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Of Love and Other Demons: ‘An Angel at My Table’ (Jane Campion, 1990)

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From the early years of childhood and rumblings of youth to the strained expectations of adulthood, An Angel at My Table explores the life of author Janet Frame by way of her autobiographies. Charting decades worth of material, Jane Campion achieves what most Hollywood biopics fail at when encapsulating a life within a confined running time. Never feeling like a greatest hits clip show, each jump in time has been pulled together through an emotional trajectory and a poetic form. The three actresses who play Janet Frame blend seamlessly into each other and, as a viewer, one may become lost in the story and imagine they are one in the same — a singular entity as viewed through the magical looking glass that peers into different periods of time.

“My only romance was in poetry and literature,” Janet says once she has arrived in Europe. Looking at the men and women who fall in love and lust, she wonders if she herself is exempt. Janet treats her sexuality like a block of wood and imagines that her body has become stiff and perhaps even impenetrable. The aura of sex hangs over even the earliest memories within the film, it’s mysteriousness and allusiveness setting the film’s cold but longing tone. Sex within An Angel at My Table is not about pleasure nor desire — for Janet, the need for sex becomes the need to unravel. She craves intimacy to let go of her self-appointed barriers, to let something out as she lets something in.

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Initiated by a systematic alienation from her body, intelligence and experiences, the hardening loneliness Janet experiences is a direct result of her writerly confidence. It seems that the more she insists on being a writer, the more society pushes back. And with every breakthrough that comes, she becomes faced with a new challenge. Janet, from her childhood onward, has the privilege and the curse of being an outsider. It makes her an easy target due to her softspokeness, but similarly offers her the outsider’s view that contributes to her poetic voice. Watching classmates sit on the stairs, talking a lot and saying very little (with repeated phrases and pleading constantly for affirmation in a low squeal of white noise), Janet Frame finds beauty. Campion reveals Frame’s prose as much through the film’s cinematography as she does by allowing Frame’s words to be narrated. When observing these girls on the stairs, it transcends ethnography or scorn, it achieves adoration and pathos. Janet, excluded from their grouping, finds incredible poetry in her role as the outsider. Neither rage nor regret overtakes her, and she sees the world fresh and beautiful.

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Campion’s filmmaking represents, in equal measure, the struggle of being an artist and the precarious artificiality of the art world. The artists that Janet encounters are no more noble or open than her family members or professors who insist they having her best interest in mind. The constant pleas for her to get a real job, and the implication that she just be “normal,” weighs on her. Janet Frame doesn’t quite fit in, as her goals don’t align with what is expected of women. As much as people put her down, the reason can only be that she poses a threat to their own self-value and the fragile pillars of society itself. With a condescending tone, people string Janet along by a fishing line, cradling her out of insincere compassion. Men, in particular, treat her as a pet, a creature and an object to be played with and eventually discarded: they resent her success but especially her talent.

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Women artists face a nearly insurmountable wall to their success. The expectations leveled upon them are often greater and more two-faced than even the most middling of men. Still in a hospital as her first book has been delivered to her bedside, Janet worries because they have not included her picture. Campion doesn’t go into details, we know why, and we also know that if Janet was a man it would make no difference. People are always dressing Janet up, just so they can dress her down. In London, surrounded by people she believes are friends, her fellow “artists” ask her about her publishing history. With Janet being the only published author in the room, the others hiss through their teeth because they haven’t heard of her obscure New Zealand publishing house. Later on, as Janet’s agent admits that she has good reviews, he insists she writes a bestseller next. In school, after showing her beloved professor one of her texts, he uses that against her to have her committed. It doesn’t matter how many books she publishes or how many awards she wins, people around Janet will never be satisfied and will always treat her as a disturbed hobbyist. Without being said, even her greatest champions seem to say through spiteful backhanded compliments, “We guess you’re good, for a woman.”

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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