Jane Campion’s feature debut, Sweetie, seems at first glance a self-contained masterpiece, a demonstration of the director’s mastery of form from the outset. But a clear aesthetic and structural line can be drawn to the film from her student short, the Short Film Palme D’Or-winning An Exercise in Discipline: Peel. That nine-minute film displayed tangled filial bonds despite its tiny three-person cast, expressive and melodramatic color and a self-assurance in technique that gave each framing a suggestive meaning even when Campion left the whole thing ambiguous to force the viewer to reckon with its implications.
Sweetie takes all these facets and expands upon them: its depiction of extreme family dysfunction is so warped it never seems to tilt off its axis so much as never have one in the first place. The first shots distort the body proportions of Kay (Karen Colston), isolating her lower half from her torso and exaggerating her gangly features. Campion frames these bits of her along the intersection points of the rule of thirds, but in so doing she leaves gulfs of empty space around the character, communicating her isolation before we even hear this mousy, introverted woman speak. Campion frames much of the film in a similar fashion: characters shoved into a corner before flat backgrounds, usually filmed at an angle to give the whole thing a subtly bent feel.
Even the opening credits show the bending nature of the film’s composition and character. Character names jut out of actor credits in curves like branches; perhaps Campion is constructing a minimalist family tree, which in turn provides another link to Peel and its modernistic graphic of filial relationship between the trio of characters presented.
At first, though, the film concerns only Kay, who relieves her boredom and loneliness by getting her fortune told. A woman reads Kay’s tea leaves and says she will meet a man soon, noting a question mark arranged on the man’s face. Kay heads into work to find a colleague celebrating her engagement, and when she walks up to the co-worker’s fiancée, Louis, she notices that a curl of his hair drapes over a mole on his head, forming a question mark. Soon, she makes the tea leaves omen a self-fulfilling prophecy by insisting to Lou that they’re meant to be together, stealing him the same day he announces his love for Cheryl.
Then, Campion elides their tempestuous start to the chilled aftermath of their relationship. Kay, now frigid, cannot stand to be touched, and she announces that she and Lou have entered a “non-sex phase.” Lou never vocally echoes this statement. As a romantic gesture, he plants a tree seedling in their yard, hoping to see it symbolically grow into a strong and tall tree, reflecting the strength of their bond (and also deepening the vague arboreal metaphor of the titles). But Kay worries that the sickly looking tree will die, and just as she made her foretold desires for a mystery man a self-fulfilling prophecy, so too does she prove herself right when she tears up the seedling in the night and hides it under the same bed she no longer uses for sex.
Tree imagery proves a recurring motif of the film, used predominantly in frightening and angular ways that make almost expressionist caricatures of completely normal foliage. Kay is haunted by nightmares not only of the tree’s symbolic power but of being found out by her boyfriend. Trees seem to further entangle the complex and knotted system of doubts and fears in all the characters, and by the end of the film you might fear their sight as much as Kay. Campion loads her film with other symbolic objects, from porcelain ponies Kay has collected since childhood to the precise blocking of the characters, whether isolated in the frame or arranged with others along varying focal planes that constantly shift, showing the small, mad family vying amongst each other at all times.
But the composition of these shots exits for its own sake, or at least it’s striking enough to warrant such consideration. I honestly cannot think of a single shot in all of Sweetie that does not display immaculate form and daring mise-en-scène. Juxtaposed color palettes, canted angles, overhead and low angle shots constantly shifting power dynamics and mood; these are but a few examples of the tricks Campion employs to craft her demented world. Most noticeable is her love of diagonals, which she can make even out of vertical lines (such as people standing) once she finishes setting up the camera in some unorthodox position.
Had the film stayed entirely with Kay, one might interpret the ever-skewed visuals as a representation of chaotic forces swirling around its withdrawn female protagonist, but Campion breaks up her film about 30 minutes in to introduce the titular character, Kay’s sister Dawn, a.k.a. Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon).
I previously stated that the film never had much of a stable axis, but Sweetie sends the film careening into the Sun. If Kay’s hardened exterior and cynical logic makes her the superego of the film, Dawn arrives as the uninhibited id, a childish glutton whose wide eyes suggest she’s always asking the world for a present for being good. She breaks into Kay’s house with her junkie and “producer” boyfriend Bob while Kay and Lou are away, immediately causing a fuss when the sister returns. Kay wants her gone, but Lou tries to be nice and allows her to stay, implicitly (and, later, explicitly) excited by the sexual dynamo that just entered his joyless life.
Sweetie’s arrival precipitates the collection of the rest of the nuclear family when Kay’s father, Gordon, comes first because his wife is leaving and stays to look after his beloved Dawn. Later, the mother enters the film, and we sense from her tone of voice that she decided to leave Gordon because there was another woman in his life, that woman being Sweetie.
From that moment, the meticulous, disorienting staging seems less an avant-garde feminist statement in the Chantal Akerman tradition than a visualization of the insecurities, perspectives and peeves that create small rifts that eventually grow into jagged fault lines shuddering out mass destruction over every slight shift. Everyone falls prey to the overwhelming chaos surrounding the characters. In that chaos, it’s easy to miss the hypocrisy of Kay, who loathes her sister’s indulged bacchanalia but displays both her own stunted childishness (not stepping on cracks, getting her fortune told, collecting those porcelain horses) and her capacity for sexual misconduct (making out with the freshly engaged Lou underneath a car while his soon-to-be-ex-fiancée walks around the parking garage near them. Sweetie may be extreme, but Kay is not as above her sister as she thinks.
However, all soon topple in Sweetie’s presence. Gordon, still infatuated with his daughter’s insipid talent, continues to support her even when she displays such petulance that he cannot approach her. In no time, one can see why his wife finally had enough with Gordon’s capitulation toward Sweetie; Gordon makes excuses for her long after he should cut her off entirely. He, Kay and Lou cannot even seem to get her out of the house, cowed by her irrepressible churlishness. Hell, Sweetie’s so controlling she even takes the film’s title for herself.
She generates a number of darkly comic scenes, grinding up Kay’s precious horses until she slices up her mouth in revenge for a fleeting bit of defiance against her rule or biting like a dog. At last, the family has to trick her into staying in the house while they all flee to a remote hostel and enjoy the first glimmer of happiness to pass through the film’s frame since Kay and Lou made love on a hard concrete garage floor. It’s like they go into Witness Protection to get away from Dawn.
Certain isolated moments deepen the gallows humor of the film. Flashbacks show how the characters all live in the past, but they also reveal how shallow the formative issues in each of them really are. When Sweetie proudly shows off the “chair trick” she did as a child for Lou (with Gordon’s effusive enthusiasm), we see firsthand the absurdity of Kay’s jealousy of such an untalented fool and the dark implications of Gordon’s blind love of his daughter’s “skill.” Later, we see Sweetie washing her father, even reaching down to soap his privates. When Kay and Lou cool on sex at the beginning, Lou explains away their issues with a subtly sexist bit of morose joshing: “Some animals won’t mate in captivity.” There’s also something to be said about gender roles in that Gordon’s wife throws him out but packs him a week’s worth of prepared dinners on the way out. I always laugh while watching this film, and I always feel awful for doing so afterward.
The grisly climax of the film serves as both punchline and symbolic collapse, loading all the issues and dysfunction into a crazed Sweetie and dispatching her in a terrible catharsis that can liberate but consume the others. Freed from the stress, Kay resumes sexual contact with Lou, burying the hatchet with macabre literalism. (I don’t know that there’s ever been a funeral scene as funny as the one here, and there are films built around awkward funerals. It shows internment with such matter-of-fact realism that the bulldozer dispassionately pushing soil back over the hole in one graceless moment is its own punchline.)
But even in death, Sweetie can still steal the spotlight, and instead of a triumphant reconciliation of Kay and Lou, the film abruptly cuts to a coda of Gordon back home as he experiences a vision of his daughter as he always saw her, the precocious, attention-demanding girl whose desire to be the star always eclipsed her abilities—even in his idealized view of her, she sings annoyingly off-key. By cutting from the cusp of explicit sexual reunion to this horrible, implied fulfillment of emotional desire, Campion throws one last curveball in her stylistic journey through matter-altering dysfunction and perception, and while all the comedy in the film has been dark, it is only here that the laughs finally seem to die in the throat.