When French filmmaker Julia Ducournau took the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year for “Titane,” her wild explosion of body horror and gender politics, Jane Campion’s status in film history shifted slightly: no longer the only woman to take the top prize at the festival, the New Zealand writer-director will forevermore be the first. It’s a record that one suspects Campion — as a pioneer in bringing an explicitly feminist perspective to mainstream cinema — couldn’t have been happier to relinquish.
It’s 28 years since Campion’s “The Piano” shared the Palme d’Or, before going on to a level of international success denied most winners of that prize: it grossed $140 million worldwide and won three Oscars, including one for Campion’s original screenplay. Yet this commercial and industry success came at no cost or compromise to its creator’s vision. To re-watch it today is to be astonished at its enduring radicalism: the tactile eroticism of its romance, its democratic interest in bodies, touch and sexual exchange, and the unwavering strength of its female gaze, as filtered through the watchful eyes of Holly Hunter’s exploited but defiant 19th-century mail-order bride.
If it’s hard to imagine anything like “The Piano” making nine figures at the box office today, that could because it remains not just ahead of its time, but our time too. Having welcomed Campion with her unlikely hit, the industry cold-shouldered all too many of her subsequent efforts. Her next film, a bold, expressionistic interpretation of Henry James’ “The Portrait of a Lady,” was tepidly reviewed and commercially spurned, but holds up brilliantly today: a story of patriarchal subjugation not told but felt, through the tingling, bruisable skin of Nicole Kidman’s Isabel Archer.
There was a latent violence to its perspective that didn’t sit right with audiences expecting the statelier costume drama of Merchant-Ivory and their imitators; though Campion treated James’ text with literate respect — this is, after all, the director who made one of the most blazingly alive, page-attuned literary biopics of all time in her 1991 breakthrough feature “An Angel at My Table,” and found visual poetry to match John Keats’ verses in 2009’s “Bright Star” — this was a rudely sensory work first and foremost.
Uncowed by the film’s reception, she shifted to contemporary stories to match the modernism of her filmmaking: 1999’s “Holy Smoke!” riotously satirized new-age thinking of the era, pitting spirituality and sexuality against each other in a desert cage fight, while 2003’s visceral erotic thriller “In the Cut” probed even darker recesses of feminine desire and masculine terror. Critics largely rejected it, while Meg Ryan’s fearless turn in the lead terminally damaged her industry pulling power; today, a younger generation of female millennial cinephiles hold it up as a formative work.
The 12 years between “Bright Star” and Campion’s remarkable new feature, the Netflix-backed “The Power of the Dog,” have by no means been fallow: two series of the Antipodean mystery “Top of the Lake” followed “In the Cut” in proving how well Campion’s sensual preoccupations can fit the tighter constraints of genre storytelling. But what a thrill it is to see her gaze again filling the dimensions of a cinema screen: tackling the western genre in “The Power of the Dog,” her awareness of the tension between vulnerable bodies and a hostile landscape is as acute as it was in “The Piano.” And if her latest is being a described as a departure for the director, given its predominant focus on men, there’s no mistaking her point of view throughout this tale of a hostile alpha male (Benedict Cumberbatch) testing the limits and resistance of a young, effete boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) on his ranch: Campion’s feminist cinema has always questioned, queered and quietly subverted male authority, and she shows no sign of stopping.