Celebrated New Zealand author Janet Frame, the subject of the new Jane Campion film "An Angel at My Table," was mistakenly diagnosed as schizophrenic and hospitalized for eight years in the '40s, during which time she received more than 200 shock treatments.
Campion and her screenwriter, Laura Jones, present Frame's diagnosis, and its harrowing consequences, as the defining event of her life. It's a life that stretches from her Depression-era childhood in the South Island of rural New Zealand to her hospitalization to her experiments with literary bohemianism in London and Spain and then back again to New Zealand in the '50s.
Despite the pile-up of incident and characterization in this 2-hour and 40-minute film, it seems strangely uninhabited by anyone except Frame; and there is a sense in which she, too, seems uninhabited. She is a wraith-like character with a blanked-out presence--it's understandable that the uninformed might mistake her dreamwalking for dementia.
"An Angel at My Table" (at the Westside Pavilion and Beverly Center) is considerably easier to take than Campion's last film, "Sweetie," but it's clearly a film made by the same director. "Sweetie," which was also about madness and creativity and family, was obviously a movie made by a remarkable talent. But it was so abstracted from human feeling and so punishingly grotesque that it's not surprising audiences--myself included--were highly vocal in their dislike of it.
But the film had a cult following, and that is understandable too. Campion has a unique way of seeing, as much so as David Lynch or Diane Arbus, whose work hers is often compared to. Watching "Sweetie" (and some of her short films), one holds out the hope that Campion might one day find a way to give her creepy abstractionism a humane core.
"An Angel at My Table" (rated R for sensuality and language) isn't all the way there; it's still too blankly enigmatic for my taste, and Frame never really emerges as a full-scale heroine with a rich, buzzing inner life (the life that you get from Frame's books). But there are extraordinary moments in the film that probably no one but Campion could come up with.
Campion and Jones (who wrote the wonderful 1987 Gillian Armstrong-Judy Davis film "High Tide) are drawn to Frame's life in part because they see in her struggles the arc of misery any writer must go through to find her own voice. Despite the movie's off-centered creepiness, it puts forward a conventional suffering artist scenario with a happy ending--the movie, after all, is derived from Frame's three-volume autobiography, a testament to survival.
But, although the larger outline of the film is conventional, there is nothing predictable about its details. When Campion shows Frame (played as an adult by Kerry Fox) cringing in anticipation of electroshock, or furtively opening a newspaper in a ladies room to read a review of her book, we seem to have entered right into the author's fevered consciousness.
Campion is attempting here what Robert Altman was also after in his Van Gogh movie "Vincent & Theo"--a cinematic equivalent of the artist's spiritual maelstrom. But whereas Van Gogh's turmoil was shockingly evident, Frame's is squirreled away in some private shadowy place, and the filmmakers suggest that perhaps her very inwardness is what saved her. The Janet Frame of this movie is both romanticized and de-glamorized. Campion and Jones regard her dislocated, unreachable quality as necessary to her artistry; the film proclaims the unashamed fact that artists, like the rich, are different from you and me.
But Frame's quality of being apart from the world makes her a very eerie and distanced character. She is zombified by passion. When she declares, "My only romance was with poetry and literature," we have to take her at her word.
It's clear that Campion and Jones are drawn to Frame because of the grotesquerie of her sacrifice. The allusions that some have found in Campion's work to Arbus and Lynch are apt.
In "An Angel at My Table," she is seduced by the lurid unknowability of Frame's situation; she wants her blankness to cast its own spell. The film is structured as a journey toward selfhood, and yet Frame doesn't seem to have a self. She's like a conducting rod for the director's own private obsessions, and at times those obsessions seem as private and undetectable as Frame's.
Campion relishes that sense of privacy in her work; she is not the kind of artist who will ever connect with a large audience. But in "An Angel at My Table" Campion connects with Frame's fierce solitude, and the spiritual twin-ship creates the humane core that I missed in "Sweetie." When, at the end, Frame, alone and outdoors at night, hears dance music on a radio and starts to do the twist, the effect is like a balm.
'An Angel at My Table'
Kerry Fox: Janet
Alexia Keogh: Young Janet
Karen Fergusson: Teen-age Janet
A Fine Line Features release. Director Jane Campion. Producer Bridget Ikin. Screenplay by Laura Jones. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh. Editor Veronika Haussler. Costumes Glenys Jackson. Music Don McGlashan. Production design Grant Major. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (for sensuality and language).