Jane Campion is one of the few modern directors whose films make us curious about the mind behind them. So why is she giving so little away?
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The Independent Culture
There is an Abbott and Costello film in which the impecunious funsters take on jobs as salesmen for the Susquehanna Hat Company. Right from the start, things go badly. Prospective clients turn out to have the most unexpected hat-precluding disabilities (no head, etc). A series of failed pitches reduces the duo to nervous wrecks. Finally they approach a well-dressed lady with no obvious signs of mental instability, and make one last attempt. As soon as they pronounce the name of the company, however, her face turns white and she screams: "Buy a Susquehanna hat? But my husband was killed wearing a Susquehanna hat! A piano fell on his head!"

Interviewing Jane Campion is a bit like this. It's nothing to do with the piano (though it might well be). It's the unpredictability of her responses, the way the most innocuous of questions can send her into emotional orbit.

We were in Venice, on the Lido, where Campion's new film Portrait of a Lady had its first public outing. Just across the water, on the Riva degli Schiavoni, stands the house where Henry James worked on the novel in the summer of 1880. The interview was not exactly going badly, but it kept grinding to a halt: hesistant questions followed by silence - or thought-stopping answers. Finally, in the hope of lightening the atmosphere, I threw in a question about Venice itself; hadn't Campion once spent a few months here, in her student days? Venice, it turned out, was Jane Campion's Susquehanna Hat Company. "Oh, it was terrible!" she burst out. "It was like the worst experience of my life! It was almost like I had a breakdown... It was the winter in Venice, I didn't know anybody, and the people I was staying with, one of the guys got arrested for cocaine dealing!"

THERE WERE six of us interrogating her: an Austrian, a Swede, a Spaniard, two Japanese, and me. Like the cast of a joke, the kind told by bored UN officials. On the other side of the hotel coffee table was Jane who didn't fit into the joke at all. Any child would have told you that she was the Odd One Out.

Part of this is to do with her pose, like somebody sitting reluctantly for a portrait: a long black dress at odds with the cropped blonde hair, hands clasped on the lap, a faintly frozen smile. It's one of those smiles that could go either way: into a raucous laugh or into sudden tears. I'd been tipped off about the laugh: an old friend of the director from New Zealand suggested it was the key to an understanding of her films. She used to laugh her way out of things which others felt trapped by, he said - chief of which was New Zealand itself. But then, seeing her in Sydney a few years later, when her film-school shorts had already been feted at Cannes, he realised that her sensitivity, intellect and wisdom were quietly growing behind "this screen of jollity".

Jollity, though, isn't quite the word, or isn't any longer; hysteria comes closer. So much nervous energy emanates from Campion that she could light up a small town. At the same time, she is friendly, unpretentious, and keen to prick any bubbles of pretension in others. It's a tricky character to get across, and trickier still to deal with: having been lulled into a false sense of confidence, you find yourself desperately seeking her approval - asking about her interpretation of James's heroine, "This is a much darker Isabel than the one we see in the book, isn't it?" - and feeling rejected when she shifts back in her seat and replies, "Well, I'll just leave you with that opinion, you know..."

IT'S NOT quite fair to judge a director on the stress of a back-to-back promotional slog, eight hours spent fielding the same 20 or so questions. But it's not quite fair to leave her alone, either, as Campion's films seem to go out of their way to be judged - to provoke us into judging them.

The latest is no exception. Campion's Portrait of a Lady (released in Britain on 28 Feb) is one of the most savagely personal readings of a literary classic since Orson Welles's Othello. The book deals with the descent of a bright and feisty American girl into a hell which is at least partly of her own making. Against the advice of her friends, Isabel Archer asserts her independence by marrying a superficially charming and erudite American-in-Florence who turns out to be a scheming, unfeeling sadist. ("He's a psychopath, actually," says Campion.)

In order to set off Isabel's post-nuptial Calvary, James spends the first third of the novel dwelling, with a good deal of humour, on her wilfully unconventional New England spirit, which leads her to reject an English nobleman's proposal of marriage. Campion leaves out the whole of this first part: she finds it "very twee at times... and not at all the best part of the novel". What interests her is "Isabel's journey into the underworld, in which she almost dies, but then starts to see and makes her way back into the light". The way that social conventions can screen and even generate monsters; the way that genius and passion can be turned in on themselves to the point of madness - Campion's films are all variations on these themes.

Such single-mindedness has two spin-offs. First, it means that her films give rise to some great arguments. Dinner parties have turned ugly over Campion. For some they are great works of art, for others Barbara Cartland dressed as Francis Bacon: gushing romance filtered through wacky camera angles.

Writing in Sight and Sound, the critic Lizzie Francke promotes the director as a kind of feminist Heineken: "Her work has been so deliriously uncensored that she taps into the most perverse parts of the female psyche, unafraid to deal with women who are the undoing of themselves." In the opposite corner stands American screenwriting guru Robert McKee, who rates The Piano as one of the most irritating films he has ever seen, on the grounds that its symbolism so often operates at the expense of credibility. I can still picture him, in one of his seminars, taking the film apart in a fury: "Why didn't they move the piano up the beach a bit, away from the tide? And at the end, when she's tapping the keys with that metal finger - couldn't they have found a piece of felt to stick on the end, for chrissakes?"

The second consequence of Campion's obsessive harping on the same themes is this: she is one of very few modern directors whose films make us curious about the mind behind them.

HER FIRST short film, Tissues, deals with a father who is facing a charge of child molestation. Her second, Peel, has a father and son squabbling about a piece of orange peel which the latter has thrown out of the car window. Her first full-length film, Sweetie, presents an apparently normal suburban family which has produced two daughters who are both equally monstrous in their own way: one fat, oversexed and prey to frightening tantrums, the other thin, cold and riddled with phobias. All provoke the curious into wanting to know more about Campion's childhood.

And yet, reading the scattered magazine profiles and interviews that make up the biographical record, it is as if there has been a campaign to block or confuse access: one account has "According to some sources, after graduating from high school, Campion moved to Australia..." And one film encyclopaedia even lists the director's date of birth as "circa 1954", as if she were some fifth-century saint. (I would have asked her myself, but the topic seemed like another Susquehanna hat.)

The biographies agree on the fact that Campion was born in Wellington, New Zealand, to parents who worked in the theatre. Her mother was an actress, her father an only briefly successful theatre director - but financial success was optional, as Mrs Campion had inherited a substantial fortune in her youth. There were three children: a younger brother and an older sister, Anna, to whom Sweetie is rather disturbingly dedicated. A strict nanny, creative but often absent parents, and a sister who discovered sex while Jane was still living in a fantasy world dominated by the Brontes - any psychoanalyst could wing it from there.

Campion's heroines are riven by a passion they can scarcely contain. It strikes them dumb (The Piano), gets them institutionalised (An Angel at My Table), makes their Hollywood skin look raw and unhealthy (Nicole Kidman in Portrait of a Lady). T S Eliot once famously objected to the scene in which Hamlet berates his mother for her hasty remarriage, on the grounds that his fury exceeds any reasonable cause; Campion predicates her whole career on this excess, reclaiming hysteria and relaunching it as a strength.

The temptation to look for signs of passion precariously repressed in the director herself is too strong not to give way to, especially as she gives you more than enough rope: a sort of nervous blink, a Lady Macbeth routine with her hands, and above all, her schizophrenic way with words. When she gets on to an enthusiasm, she talks in a stream-of-consciousness rush: "I was always trying to understand Isabel in a completely like-someone- I-might-meet-today way and I'd always thought about her as a student who would be wearing black, you know, and big flat shoes and who wouldn't want to dress in a very feminine frilly way that would be saying, you know, like, `I'm serious, talk to me about philosophy,' you know?"

At other times, though, words fail her utterly, as they fail her women. Asked whether she thought this was a faithful adaptation - or perhaps "faithful" wasn't a word she liked? - she replied: "I don't, I don't think - you know, I mean it wasn't... you know, I... I don't mind the word itself but..." And then she saw her way to an answer, and it all flooded out: "I mean if I was being interpreted I'd rather someone did it with vigour and brought themselves to it honestly because I don't think you can stand outside it."

Words, or the inability to find the right ones to explain away a botched suicide attempt, were enough to send the New Zealand writer Janet Frame to a psychiatric home with a diagnosis of schizophrenia; the author's life, recounted in her autobiography, became the subject of An Angel at My Table, Campion's calmest, most searchingly sympathetic film to date. And as for Isabel Archer - well, you can hardly give a Jamesian heroine a speech defect, but Campion turns her into an inarticulate, emotionally battered woman, who ends up speaking through tear-filled eyes.

THE WAY in which Campion exposes her personality in and through her films has a curious side-effect: it makes critics behave as if they were in the confessional. Hard-bitten reviewers come over all philosophical, while the director's films are often presented via their effect on the audience, rather than as self-contained works. Sweetie was booed at Cannes in 1989, sending Campion (so the authorised version has it) into floods of tears. But - lo! - in Venice the following year it was the critics who were crying as the credits rolled at the end of An Angel at My Table.

Campion is careful not to encourage this kind of audience-response criticism. When it is pointed out that the new film, with its sombre tones and atmosphere of barely repressed violence, is likely to come as a body-blow to the Merchant-Ivory brigade who might be drawn to it, she says: "Well good! You know, some people aren't going to like it... I'm not trying to say, `Look, here's the film, everyone love it, agree with me.' How many people like a novel, 10 in 100? We're not dealing with the most popular thing in the world here."

By no means - and it says something about Campion that she managed to persuade Hollywood to pay for it. She continues to talk about Portrait as if it were a film-school short: the opening scene, which shows modern Australian girls discussing love, is "just a little poem really". Another nothing-to-do-with-James sequence - a surreal travelogue that has Isabel touring the East and dreaming of talking mouths on a plate - is "trying to be a little essay on obsession". You realise after a while that Campion really does approach her films oblivious to Hollywood's conventions, and Hollywood doesn't seem to mind.

But she is also conscious of the fact that the means affect the end - and there are signs of this in Portrait, whose wide-screen beauty occasionally appears irrelevant, propelled by the force of its own budget. Campion's next project, which she is currently scripting together with her sister Anna - herself a budding film director - is a return to her experimental roots. It's an independent production called PJ Waters about the "rescuing" of a girl sucked into a New Age cult, and promises to be an "exploration of modern systems of belief".

In the on-going Life of Saint Jane, this is sure to be seen as the rejection of Hollywood Babylon in favour of low-budget sackcloth and ashes.