens to three teenage girls in the age of Beatlemania. The young girls, discovering sex for the first time, embody the mix of naivete, intelligence, danger that characterizes this period in any adolescent’s life. These characters are a bit like Anna Paquin’s character in The Piano – stuck in an awkward and contradictory post-adolescent age, unsure about life and themselves.
The film chronicles the inevitable loss of feminine childhood. Campion touches upon incest, premarital sex, familial disconnect, and same-sex experimentation with this film. From a stylistic standpoint, this may be the quirkiest of the three shorts. Like Passionless Moments, it’s shot in black-and-white, underlining how bleak the corruption of innocence is for these girls. The girls are not inherently glamorous-looking; they all look confused, and Campion’s jarring close-ups and low tilt angles mirror this sense of confusion. The film ends with an 80s-era, pop-synth musical interlude that’s just as odd, dreamlike, and sad as many of Campion’s films tend to be.