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She's happily unruly

Jane Campion, like many of her characters, doesn't go along to get along, an independence enjoyed by few women filmmakers.

October 26, 2003|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

Jane CAMPION twirls a pigtail and laughs. The director of such genre- and gender-bending movies as "The Piano" and "Holy Smoke" is talking about the time she, her friend Nicole Kidman and producer Laurie Parker thought that they could rule the world or, at least, America with a project they wanted to develop called "In the Cut."

"Us girls -- Laurie, Nic and myself -- had this fabulous idea," Campion says. "We were trying to be like moguls. We thought that we would finance the entire film out of foreign pre-sales and that we would keep USA for ourselves. We had started to set up a deal with another company but then Harvey Weinstein, who I had done 'Holy Smoke' with, came into the picture. I said that I thought it could be a thriller like 'Seven' or something. I think that was a really big mistake, because he then became attached to the idea. When I said those words he seemed to light up. I have to take responsibility for that -- I wanted to get the price up!" Campion stops and laughs, pigtail twirling.

At this point it's important to understand that the would-be moguls were pinning their hopes on "In the Cut," Susanna Moore's dark 1995 novel about one woman's walk on the sexual wild side. Although the book contains such commercially viable ingredients as a serial killer and a tough male detective, the story pivots on its narrator, Frannie. A dreamy writing teacher with a keen carnal appetite, Frannie indulges in her voyeurism with one unsuspecting couple, hangs out in a strip club and takes several memorably graphic tumbles with the detective. Moore wrote the book, she told the New Yorker some years ago, because she wondered if "a woman could really do it rough and dirty, and not write that kind of tame, Sue Grafton stuff."

Smitten with the novel, Campion recommended it to Kidman, whom she's known since her film-school days and directed in her adaptation of "The Portrait of a Lady." Kidman snapped up the rights -- cue the moguls, world domination and Weinstein. Campion subsequently spent the next two years trying to shape Moore's first-person novel into a workable script, only to arrive at a very Campion-like story about female desire with none of the usual genre beats. Weinstein, she says, "had a very dark response to the efforts that we made." Long story short: Miramax exited the picture, as did Kidman, ostensibly because of her collapsing marriage. (She retains a producer credit.) A French company came on board and put up the modest $12-million budget, and Meg Ryan won the starring role.

Ryan's name looms above the director's in advertisements, but "In the Cut," which opened Wednesday, is unmistakably a Jane Campion movie. Like the two warring sisters in her first feature film, "Sweetie," like Holly Hunter's Ada in "The Piano," Kidman's Isabel Archer in "Portrait" and Kate Winslet's Ruth Barron in "Holy Smoke," Ryan's teacher comes across as prickly, off-putting and, for better and sometimes worse, forcefully independent-minded. Like all of Campion's heroines, and in contrast to the majority of female characters populating contemporary movies, the character hasn't been designed for maximum ingratiation. Indeed, the only instruction the director gave her actress was "don't please." "Don't please [the detective], don't please the audience," Campion remembers telling Ryan, "just your director."

'Eye for transformation'

At once disarmingly girlish and very direct, the 49-year-old filmmaker, who was born in New Zealand and lives in Sydney, Australia, exhibits none of the self-regarding sobriety of many of her male contemporaries. When she talks about telling Ryan to please only her, Campion punctuates the story with laughter. Interviewers like to write about Campion's laugh and it's no wonder: This is no tiny burble or silvery chime, but loud and unladylike. But Campion is no lady, which she would likely see as the compliment it is. A cinematic visionary in an age of persistent aesthetic retreat, she doesn't come across as a woman -- or artist -- who worries about being labeled unruly. If anything, to judge by her movies and all her difficult women who never fit in, settle down or shut up -- unless they're actually willfully mute, as Hunter's character is in "The Piano" -- the reverse seems true.

One marker of Campion's women is that each experiences radical mind- and soul-stirring change. ("I have," she says, "a close eye for transformation.") What preoccupies her is how women become decisive and take the leap, how they plunge into unknown waters, shed inhibitions (and clothes) and -- as Frannie does in "In the Cut" -- breach the citadel of their individual selves by acting on desire. "I think sexuality is a really strong force in everybody," Campion says, "and you sort of have to come to terms with it. It's the animal inside you. You can't resist it." That may not always make for comfortable viewing, but as Campion also says, "I believe in disturbance. If you don't embrace disturbance, it will shut down your life."

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