The Guardian view on Jane Campion: the power of the director | Editorial

The trailblazing New Zealander is the first woman to be nominated twice for a best director Oscar

“Art should be genderless”, the cinematographer Ari Wegner told the Guardian in a joint interview with film director Jane Campion. The pair are both up for Oscars for their work on The Power of the Dog, the western based on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, which is the deserving frontrunner in advance of the ceremony later this month, with 12 nominations.

The film, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, is a subversive and visually stunning story of disturbed domestic relationships on a Montana ranch, which turns inside out the macho conventions of one of cinema’s classic genres. Desire, sexuality and the complex forms of attachment between people are, as in Campion’s previous films, including her masterpiece The Piano (for which she won a best screenplay Oscar in 1994), the heart of the matter.

Campion and Wegner, like many other female artists before them, reject the pigeonhole labelled “woman film-maker”. Their vision reaches beyond individual identities and experiences. Wegner’s call for “genderless” art recalls the philosophy of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote in 1832 that a “great mind must be androgynous” – an idea later picked up by Virginia Woolf. Campion’s remarkable feats as a female director should also be noted. If she wins this year’s award for best director, she will be only the third woman to have achieved this (after Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 and Chloé Zhao last year). If Wegner wins for her cinematography, she will be the first woman ever to do so (she is the second to be nominated).

While women have appeared in front of cameras since cinema’s earliest days, and female film stars have long been among the world’s most recognised faces, behind the camera it is a different story. Directing and shooting films are jobs that remain remarkably male-dominated. In 2020, just 16 of the top 100 grossing films were directed by women. In 2018, it was just four.

It is in no way to diminish Campion’s achievements, or those of the female cinematographer she sought out for this project, to describe her as a trailblazer for women as well as for New Zealanders. From her first film, Sweetie, and its follow-up An Angel at My Table, based on the memoir of the writer Janet Frame, Campion has not only broken new ground but built bravely on it, producing striking interpretations of literary sources such as Savage, Frame and Henry James, as well as original screenplays. Her writing, casting decisions and direction have led to memorable performances from actors including Holly Hunter, who appeared first in The Piano and later in the 2013 television drama Top of the Lake.

Campion says she doesn’t know whether the campaign for more diversity in cinema and the other arts, following the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, explains recent shifts in the Academy’s tastes (including Zhao’s success with Nomadland). But in a year that has also featured Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter and Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers, the 67-year-old Campion is not the only film-maker who has seized the moment to tell stories about families in new ways. Cinema is all the richer for her gaze.



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