SWEETIE (1989): An intense family portrait from Jane Campion

Sweetie | Featured Screening | Screen Slate
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Jane Campion’s Sweetie is named after the mentally ill character of Dawn but the story is almost entirely told through the eyes of the main character, Kay.  Kay, Sweetie’s sister, spends the first half of the film living with the emotional scars of her sister’s mental illness and the second half literally living with her sister Dawn and having her life turned upside down in the process.  Campion does an excellent job of showing the strain this puts on those around Sweetie, Kay in particular.

In the opening scene, we see and hear Kay having a therapy session where she explains her phobia of trees.  She mentions how the roots of the tree in her backyard would burst through the ground leaving cracks in the pavement.  After a beautiful tracking shot of Kay walking down the street, Campion cuts to a close up of Kay’s footsteps on the sidewalk.  We can see Kay’s feet deliberately stepping around the cracks in the pavement, reinforcing what we just heard her saying about her fear of trees and their branches.  Moments later we see Kay at work.  In the cafeteria, Kay’s coworkers gather around to celebrate Lou and Cheryl’s engagement.  As the girl’s look at the diamond ring, one looks toward the camera and asks Kay, “Have you seen Cheryl’s diamond?”  We then cut to a shot of Kay sitting on the other side of the room by herself.  This is an effective shot used by Campion in her other films like the short A Girl’s Own Story.  It shows Kay’s feelings of isolation from those around her.  A subsequent scene where we clearly see Kay’s subjectivity is when she sees Louis’ hair and birthmark forming a “question mark” on his forehead.  This relates right to the previous scenes with the fortune teller who tells Kay that she sees an important man in her future that is offering a deep love and has a “question mark on his face.”  When Kay notices Louis’ hair, they end up in the parking lot kissing and this sets the rest of the narrative in motion.

Kay carries around the scars of her family from the very beginning of the film.  When we are first introduced to Sweetie when she breaks into Kay and Louis’ house, Kay cannot even tell Louis that Sweetie is her sister.  She refers to her as a “friend of mine.”  This immediately creates tension between Kay and Louis, as Kay is unable to handle telling Louis about her family’s history and the problems caused by Sweetie’s mental illness.  Eventually, Kay and Sweetie’s problems become physical after Kay tries to throw Sweetie out of her house and we get to see how disturbed Sweetie really is when she tries to eat Kay’s toy horses.  Immediately following this scene, Campion cuts to a scene of Kay’s mother closing her suitcase and telling Gordon, Kay’s father that she is leaving their home and that they are “separated.”  Gordon, fittingly, is locked inside Sweetie’s room.  He then ends up at Kay’s house and moves in with his two daughters.  With the presence of Sweetie and her father in her new home, it is clear that Kay cannot escape her family’s dark past.  Kay’s father quickly admonishes Kay and tells her that she needs to be more patient with Sweetie but he is in denial of her mental illness.          

Jane Campion effectively uses images and framing to convey the separation and division inside the family by keeping separation between the actors.  By using the entire depth of the frame, Campion places the actors across different plains, which shows that they are disjointed and not connected to each other.  One scene where this is prevalent is when the family, minus Sweetie, is at the ranch.  While on a drive together, Gordon becomes emotional and he stops the car to cry.  Kay, Flo, and Louis all exit the car and walk off a little further down the road.  Gordon is left alone in the car.  Campion then cuts to a wide shot showing each of the actors spread out on different planes on screen.  Flo occupies the immediate foreground while Kay stands slightly behind her off to the right.  Louis stands at the edge of the frame on the left side and in the midground.  The car is in the background and we know that is where Gordon is.  Just before they all left the car Gordon, while crying, says “I just want us all to be together.”  Campion uses the blocking of the actors to remind us that although Gordon wants the family together, without Sweetie, they will never be together.  A similar scene right after this scene when they all return to Kay and Louis’ house and find Sweetie acting like a dog.  When they enter the kitchen and confront Sweetie, Gordon stands in front of Sweetie and tries to console her.  Flo walks out of the room past Kay who occupies the foreground of the scene.  Once again, each member of the family is occupying their own plane of the frame, never on the same plane.  It is an excellent use of blocking to show how this family is being torn apart just like the concrete cracking from the tree roots underneath it.

One thought on “SWEETIE (1989): An intense family portrait from Jane Campion

  1. I never saw Sweetie, it sounds harrowing! I remember it got mixed reviews. I’m not sure it’s a good choice during a pandemic 😬


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