Making full use of the doors that the 1986 Cannes Film Festival had opened for her, Jane Campion produced her first theatrical feature in 1989, and managed at the same time to create her first full-fledged, no-doubt-about-it, stone-cold masterpiece. Titled Sweetie, it's a confounding, undefinable, frequently unpleasant and wholly brilliant look at a woman whose life experiences have left her an emotional void, unable to maintain any sort of true connection to people, though it's clear that there's little she craves more than such a relationship. And too, it is the story of her and her sister, and the deep vein of family anguish that has left the two of them incapable of communication or understanding. That the film is dedicated to Campion's sister tells us little, perhaps, except that the director (co-writing with Gerard Lee, her collaborator on "Passionless Moments") is mining very personal material in this project, which comes as no surprise given the film's great emotional intensity.
Kay (Karen Colston, in the first performance of a very small career) is a gangly woman indeterminately in her twenties, receiving a tea leaf reading from a fortune teller. The reading is full of the expected bullshit, but Kay is eating it up, especially the detail that her future lover is to be identified by a question mark on his face. Nor does it take very long for this prophecy to bear fruit: that very day, Kay's co-worker has just gotten engaged to Louis (Tom Lycos), and wouldn't you know but an errant curl of hair meets just so with a mole on his forehead to make a passable "?" shape. Common decency isn't going to keep Kay from her destiny; in no time at all she has Louis on the ground in the parking garage, having sex literally right at the feet of his soon-to-be pissed-off fiancée.
Thirteen months later, we find that Kay and Louis are living together in a shabby little house in a poorish neighborhood, but they're not suffering for it. Indeed, life is happy enough for Louis to celebrate their anniversary by planting a tree right in the middle of a concrete slab, where their clothesline used to be; the tree, he says, represents their love and life together. Kay is none too pleased by this, for reasons that she doesn't make clear, but then again, it doesn't seem that Kay is too pleased by anything these days. When she comes down with a cold, sending her into the guest bedroom so as not to infect Louis, there's a pretty unambiguous sense that she's relieved - joyed, even - to have a plausible excuse to avoid physical intimacy. Even after the cold clears up, she stays to herself. And around the same time, she rips the Tree of Domestic Contentment up by the roots, hiding it under the guest bed.
Nothing about this situation needs a lit match, but one comes along anyway, about a third of the way through the movie: Kay's estranged sister Dawn (Geneviève Lemon), known generally as Sweetie, and her spacey boyfriend/agent/something like that, Bob (Michael Lake). It takes very little time around Sweetie to figure out that she's not well in the head; she's no more emotionally mature than a child, but vigorously sexual, and prone to snappish, violent outbursts. Kay makes no effort to hide her disdain, if not outright hatred, for her sister; Sweetie doesn't seem to have the capacity for hatred, barely even viewing Kay as a person, but as an individual who may or may not be able to help in her quixotic quest to become a singer.
This is still not enough melodrama, apparently, for as this is all happening, the women's mother, Flo (Dorothy Barry), announces that she's leaving her husband, Gordon (Jon Darling). So in he moves with his daughters, and the first explanation for Kay's rancor towards Sweetie - indeed, her generally skewed ability to function in life at all - comes forth: Gordon is hopelessly eager to give in to all of Sweetie's whims, enabling her monstrous baby-like selfishness. To say nothing of the implication that there might be an incestuous twist to their relationship, which we get to see as Sweetie helps him take a bath, as Kay briefly observes; the response of all three suggests that this is not a surprising or unprecedented incident.
Sweetie is in most ways a development of just about every concern that had appeared in one or another Campion's earlier films (I do not say "culmination", though it feels that way; she had plenty left to say in subsequent projects). The one that I want to settle on for the moment is the one that seems to me to be present in every single thing she had directed to this point, which is the way that information available to the characters is withheld from the audience, and how individual characters are thus developed and described by what we don't learn about them. This is arguably the singular driving force behind "An Exercise in Discipline: Peel", which I'd point to as her most successful film prior to Sweetie, but it appears in one way or another in every single one of the films we've looked at in this retrospective. In this particular effort, the theme of withheld information makes itself felt primarily in the person of Kay, who despite being second-billed and not enjoying the prominence of featuring in the movie's title, is unmistakably the protagonist; yet while we can piece together pretty much everything that makes Sweetie Sweetie, we generally don't know what happened to Kay, and we certainly aren't encouraged to find her a tremendously sympathetic figure.
Consider: the plot begins with her breaking up what seems to be a happy engagement because of something a fortune teller told her. That's a shocking, selfish act, but at least it's not just a fling; they obviously have a long period of happiness before the events later in the movie. Yet, is it really that obvious? The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the key incident in the whole narrative of Sweetie is that thirteen month jump. We go from seeing Kay and Louis's first moments of infatuation, all the way to Kay being terrified by Louis's gesture of fidelity and romance, coupled with her apparently unmotivated (certainly, it's unexplained) sexual frigidity - which, by all appearances, is a brand new development in their relationship at the moment we see it. There must be something in that missing year that was happy and fulfilling and healthy, because Louis seems to be a generally well-adjusted fellow who wouldn't have the patience for the Kay we get to see for all that time. But we never see them happy together, and we never hear what they did in all those months. From our perspective, Kay goes from stealing another woman's man all the way to finding him sexually repugnant, all in the span of a few on-screen minutes.
Kay is a riddle, an unknowable object, although we spend a great deal of time watching her. All we know is this: she is profoundly uncomfortable in this world. The film's cinematography, magnificently executed by Sally Bongers (in her third and final collaboration with Campion), stresses this fact from practically the first shot: an arm stretching towards the camera, with an extremely shallow focal plane that makes said arm look twice as long as the body it's attached to. It would be tiresome and even pointless to catalogue every other shot that uses depth of field in a similar way, to say nothing of the shots which just make the world look "off"; for a modest domestic story, Sweetie boasts some truly bizarre imagery.
Not that it's all in-camera: there is the matter of Sweetie herself, played by Lemon with massive physicality, at times appalling and fleshy, at times robust and alive. She is more cartoon than human, reflecting the way Kay sees her as much or more than she really is; and just as two visual objects, the women could not possibly be more different. Kay is plain, reedy, fragile; Sweetie is caked in make-up, rotund, her presence commands the room. For Kay, this makes her a monster. Yet though we are at all times yoked to Kay's point-of-view (except in those few, jarring scenes where she's not present), we aren't required or even encouraged to share this opinion. Sweetie is a dangerous force, but more to herself than to anyone else, and ultimately the only way we can respond to her is with pity. We can pity Kay, as well; feel sorry for her at times; but we do not necessarily agree with her or like her, ever.
Eventually, Kay finds her closure; this is a selfish moment and tragic, but even though we have never really been able to fully accept or understand her, Campion is not interested in passing judgment. Kay resolves her problems and perhaps may now become a human being, and bless her if she can. This leaves the final scene to her father, the only person left who has any real affection for Sweetie, twisted and bent as it may be. We know the inside of his mind even less than we know Kay's, and the final shot of the film is as terrifying as it is comforting (God only knows which of those two Gordon finds it to be) - a moment that clarifies what the film has long suggested is its central message, that the essential fact between any two people is that they cannot know or understand each other. Gordon has, at the last, failed to know who his beloved Sweetie is or was; Kay has only just figured out who she is, and we don't get to share - if she gets to share with Louis, well, there's no real reason to believe one way or the other.
Isolation. That is the key motivating force in Sweetie: its visual composition seeks to isolate characters and even parts of characters' bodies, while its narrative, is solely devoted to elucidating the ways that people can't communicate with each other. And yet, at the last, Campion is forgiving of this, and she asks us to be forgiving too. We do not hate anyone in Sweetie; all of them are just trying to survive an unsurvivable world in whatever way they can. This is essentially true of all of us, and while Campion does not insist on her film as a universal guide, her overriding humanism makes it just such a thing, anyway: a message that we're all messy and lost within ourselves, that we can't save each other, but the least we can do is to forgive other's idiosyncracies. A lesson that the characters in Sweetie might have learned sooner, and escaped much suffering.