Friday, May 21, 2010

Luxuriating in the Sensation of Water: Jane Campion's Bright Star (2009)

For the American film viewer predisposed toward seeking out works of substantial artistic achievement - including, I would imagine, the full roster of this site's domestic readership - one's sense of any given year essentially begins in the middle of May with the first reviews issuing from that year's Festival de Cannes. For the same viewer, so long as she or he is fortunate enough to live within a commutable distance of New York or Toronto, the first arrivals from the Côte d'Azur will typically follow that coming fall, through each city's eponymous film festival, with their commercial runs occurring (when the film has managed to secure North American distribution in the first place) at uneven intervals over the next year-and-half-plus. If a viewer accordingly misses even one of the more universally lauded titles of the previous year - such as 2008's The Headless Woman or 2009's Wild Grass - it might mean a wait of at least a year before the titles begin their limited engagements (The Headless Woman opened in August while the latter will debut stateside in late June), let alone reach home video and on-demand platforms.
With the 63rd installment of the Cannes Film Festival set to conclude this weekend, a number of the best films 2010, if history is to be any guide, have just received their first screenings: candidates seem to include Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy, Manoel de Oliveira's The Strange Case of Angelica, Cristi Puiu's Aurora, Xavier Beauvois's Of Gods and Men, perhaps Jean-Luc Godard's Film Socialism; readers should assume that I will review at least the first three, hopefully in October after NYFF premieres, and that I may be infuriated by the last. In the meantime, in cinema as art terms, it remains 2009 for most American viewers, with Alain Resnais's Wild Grass and Mia Hansen-Løve's Father of My Children, among others, still forthcoming, along with our first comprehensive sense of 2009's Asian popular cinema, late June's New York Asian Film Festival. (At this juncture, the previous twelve months seem very light on superlative works from the world's most populous, and for a number of years now, our most filmically forward-thinking continent; I can only hope that the NYAFF will prompt a revision of this assessment.)

With 2009, therefore, still very much on my mind cinematically, as I wait for the new film year, I have recently returned to one of the better films of Cannes 62 and the previous year, Jane Campion's Bright Star (2009), for which I did not find the time or perhaps have the inclination to write about last fall upon my first viewing - Bright Star bucked the aforementioned trend in that it received an autumn 2009 release, while not being included on the NYFF schedule. That I might not have had the inclination follows in no small measure from the exceedingly bizarre circumstances of my first (preview) viewing of the film: the packed house of Yale undergraduates with whom I watched Bright Star laughed uproariously and inappropriately, at what I cannot even to begin to imagine, throughout the picture. Suffice it to say that if you have seen Bright Star, you are as baffled by that as I was. At the very least, the fact that the Yale Film Society could not in some sense handle Jane Campion of all people does not make me overly optimistic that future US film-goers will demand more timely theatrical releases of the finest in future art house features.


Jane Campion's Bright Star, adapted by the director from Andrew Motion's biography Keats, opens on an extreme close-up of a needle being threaded, as the film's title credit is written across the screen in a thin cursive. Campion accordingly cuts to the needle puncturing a cotton surface, pulling tiny tendrils of fabric with it as it pushes upward, before looping back through the white material. The viewer then sees the stitching, and a moment later, the sewer, wearing a white cotton dress and hat as she sits before a blank wall, hunched over her garment (with a back-lit window opening onto a snowy, winter scene to the spectator's right). Campion's art therefore registers an extraordinary degree of harmony from the outset; in this and other moments, Bright Star is reminiscent both visually and conceptually of the work of James McNeill Whistler (see above, as well as the artist's 1871 "Arrangement in Grey and Black"). Indeed, Campion characteristically matches the dress of her human figures, and especially female lead Abbie Cornish, to the details of her film's art direction, whether it is to her drapes (see top image), or the meadow of blooming blue-bells that has provided the film with its most iconic image (see below). Consequently, the filmmaker, like her painter progenitor, reveals a belief in the value of art for its own sake, and of the innate importance of beauty. Bright Star indeed teams with visually redolent candle-lit interiors and pale, moody early winter landscapes that especially in the latter instance foretell of the film's inevitably tragic conclusion.

As the film's central romantic relationship, featuring Cornish's Fanny Brawne and Ben Whishaw's John Keats, develops, the former entreats her poet-neighbor (and beloved) to teach her to appreciate his craft. In their first lesson, after he confesses his doubts about their new pedagogical endeavor, Keats offers a metaphor that equally serves to describe both his art and also Campion's filmmaking practice in Bright Star: "The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore, but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out, it is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery." Bright Star indeed offers just such an experience, luxuriating in the early nineteenth century world that Campion, director of photography Greig Fraser, art director Christian Huband and costume designer Janet Patterson, among many others, have combined to render in such exacting detail. Bright Star is in this respect a very environmental work, a film that compels immersion in its often placid world.

Campion, however, introduces fissures into her enameled period surface. The most notable of these is Paul Schneider's exceptional, tonally modern performance as Keats confident and rival to Miss Brawne, Charles Brown. Schneider in particular brings a quick-witted snideness and disdain, almost exclusively targeted at Fanny, to Bright Star, which in turn reveals both his competitiveness vis-a-vis Keats' affections and also his not-entirely-latent desire for the young woman. Though his behavior often exhibits a high degree of performativity, registering for instance in his grimacing reactions to Fanny, the result is a naturalism that is not conventionally manifest in costume form. In this way, Schneider's work contributes mightily to the film's departures from the genre's characteristic staidness.

The director achieves a similar result by inviting contingency in her direction of child actress Edie Martin as Fanny's sister and Kerry Fox's daughter 'Toots' - the pumpkin-haired, very light-complexioned child performer in fact provides the latest instantiation of the visual type that Fox herself formerly embodied in Campion's masterpiece An Angel at My Table (1990); Cornish, on the other hand, recalls Campion's lead, Nicole Kidman, from her other career peak, The Portrait of a Lady (1996). Through the young girl's very natural performance and Campion's authentic characterization, the viewer sees this expressed in her quarrels with her sister for example, the early eighteenth century emerges in very familiar terms for the twenty-first century spectator. Martin's real effort in performing the tasks of her role, as when the viewer sees the actress struggling to the balance the rolls that she is charged with plating, additionally underscores the film's ontological present-tense, even as it further suggests the gestural recognizability of the past (we can both see the actress really working to complete the task, while also imagining the same difficulty besetting a young girl in the earlier period). Campion's credited feline actor "Topper" likewise underscores the film's present-day valence, as it repeated wrestles itself away from Toots and Fanny's tight embraces. Topper in this way instantiates a pure form of contingency - which similarly appears in the aforesaid performances - of being outside, escaping the film's historical diegetic world, while also making the said world more authentic and vivid. Thus, it is not in the least surprising that the above Keats' quotation recalls the foremost theorist of this sort, André Bazin, and his description of Jean Renoir's Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932).

The operation of contingency that these figures introduce accords further with Keats' description of poetry, which the viewer is invited to read as a signpost describing Campion's own strategies in Bright Star. In this regard, the writer-director self-identifies as a poet, selecting from the natural and man-made environments that her mise-en-scène brings into existence. Then again, the film's opening segment offers a second, competing artistic mode, which the cinema uniquely resolves: namely Fanny's art, that of the dressmaker, whose work, unlike Keats' and Brown's poetry, permits its creator to make a living. The particular analogy follows from the stitching and sewing, with the latter providing a metonymy for editing, and for the classical decoupage construction of narrative as the physical piecing together of component parts, its montage. With Bright Star, Campion offers a remarkably complete picture of her lyrical narrative cinema, split between the aesthetic crafts of her two leads.

With Fanny and Keats, Campion also reintroduces her signature reversal of the gendered subject-object split of conventional narrative cinema (cf. Laura Mulvey). Here again Campion invests Fanny with subjecthood, making her the focalized bearer of desire rather than its object, which, perversely to the extent that Bright Star is an artistic bio-pic, defines Whishaw's Keats, a cipher in Campion's hands. In this regard, but especially for the film's comprehensive dissection of its maker's artistic program, Bright Star ranks among Campion's definitive accomplishments. The director's latest also signals not only a major comeback for Campion, but the return of a very nineties form of art cinema - a poetical art for its own sake - amid the more socially-conscious art house works of the early 21st century. Campion gives us a "total art" with an emphasis on the latter.

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