Sweetie remains one of the most formidable first features of all time.
Jane Campion’s early short films displayed a shockingly developed talent, one whose cut-up style showed an innate understanding of how to visualize her characters’ sense of displacement and dysmorphia, using jagged editing and synecdochical close-ups to fragment her characters. If the director gave any sense of needing to grow, she did so brilliantly with Sweetie, which alchemized her short work into a feature of such intense anxiety and brutal satire that it immediately established her among the finest directors of her generation.
The film’s protagonist is Kay (Karen Colston), a meek, mousy young woman whose skittishness is so profound that the dimensions of the frame are warped around her insular perspective. Various focal lengths are employed to stretch and compress the dimensions of limbs and objects, and the combination of static takes and fragmented editing reflects Kay’s paralyzing indecision and anxious self-loathing. Unable to direct her own life, Kay consults a fortune teller who tells her she will marry a man with a question mark on him, a prophecy amusingly fulfilled when a coworker introduces her fiancé, Louis (Tom Lycos) and Kay spots a curl of hair forming a question with a mole on his forehead. Within minutes, the woman manages to seduce the man in the parking garage, the two ultimately shagging underneath a car as the man’s fiancée walks around the lot looking for him. Kay’s superstitious, introverted nature carries forward into her subsequent relationship with Louis, including her intense worry over his romantic gesture of planting a sapling when they move into a home together, treating the symbolism so literally that she thinks they will split if the tree dies.
Kay’s anxiety leads to psychosomatic stasis, rendering her couch-ridden and sexless, an arrangement that seems to suit both her and Louis as they settle into a parody of 1950s domestic normalcy. That normalcy is upended, however, by the arrival of Kay’s family. Her father, Gordon (Jon Darling), arrives at Kay’s home after he and his wife, Flo (Dorothy Barry), separate. Gordon’s intrusion has nothing, though, on Kay’s sister, Dawn, a.k.a. Sweetie (Geneviève Lemon). Campion sketches the schism between the two sisters instantly. Kay’s self-denials are etched into her thin frame and timid body language, the image of someone trying to cut such a low profile on this planet that she threatens to dissipate into the air. Sweetie, by contrast, is purely Dionysian. She’s loud and voracious with a Rubenesque figure to match. She laughs with unhinged glee and is unrepentantly sexual, albeit in an emotionally stunted manner that gives the impression someone perpetually locked into the pattern of a teenager acting out.
Naturally, Sweetie’s demonstrative behavior causes instant friction with Kay, whose already rocky grasp on her life is thrown into total disarray by the secondhand embarrassment she feels on behalf of her shameless sibling. The cramped dimensions of Louis and Kay’s house becomes even more restricted with their unwanted guests, and the drab interiors become a kind of jail cell for Kay, who wanted so badly to retreat within these walls but now finds her sanctuary violated. Gordon, for his part, dotes on Sweetie as if her every outburst were an exclamation of creative wonder, and his blatant favoritism only further enrages Kay. Meanwhile, Louis, having lost his libido with Kay, suddenly finds his loins reawakened in the presence of someone so unrestrained in her sexual hunger.
These intersecting psychological travesties collide in screeching pile-ons of molten metal and shredded rubber, and Campion mines ruthless comedy from the madness on display. Gordon, feverishly lost in the shared delusion of Sweetie’s childhood prodigy talent, practically begs her to repeat all of the insipid demonstrations she used to pull as a little girl, most notably in a scene of him cajoling her to do “the chair trick” for an agonizing amount of time before she finally does it by standing on a chair, rocking it forward, and landing on her feet. It’s a moment so bleakly funny as to verge on horror, offering a glimpse into the addled mind of a man who long ago deleted every cognitive part of his brain that might process his daughter’s flaws. So extreme is his affection that an attempt by Kay to reconcile her parents and rid herself of her family dredges up Flo’s own resentment of her husband’s ludicrous devotion to Sweetie.
The ad-hoc family retreat in the Outback allows Campion to boost the color saturation of the film, turning up the temperature on the warped dynamics at play. The sense of escalating heat matches perfectly with the way the director uses high-angle shots throughout, the camera regularly bearing down on all subjects to cut through their weird pedestals and favoritism to render them all equally pathetic; the harsh sun of the Outback only further adds to the discomfort, as if the camera were a giant magnifying glass focusing that light into a laser beam to scorch the characters. The area emanates a primal energy, one that follows them home, where the spiraling madness of the characters leads Sweetie to regress beyond her existing childlike state to something feral. This culminates in an ending that is brutal in its sudden, black-comic resolution, untying the Gordian knot of the characters’ tangled relationships by slicing them apart, leaving only an insoluble psychological quagmire in its choppy wake. Campion would make greater films from here, but none with this level of frayed-nerve intensity, where characters’ foibles existed right up at the surface level and clashed with visible electricity. Sweetie remains one of the most formidable first features of all time, the first of a series of peaks that would establish Campion as one of the world’s finest filmmakers.