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DCA Film Club Week 18: A Girl's Own Story

#DCAFilmClub

31 July 2020

Welcome back to Film Club! We'll be recommending great films to watch at home, before meeting in our Facebook group or your preferred social media to chat about the film using #DCAFilmClub!

DCA Film Club sees our Cinema Team talk about our favourite filmmakers by looking at their short films. We hope they will inspire you to go off and watch something else, be it online or at a cinema near you (when it reopens of course). You can read our Head of Cinema Alice's full introduction to DCA Film Club here.

This week, we welcome our guest contributor Dr Brian Hoyle from the University of Dundee. Brian has chosen A Girl's Own Story, a 25-minute short film by Jane Campion. Read on for Brian's introduction, then watch the film for free on Vimeo!

Join us to chat about A Girl's Own Story in our DCA Film Club Facebook group on Tuesday 4 August at 13:00, or on your preferred social media using #DCAFilmClub. Feel free to share your thoughts and impressions with us at any time, along with your own must-watch movie tips – we'd love to hear from you!

Content warning: This film contains sexual themes with dubious consent

'Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty-three

(which was rather late for me)

Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban

And the Beatles' first LP.'
     – Philip Larkin, Annus Mirabilis 

Ask most people and they will tell you that 1993-94 was the highpoint of New Zealand-born writer-director Jane Campion’s career. That year saw her become the first female to win the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for her most famous (though not necessarily finest) film, The Piano. I however, would offer 1986 as an alternative annus mirabilis in her unusually brilliant career.

That year she showed no less than four films at Cannes. One of these, Peel, originally made in 1982 when Campion was studying at the Australian Film and Television School, won the Short Film Palme d’Or. At the same time, two other student films, Passionless Moments (made in 1983) and A Girl’s Own Story (also 1983), and her feature-length film 2 Friends, originally made for Australian television, were screened in the experimental Un Certain Regard category. Watching all four at the same festival must have been nothing short of a revelation, and announced the arrival of an extraordinary new talent on the international scene.

Peel may have taken home the prize at that festival, but the most ambitious and audacious of the four, and the one I have chosen to introduce to you, is A Girl’s Own Story. The title is purposely misleading. The film in fact tells, in a deliberately fragmented manner, the story of three girls – Pam, Stella and Gloria – who we encounter in the opening shots curiously touching a diagram in a text book showing the male anatomy, complete with an erect penis. Campion’s camera tilts down to reveal the word ‘this sight may shock young girls’ printed underneath. From this point on her film will follow these girls on their difficult path from innocence to maturity. Campion refuses to pull her punches. The path is strewn with predatory men of all ages, and the confused, even hypocritical messages offered to women who, like Campion, came of age in the 1960s.

"The world these girls inhabit is one of revolution, and repression."

The mixed signals the girls receive are brilliantly displayed in the second scene in which the girls perform The Beatles’ I Should Have Known Better (a very telling choice of song) to a crowd of their classmates before being dispersed by one of the nuns who run their school. The world these girls inhabit is one of revolution, and repression. This duality is further emphasised later on when Pam and Stella practice kissing in a room full of Beatles memorabilia and naked Barbie dolls accompanied not by pop music, but by the childish sounds of a music box. When Pam asks if what the two girls are doing is wrong, Stella says it is better that what Gloria has done with her brother. This is an allusion to the film’s most disturbing moment when Gloria flirts with her teenage brother in a manner that is both knowing and entirely innocent and agrees to "just lie there" when he suggests the two have sex. This passionless encounter (she later tells her brother, "we didn’t even kiss") results in a pregnancy and Gloria’s removal from school.

Campion is a writer as well as a director and she has never shied away from using bold metaphors in her work. A Girl’s Own Story is no exception. When her brother, who now takes a high moral tone about what the pair have done, visits Gloria in a home for unwed mothers, she tells him, ‘I don’t like it here, it’s cold’. This notion of coldness, both emotional and physical, permeates the entire film and Campion wittily underscores this by making various types of heaters her central visual motif.

"Campion...has never shied away from using bold metaphors in her work."

There are other ways this film prefigures the features that would follow. The refusal to hone in on a single perspective is typical of Campion. 2 Friends, as the title implies, gives both sides of the story in its depiction of a crumbling teenage friendship. The Piano is as much about Anna Paquin’s character as it is about Holly Hunter’s. Bright Star is as much a film about Fanny Brawne as it is about her lover, John Keats. One could go on. But the real sign that Campion’s voice had fully emerged comes at the end of A Girl’s Own Story when the narrative breaks away from reality and the three girls once again sing. But this time things are very different from their earlier Beatles rendition. The song they sing instead is an original composition by future filmmaker Alexis Proyas called I Feel the Cold. This darkly atmospheric ballad is deliberately anachronistic and is driven by synthesisers and drum machines that are far more 1983 than 1963. Campion also films the sequence like a music video (MTV had launched in American about 18 months before A Girl’s Own Story was made). Images of ice skaters are superimposes and projected onto the girls and her mise-en-scène is far slicker that before, with long tracking shots of the girls sitting surrounded by (what else but) heaters. She also films the song on a plain black sound stage. Whatever this scene is (a dream? a fantasy?) It is a clear break from the look of the rest of the film.

Campion clearly learned a lesson here. Sequences that place in you directly into the minds of her characters and aesthetically deviate from what surrounds them would become common place in her work. Just look at the anything-goes final sequence of 2 Friends, with its stop-motion and hand-coloured frames; the animated sequence in The Piano; or the mock silent film-cum-home movie in (the criminally underrated) The Portrait of a Lady. Making this very clear shift from realism to something far more surreal and subjective at the end of A Girl’s Own Story was clearly a risk, and Campion could have fallen flat on her face. It is, however, an extraordinary ending to a consistently excellent short film which does not have a wasted word, shot or sound in its densely-packed 25 minutes.

More about Jane Campion

Video and audio links to explore:

A short introduction to her Palme d'Or winning short film, Peel.

Campion’s 2006 short film The Water Diary, included in the portmanteau film 8, which featured eight international short films about contemporary threats to our planet.

An excellent audio interview with Campion discussing her work up to The Piano, including the short films.

A career-spanning Q&A from Lincoln Centre.

 

A short guide to Campion’s work after A Girl’s Own Story:

2 Friends. Very hard to find by well worth the effort for fans. The story of the end of a close friendship between two teenage girls in the 1980s who end up going to different secondary schools. Even more complex and moving for being told in reverse order. 

Sweetie (1989) Campion’s feature debut is one of the great marmite films. Some people hate it, some people think she’s never improved on this utterly singular and unapologetically eccentric film about a dysfunctional Australian family. Those of you who liked Peel and the work of David Lynch will probably feel right at home here. 

An Angel at My Table (1990) Based on the autobiographical writings of Janet Frame and original made as a three-part mini-series for New Zealand television, this is best seen in one two-and-a-half hour sitting, where the emotional intensity of Frame’s struggle with mental illness takes on a rare intensity. 

The Piano (1993) The Cannes and Oscar-winning breakthrough. Unquestionably brilliant but overpraised at the expense of other Campion films.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996). Nicole Kidman, who turned down the lead in A Girl’s Own Story, stars this unfairly maligned adaptation of the Henry James novel. Critics and audiences clearly wanted a Merchant-Ivory style costume drama, Campion offered something far tougher and cinematically interesting. A lost classic waiting for rediscovery. 

Holy Smoke (1999) As strange and as funny as Sweetie, this story of the psychosexual mind games played between a young woman who has been brainwashed by a cult (Kate Winslet) and the psychiatrist assigned to deprogram her (Harvey Keitel) divided critics and proved too quirky for mainstream tastes. Not for beginners, this has rightly emerged as the cult film in the Campion canon. 

In the Cut (2003) Campion’s admirably adult and staunchly feminist contribution to the “erotic thriller” genre is her least loved film. Meg Ryan may be a little out of her depth in the lead role, but Mark Ruffalo and Jennifer Jason Leigh are wonderful in it and it has style to burn. 

Bright Star (2009) Not so much a biopic of Keats as a study of his relationship with Fanny Brawne, who Campion gives equal standing as a character and artist, this visually stunning film cements Campion’s reputation one of the great directors of period pieces. Quite possibly her masterpiece and easily one of the best films of this century.  

Top of the Lake (2013) and Top of the Lake: China Girl (2017) Campion’s first foray into television since An Angel at My Table. The first series is genuinely excellent with Elizabeth Moss excelling as a small-town New Zealand police women brought into a case which involves the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old. Dark and unsettling, this has a hell of a lot to say about race, gender and Campion’s homeland. The sequel moves to Australia with diminishing returns. Both are available to stream on Netflix

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