Ground Report | New Delhi: At 67, New Zealander Jane Campion has just become the third woman recognized by the Oscar for best director, for the feature Attack of the Dogs. In 84 years of awards, Campion is also the first woman in history to receive two nominations in the category — the first in 1994, for The Piano.
At the time, she was the first woman to receive the Palme d’Or for best film, the highest award at the Cannes Film Festival.
The Oscar achievement represents well the director’s foray into a more alternative and less commercial aspect of cinema: her works are outlined by strong visuals, complex characters and stories that are beyond the ordinary.
Despite being honoured at European festivals for most of his career, it was on the other side of the Atlantic that Campion made history in what, like it or not, is still the biggest award in world cinema — and with a typically American cowboy plot. from the West.
After 12 years without working on any feature film, Campion turned to adapt the novel The Power of the Dog (not published in Brazil), by American Thomas Savage, published in 1967. The narrative revolves around two farmer brothers.
Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) Burbank. When George marries widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and brings his wife and son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to live on the family’s ranch, brutish and provocative brother Phil makes psychological terrorism his personal mission with the new members.
Campion’s powerful direction captures the subtleties of the harsh, arid environment of the West, in what unfolds a story about family tensions, revenge, toxic masculinity and repressed desire.
Campion’s contemplative scenes exude an artistic tone — and it’s no accident. Her vocation comes from birth: her mother was an actress and writer and her father worked as an actor and theatre director. Together they founded New Zealand’s first professional theater company. Campion decided to follow another path and, before studying cinema, he graduated in anthropology and visual arts.
It was the limitation of paints and frames that led the New Zealander to seek a larger, more lively and dynamic canvas when in 1980 she launched her first audiovisual production, the short film Tissues. In 1986, she emerged victorious at the Cannes Film Festival, winning a Palme d’Or for a short film for Peel (1982).
After other works in the format and some productions for television, the then-newcomer made her debut in the feature films with Sweetie (1989) and Um Anjo na Minha Mesa (1990), until the biggest success with the award-winning The Piano, in 1983. not having won the Oscar for best director at the time, it was victorious in the category of the best original screenplay for history.
Among the works that followed, the highlights are Portrait of a Woman (1996), an adaptation of the homonymous work by Henry James, with Nicole Kidman in the lead role; and In Flesh Alive (2003), an erotic thriller based on the book by Susanna Moore, with Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo. Campion also devoted himself to television between 2013 and 2017, when he wrote and co-directed the series Top of the Lake., starring Elisabeth Moss. Even in his most commercial endeavours, Campion has never abandoned what shines in his eyes.
Her favourites are topics that are usually swept under the rug, such as eroticism, power relations, gender roles, intimacy, and oppression; narratives that investigate complex, ambiguous, or disturbing personalities and behaviours. It’s clear why, then, she saw potential in Phil Burbank, in his first film with male leads.
To reach the level of complexity of his themes, Campion spares no effort to compose powerful performances. The director is known for demanding rigorous training from her actors, as she accompanies them on the journey — and wants to truly understand each of the characters.
In Attack of the dogs, for example, Kirsten Dunst worked on scenes that weren’t in the script to better understand Rose’s inner life. But it was Benedict Cumberbatch who really delved into the old Wild West: the Brit stayed in character throughout and, before filming began, spent time on a Montana ranch with a real cowboy, where he learned skills used on stage. The director herself also had her dose of preparation and consulted with a dream analyst to be able to connect deeply with Phil.
Campion’s ability to maintain narrative delicacy even in environments surrounded by the crass reflects a past with its own ghosts. To The New York Times, the director revealed that she only noticed a personal connection with the Attack of the Dogs material. a while later, when she remembered a nanny who for years had terrified her and her siblings in childhood—the woman had once whipped Jane, leaving marks on her back.
Despite attempts to tell parents about the abuse, the children were discredited for years. “It made me think: This is why I understand Phil’s terror. I always knew where she was in the house,” she told the publication.
Homelife for young Jane, on the whole, was never easy. Her father was involved in affairs with other women and her mother had depression, even attempting suicide a few times.
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