Jane Campion’s movies have varied from Gothic romance (“The Piano”) to erotic thriller (“In the Cut”) to literary drama (“Bright Star”), but most of them center on willful, even difficult women. Her long line of prickly heroines, who tend to challenge or disregard societal pieties and are generally regarded by those around them as threats or annoyances, begins with the sisters Kay and Dawn in “Sweetie,” her 1989 debut, which the Criterion Collection is issuing in a Blu-ray high-definition edition this week.
More than two decades since its Cannes premiere launched the New Zealand-born, Australian-based Campion onto the world stage, “Sweetie” has lost little of its mysterious charm and transgressive power. A family portrait that keeps shifting its center of gravity, a tragicomedy that doesn’t settle for easy laughter or tears, it can be a hard film to get a fix on — a testament to how skillfully Campion thwarts viewer expectations.
The ostensible heroine, Kay (Karen Colston), is a mass of obsessive neuroses and phobias — she harbors a deep fear of trees, which haunt her dreams, and she avoids the cracks in the pavement as she walks down the street. A tarot reader’s prediction leads her into an impulsive romance with Lou (Tom Lycos), an amusing paragon of calm (he practices transcendental meditation) next to Kay’s accusatory, wide-eyed mania. As their romance starts to cool, Kay uproots a sapling that Lou has planted in their backyard, fearing its eventual death. Before long the relationship has devolved into what Kay terms a “nonsex phase.”
It’s at that point that one family member after another shows up to complicate the picture. First and most disruptive is Kay’s younger sister, Dawn (Genevieve Lemon), nicknamed Sweetie, whose arrival is a literal home invasion — she smashes through the front door. Spouting improbable fantasies of a showbiz career (she does a trick with a chair), Sweetie has shown up with a strung-out boyfriend-cum-"producer” (Michael Lake), with whom she has loud, frequent sex, to Kay’s dismay.
As uninhibited as Kay is uptight, the childlike and at times animalistic Sweetie is all crazy appetite and unbridled id. She attempts to seduce Lou at the beach by licking his leg, and in a fit of pique, chomps down on Kay’s beloved porcelain horse figurines, bloodying her mouth in the process.
Their father, Gordon (Jon Darling), unhealthily fixated on Sweetie, appears to have been the cause and enabler of his unstable daughter’s delusions. Once the family unit is reassembled — after a road trip to the oddball cowboy ranch where the mother, Flo (Dorothy Barry), has absconded — it’s only a matter of time before the unease that has lingered throughout the film gives way to tragedy.
Any synopsis of “Sweetie” can only emphasize its quirks and make it sound like any number of dramas of family dysfunction. A queasy bathtub scene drops the hint of incest, but on the whole Campion refuses the usual psychological traps of confrontation and catharsis — one reason why “Sweetie” holds up to repeat viewings and why psychoanalysts could have a field day with it.
For all its control and poise, “Sweetie” has the restless inventiveness of a first film. (The heightened colors and off-kilter framing of Sally Bongers’ cinematography are especially notable.) Campion has gone on to a varied and distinguished career — she remains the only woman to have won a Palme d’Or at Cannes (for “The Piano”) — and, despite some partial misfires, she seems constitutionally incapable of making an uninteresting film. The Criterion disc puts her auspicious debut in context by including three terrific shorts that she made while at the Australian Film and Television School: “Peel” (1981) and “A Girl’s Own Story” (1984), which anticipate the tangled family dynamics of “Sweetie,” and “Passionless Moments” (1984), which prefigure its experimental narrative strategies.