The Piano' Director Jane Campion's Early Work Is Worth Watching, Too.
By Stacey Richter
THE FIRST FEATURE film by Jane Campion, director of The Piano, is scheduled to play this weekend at The Screening Room, and it's well worth taking a trip downtown to check it out. The 1986 film, Two Friends, has all the hallmarks of Campion's early work--it's subtle, offbeat and surprisingly funny, though the theme as a whole is one of sadness and loss.
Two Friends traces the friendship of two adolescent, Australian girls through several rocky months in their lives and relationship. Instead of progressing, the film follows the pattern of Pinter's Betrayal and tells the story by hopping backwards through time. At the beginning of the film, the friends Kelly (Kris Bidenko) and Louise (Emma Coles) couldn't seem more different. Louise is a rather straight-laced parochial schoolgirl concerned with getting her homework done; Kelly is a fuming punkette drop-out living on the beach with some guy. The two girls don't see each much of each other and their friendship seems to have broken down. Each time the story jumps back in time, we see a little bit of Kelly's dissolution undone until, at the end of the movie, she is as balanced and full of hope as Louise.
By moving back in time, Campion and Helen Garner, who wrote the screenplay, accentuate the sadness of Kelly's incremental loss of innocence. Sharper even than this loss is the sense that Kelly is being somehow broken by the adults around her, who refuse to notice she is clever and talented. Louise, by contrast, has much more supportive parents who worry about buying her a case for her French horn. One of the things that makes this film so good is how complex and layered the relationships between the characters are. Louise, for example, seems to feel guilty that her life is so much easier than Kelly's, and this drives the two even further apart.
Campion shows enormous sensitivity to the problems of girls in this film. Unlike American fantasy versions of female adolescence like Clueless, she takes the problems of girls very seriously, in a wider, social sense and also on a case-by-case basis. In other words, she treats them as whole people, complicated, worth watching, and not always agreeable. You practically have to see Two Friends to realize how rare this is, though Campion achieves a similar feat in Sweetie, and Anna Paquin's role in The Piano had something of this complexity about it too. At one point Kelly has been left alone at her father's house with one of his male friends, and for some reason she wanders into his room and curls up next to him in bed. The man begins making out with her; she responds for a minute, then jumps up and runs out into the street. It's a disturbing but perceptive depiction of a lonely adolescent girl testing out her new power of sexuality.
Campion achieves all this without much cinematic fanfare. In fact, her technique in Two Friends is fairly minimal, with mostly wide, stationary master shots. Campion seems more interested in the variety of human emotions in Two Friends than in telling a story in a conventionally cinematic way. Characters wander in and out of the frame at will, and it's pretty much up to the audience to decide which part of the story is significant. This is not the Jane Campion of The Piano; there's nothing operatic or overwrought about Two Friends. There are few beautiful, sweeping shots. Instead it's more reminiscent of her fabulous short Peel (which is out on videotape), a deadpan, uncannily funny little film about a family battling over a discarded orange rind.
The only problem with this technique is that without the lip-reading help of close-ups, it gets difficult at times to understand the Australian slang and accent of the girls, who nosh on "Vegemite" and describe undesirable boys as "daggy." Despite this, the performances of the young actors in this film are so natural, and Campion's style is so unadorned, that at times Two Friends begins to seem like a series of real-life vignettes, something almost unheard of in Hollywood movies. Bidenko, as the rebellious Kelly, is especially interesting to watch, not only because of her fine, low-key performance, but because she doesn't look like an actress at all. With her big legs, pink skin and unsympathetic face, she looks more like a bad-girl teen guest on Jenny Jones than someone who'd turn up on the silver screen. In such choices, Two Friends is always an unusual film.
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