2016 Film Essays

Of Love and Other Demons: ‘Sweetie’ (Jane Campion, 1989)

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Steeped in mythology and idiosyncratic impulses, Jane Campion’s Sweetie grounds itself in familiar family dysfunctions. The superstitious Kay (Karen Colston) begins dating Louis (Tom Lycos) because she believes their love was written in prescient tea leaves. Loaded with the expectation of predestined love, Louis and Kay’s relationship hits a rough patch and they stop having sex. Around this time, they arrive home to find Kay’s volatile little sister, Dawn aka Sweetie (Geneviève Lemon), has broken into their house and plans on staying indefinitely with her producer boyfriend Bob (Michael Lake).

The tension of Sweetie emerges as much through sex as it does sibling rivalry. Karen Colton’s performance — small stepped and tight-lipped — reveals a woman wrought with anxiety. From her early moments getting her fortune read to the moments of destiny presenting itself, she has the diminutive presence of a wrinkled brown paper. Then, in a moment’s passion, her and Louis are tangled on the floor of a parking lot in a torrid and forbidden embrace. That moment’s passion fades though and Kay returns to her state of repression, her body zipped up and almost childlike. Lying naked in bed, she cowers at the idea of Louis touching her and declares that soon things will get back to normal. But for now, she sees him as a brother. He whispers to himself, “incest”: a warning and a hope.

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In stark contrast, Sweetie exudes sexuality. Unwaveringly sensual, she seems to be in a state of undress for most of the film. Her orgasmic cries fill empty nights and she playfully tongues the webs between Louis’ fingers, inspiring him to reignite his passion with Kay by licking at her shins, which she finds tremendously unnerving. While the psychological ailments that torture Sweetie go unnamed, by the time she’s introduced, Kay scolds her for being “off her medication.” Sweetie has the effect of a tornado, causing those not firmly rooted in the ground to get caught up in her mania, unable to see the world beyond her storm.

Through Sweetie, viewers come to understand Kay’s temperament, as the former commands attention, with the latter left in the shadows. Even at Sweetie’s lowest points, and when Kay yearns for her mother to reach out and tell her everything will be all right, the whirlwind pulls everyone into another reality. Again and again, Kay becomes reduced to a supporting character in Sweetie’s life.

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Campion lends a tremendous amount of empathy to both Sweetie and Kay. Sweetie’s presence has a domineering presence on the action and direction of the film, but Campion’s aesthetic holds true to Kay’s point of view. The character’s superstition and coldness render the action absurd and detached, presenting people not necessarily as they are, but through the filtered lens of a woman alienated from her feelings and placement in the world. Through her eyes, Sweetie takes on a monstrous quality, but she’s always injected with a sense of wonderment. Sweetie represents far more than a foil for Kay’s plans, she represents the person she could have been. The tensions between siblings in search of parental approval and personal success carries the weight of equal opportunity at the mercy of the entangled mess of nature versus nurture. “That could have been me” never holds more weight when it comes to growing up with brothers and sisters. The crushing expectations of that phrase takes on especially painful connotations in the face of tragedy, because in more ways than one, your sibling is a part of you: to lose that bond is to lose yourself.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.

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