Sweetie: Criterion Collection Review

Kay (Karen Colston) is told by a fortune teller that she will fall in love with a man with a lock of hair shaped like a question mark. That man is Louis (Tom Lycos). But then Kay’s sister Dawn, known as Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon) returns to her life and disrupts it thoroughly.

Australia and New Zealand are countries often linked together, though they are separated by about the distance between Paris and Moscow. Their film industries are not always easily separated either. Case in point: Jane Campion. Although she was born in New Zealand (in Wellington in 1954), only one of her films was made for a local company - An Angel at My Table, made as a three-part television serial before it received a cinema release. All her other films have been made for Australian companies, or abroad. She studied at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS), making the three short films included as extras on this disc. Her first feature, 2 Friends was made for TV in 1986 but had big-screen exposure at festivals (and at least one British TV showing). 2 Friends, scripted by Helen Garner, is the story of two teenage girls who were once close friends but who gradually grow apart, told in reverse.

Sweetie, co-written by Gerard Lee, followed three years later. It’s a film of two parts. The first half-hour harks back in style to Campion’s earlier shorts, shot by the DP of two of them, Sally Bongers. (Trivia note: with Sweetie, Bongers became the first woman cinematographer to shoot a 35mm feature in Australia.) This opening section is shot in a highly-stylised manner, with much use of off-centre framing and bold blocks of colour and a tendency to keep the audience at arm’s length. Then, Sweetie arrives and disrupts this scheme just as she disrupts Kay’s life. The rest of the film is shot in a more naturalistic style. The film becomes another of Campion’s studies of female sensibility taken to the limits of social acceptability, where it can be taken as madness. In this film, that “madness” - the unspecified condition that Sweetie is neglecting her medication for - is shown to be rooted in a dysfunctional family – though Campion denies us an easy explanation for it. (Though she does hint at incest between father and daughter.) Sweetie is a rampaging id, unable to be controlled by her sister or parents. Kay, on the other hand, is withdrawn, finding it hard to connect to anyone. It all ends inevitably badly.

Many films have taken a sentimental view of mental illness. Genevieve Lemon , in a rare leading role, captures the character’s childlike side, her energy and appetite for life. But she doesn’t shy from depicting her darker side, a side that’s socially embarrassing and inappropriate as well as disturbing, such as a scene where she chews up Kay’s collection of toy horses. The film’s ending, with Lemon up in a tree house, naked and covered in mud, is hard to shake off. Karen Colston has an equally difficult role to play, that of the buttoned-down Kay, but does it very well. Most of the rest of the cast are non-professionals, including five-year-old Andre Pataczek as Clayton the boy next door, a performance entirely without cuteness or cloyingness.

Sweetie is, like most first features, far from perfect, but the talent is clearly there in abundance. Within three years, and two features later, Campion made The Piano, the high-water mark of Campion’s career to date and one of the great films of the 1990s.

Sweetie is number 356 in the Criterion Collection, and is presented on one dual-layered disc, encoded for Region 1 only.

The film is transferred in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced, supervised by Sally Bongers and approved by Jane Campion. As you would expect it’s just about faultless: sharp with strong blacks and the important bold colours coming across exactly as intended.

The soundtrack is remixed from the original mono to Dolby Digital 5.1. The result is still very much from the centre channel with not much use of the surrounds except for the music score. Subtitles are available for the feature but unfortunately not the extras.

First up amongst the extras is a commentary, mainly between Campion and Bongers, with Gerard Lee joining later. This is an entertaining chat which covers a lot of ground, including the inspiration for the film, the visual strategies and plenty of anecdotes. We shouldn’t read anything into the fact that the film is dedicated to Campion’s sister Anna (also a film director, who co-wrote Holy Smoke with Jane). The reason for this is that Anna flew home to New Zealand during a family crisis, which allowed Jane to finish making Sweetie.

Making Sweetie (22:37) is a featurette based mostly around an interview with Genevieve Lemon and Karen Colston, whose rapport is obvious seventeen years after the film was made. Also included are clips from “Bitter Sweetie”, behind-the-scenes footage shot by Lemon. This interview was shot recently; the next one on the disc, between critic Peter Thompson and Jane Campion (19:11), was shot in 1989 for the AFTRS and in it Campion talks about her experience of film school.

Campion’s three short films made at the AFTRS have had an independent existence, with showings on Film Four and a VHS release from the BFI in the past, and they are included on this DVD. An Exercise in Discipline: Peel, to give it its full title, won the Short Film Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1982. That was the first Jane Campion film I ever saw, as a support at the London Film Festival. To say that I was quite unprepared for it would be an understatement. Shot in 16mm colour by Sally Bongers (presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic), it’s a three-hander between a father, his sister and his son, it covers a lot in a short space of time (8:34) in terms of family dynamics. The result is quite disturbing. It’s accompanied by two longer short films, both made in 1983 in black-and-white 16mm and presented in 4:3. Passionless Moments (11:55), co-directed by Gerard Lee (“ex-director” as the credits have it), is a series of odd observations of character during one day in Sydney, Australia. Finally, A Girl’s Own Story (26:32) shows us three teenage girls in the early Sixties (the Beatles era), their changing friendships with each other, their families, and the boys and men who suddenly start taking notice of them for not entirely pure reasons. Given the films’ origins, you should expect some grain, and the soundtrack is a little rough in places – unfortunately subtitles are not provided.

The extras on the disc are completed by a stills gallery and the theatrical trailer (1.85:1 anamorphic, running 1:45). The booklet included in the package features an essay by critic Dana Polan along with the usual cast and crew listings, DVD details and chapter list.

Sweetie marked the big-screen feature debut of a major talent. Criterion have packed a lot into this DVD. The only shortcoming is the lack of subtitles for anything other than the main feature, but otherwise this disc is hard to fault.

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