This paper was given at the ‘Cinema and the Senses’ Conference, Sydney, December 13-15, 1998


The unsayable and the unseeable are important recurring elements in Jane Campion’s films. They court a mode of attention which strains after vision and hearing, without being satisfied. Frustration here is not simply intellectual, but multi-sensory, an experience which has the power to touch and trouble the nerves of the viewer who recognises elements of a private history shining up there on the big screen.

In this paper I want to articulate the scope and the tones of the film’s affective dimension. Sweetie (1989) is exemplary in its challenge to the traditional foci of psychoanalytic film theory. In examining the forms of my own engagement with the film – focusing on matters of sight and hearing, memory and dream – I attempt to move beyond feminist debates over identification processes and the problem of female spectatorship.

This paper will concentrate on the complex and reciprocal process of ‘mediation’ through which Sweetie is able to affect the viewer in ways not normally countenanced by theories of spectatorial identification. I argue that the mise-en-scène in particular plays a significant mediatory role in both linking and separating the film’s women and their embodied responses.

* * *

I am definitely not impartial before Jane Campion’s films. Why am I so fascinated by, so in love with them? Why do they shake me up in a lasting way? When the lights come on I don’t want to go back to ordinary things. I want to dwell, to go in deeper, stay in that world which has so much reality for me.

The answers obviously have something to do with me and my particular personal history. But they also have something to do with the films, with the multiple forces and energies Campion has directed in order to give the films to my eyes. There’s also the matter of the time in which I am living and the limits and possibilities of comprehension and response put into play by the culture which has shaped me. So there are the intertextual connections which pass through me and which I make as any new encounter happens.

But how I prefer to think about it is like this: she gives me back my memories. Or, she gives them forms, coaxes them into being.

Straining the senses

I am writing from the house of people who were, until a few days ago, strangers to me. (1) Piano music drifts up the stairs to where I am sitting at this desk and I try to let it bridge me between the unfamiliar of my present and the remembered. Ada carrying herself away with the rapture of her piano playing, into a private world, also a natural world, where her feelings are gathered into her, not torn from her by the demands of others; where the natural world is an outpouring of her, and society does not fracture her own will or limit the transport of her desire. I do this to begin, to throw myself in — to this writing, and the world I want to write about.

Wishing to be absorbed and lost, wanting the suture, the sewn-in-ness, carried around in the fold of her skirts. And yet the strangeness and the distance are important too; they must remain, straining against the ascent into over-identification. The strangeness is needed to knock the memories out of their silence, out of the wallpaper where they have been sealed up. The memories dwell in the discovery of the familiar, the known, within the new. That’s what makes for the surprise — this sharp conjunction, the glimpse of a few signs from one’s native language peering out of a foreign text.

It’s odd how strange the familiar can seem, how breathtaking. The first Jane Campion film I saw was Sweetie. This was in 1989. I thought it was absolutely normal. What wasn’t normal was that this film had been made and that I was able to watch it with the regular Saturday night movie-going audience. I experienced Sweetie as a movie about my life, though I wasn’t in it. But there was my father, there was my mother, there were my sisters (although I only have a brother). I heard the familiar patterns of conversation, the changeless, inflexible, eternal words of each character slapping up against the walls of the other characters, regardless of the damage. What seemed normal was not just the characters and the dramatic situations, but the particular organization of its visual space, and its concealments, what other critics have called its eccentricity or absurdity. I didn’t exactly identify with any particular character, (though, if pushed, I would side with Kay), but I was there in the mise-en-scène, watching shadows on the wall, trying to find the meanings of my history in the floral patterns of the carpet. Sweetie was a shock for me. What was strange, unexpected, bizarre perhaps, was that the stuff of my own childhood — its traces engraved into adulthood through superstitions, dreams, mannerisms, denials and ways of relating to others — had been given form, voice, colour, movement. I didn’t know how to talk about it. I wasn’t sure what I had seen. It made me dream.

Sweetie is not a dark film, but despite all its colour and brightness, it is difficult to see, difficult to make sense of what is seen. For precisely that reason this is a film which is remembered, not so much for its story or characters as for the way it makes me look, and for the way it questions the capacity of this sense to command knowledge. I remember Sweetie for its rich interior shots: the mystery of a dark and floral carpet, the rooms framed by doorways, the tunneling of corridors, the full amber lighting, the busy-ness and poignancy of ordinary objects — a teacup, a chair leg, a clothes line, little china horse statues, a backyard swimming pool, a garden hose. Striking about the film is the attention to surfaces, surfaces which fail to be pierced by explanatory narrative re-enactments or other solutions. They precisely resist and arrest the narrative impulse, the forward and through movement. Sometimes these surfaces are background to the present, but often they are scrutinized. In moments of reflection (Kay’s, mine, the film’s) they can become a meditative focus, signaling an interiority which goes beyond the immediate situation and time, even becoming, perhaps, a mute witness of the past. Surface and subject become intertwined, as if memory itself, and experience and knowledge are in the skin of the cupboard, the pores of the lampshade, the cracks in the pavement. As the camera angles in on a corner where walls meet ceiling, where bed crushes into floor, cupboard and wall, the moment becomes filled with a heavy, expectant subjectivity. The camera’s gaze is intense, idiosyncratic…into itself. This gaze is not possessive, but rather it seeks out and allows the opacity and resistance of objects. More interested in part-objects and their relationships than in centred wholes, the camera shifts the conventional locus of consciousness, expressiveness and communication from the face to other parts of the body: Kay’s feet around a chair leg; her hands around a teacup; Louis’ shirt and Kay’s uniform swaying on coat hangers, holding hands; feet in socks embracing each other. This insistence on parts of objects and bodies, on uncentred character placement, on a kind of consciousness given to objects, makes a way for the unconscious to inhabit the film, to be evoked by the film and to be touched, brought to, and taken from the film.

It is also a strain to hear what is going on in Sweetie. Speech, in its ordinariness, its everydayness, often fails its speakers, and its listeners. There are blockages. Separate channels seem to be occupied by separate speakers, who speak without knowing what they are saying, who listen without knowing what they are hearing. There are conversational routines, the cliches, and habits of inattention and evasion.

Significantly, there is no inter-female dialogue in Sweetie which is not brutal or destructive to one of the participants, and I am reminded here of how frequently ‘disorders’ of language effect women in each of Campion’s films (as indeed they do more generally in women’s films): Janet’s shyness in An Angel at my Table (1990) manifests as a near total inability to assert herself in speech — she is struck dumb in the classroom due to the presence of a supervisor of teachers; Ada in The Piano (1993) is literally mute and communicates through sign language and her piano. In Sweetie, the daughters can hardly speak to their mother or to each other. It is the father who is the pole of reference for all of them, and although it is Sweetie who is the sacrificial scapegoat in the family, it is the problem of the father’s desire which motivates their separate and combined struggles. Dawn, her father’s Sweetie, is the favoured daughter: the paralysis of Kay’s sexuality, her loss of sexual desire is linked to her relative neglect. Flo defines her relationship with her husband through rivalry with her daughter (“I’m not going to give him up now, not without a fight”). Sweetie is retarded at the site of child-actress for her father’s pleasure — she is his object, his plaything, a projection of his own childishness, the eternal daddy’s little princess, repetitively abandoning herself to the sexual pleasures of men (“Do you want me to lick you? I’m a good licker. I licked Bob all over last night” she tells Louis). Thus alienated from their desires these women are also unable to assist and love each other. They are a fusion of warring circuits, traversed by the current of Gordon’s attention or inattention. Sweetie literally dies of this traversal: “Dad” — a word frequently on her lips — is the last word she utters. Never “Mum”.

One scene I find quite upsetting occurs after Louis has walked out on Kay following a fight. The phone rings and Kay rushes to answer it, hoping it will be Louis. It isn’t. It’s her mother. Her disappointment is obvious. As her mother tells her of the latest of Sweetie’s dramas, Kay, after a pause in which her mother asks, unconvincingly, perhaps impatiently, whether everything is alright, Kay, defeated, weary, hurt, answers, “I’m sick of it Mum.” What is it she is sick of? Her mother goes on with her story, not hesitating over that I’m, Kay’s “I am”. It’s a telling exchange, and it is followed by Kay’s dutiful return to the family home and to her supporting role.

The absence of an exchange of speech (which could be said to lead anywhere) between the sisters, Kay and Sweetie, is symbolically registered when the latter, vowing to “do something”, stuffs her mouth with Kay’s china horses. Instead of words there is consumption: Dawn’s aggression attempts to consume her sister, swallow up that separateness Kay has preserved and cherished. The objects which stand outside of herself, which mediate between her present and past are the objects of Dawn’s revenge. A physical fight between the sisters ensues, a fight which is interrupted by Louis who drags Kay away by the leg. As Kay watches from the doorway Louis has ordered her to, Sweetie is coaxed into coughing up the damaged toys. She has succeeded in gaining male protection through this incorporation of her sister’s things.

Looking with the woman

Despite my declared preference for Jane Campion, it is not my intention to deny that “positive” or “liberatory” or other creative kinds of readings are not possible in other kinds of cinema, classic male cinema such as westerns or detective films, for instance. Readings against the grain, as many have argued, are always possible, undermining or reopening the closures which punish, vilify, destroy, idealize or otherwise re-contain the screen heroine/villain who threatens patriarchal control and its symbolic order. This analysis is not situated against such feminist oppositional viewing strategies. What I am interested in exploring here is the question of how Campion constructs a vision such that a female viewer is more directly addressed, and a female subjectivity more directly elicited. I’m also not saying that men cannot watch her films, or that the experience must be alienating for them. But they may not find the same viewing spot as they are likely to have become used to, and they may not find their spot as easily as they usually do, being required instead to follow a different set of signposts.

In her writing on the women’s film, Mary Anne Doane theorises that the woman spectator is over-invested in the image, she suffers from a lack of distance, her fault line is narcissism. Luce Irigaray has a similar worry, which she sees as significantly contributing to the difficulty of establishing women’s sociality and culture. According to Irigaray, women lack space and distance between themselves. Unlike men, who create male sociality through exchanging objects amongst themselves (those objects being commodities/women), women lack such mediation. Their relations, then, suffer from im-mediacy, leading their intersubjective identifications to be governed by competitiveness, comparison and measurement, and substitutions, all processes which keep women in the state of objects. Such an analysis of women’s relationships certainly seems to describe the sisterly war between Kay and Sweetie. They are at once dangerously close and opposed. Kay struggles to define herself against her unruly sister. At some level she would like to kill Sweetie, yet it is also Kay who rushes to the aid of the dying Sweetie, administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in a desperate but futile attempt to save her life. The only space between the two women is the claustrophobic space of the family, dominated by the father’s oppressive, incestuous desires, which is not really a space which provides the women with any opening for negotiations. Exchange remains limited to petty acts of theft and revenge in the ever-repeating context of the family home.

In watching Sweetie I recognise this suffocating destruction of space between women and to a large extent it is this recognition which conditions my responses to the film, pulls me in. I know about this kind of claustrophobia – which is not, however, the same thing as saying, a la Doane, that I have fallen into the mirror which the female characters represent for me. Rather than identifying with Kay and the intersubjective war between women, rather than merging myself with her image, I look with her, into and against the unyielding field which blankly meets her gaze, identifying with what I take to be her desire to open a larger, clearer, more transparent space in which to see. This relatively free and open space, projected in imagination, provides a context, a set of reference points, for my identification with the restricted view, gives me somewhere to go, even as I feel the tightness of the frame.

In a cinema which is emancipatory for women, a cinema of women’s subjectivity, a feminist cinema (though this is not the only kind of feminist cinema), the projection of identification ultimately leads off-screen, the screen being the medium through which this exchange of desires between women can be accomplished. Accomplished without rivalry, without murder, without daughter and mother, sister and sister being at each other’s throats, and without one taking over the place of the other woman.

Perhaps this is starting to sound utopian. Therefore, how does Campion achieve this kind of cinematic experience, how does she exploit what I am arguing is the potential of the screen to mediate a personal subjectivity and an intersubjectivity between women? Some examples.

One noticeable feature of the system of looks in Sweetie is, for example, that male relationships are established without the use of women as their intermediary objects, without women functioning as the communal, as far as men are concerned, object of the gaze. It’s not that male characters are instead reduced to the part of objects of the gaze (it’s not a question of reversal), or even that they are deprived of the power of looking (it’s not an economy based on a fixed quantity which only one or the other can possess). Rather, male characters, and spectators, are deprived of their usual monopoly and their use of the gaze to circulate their fantastic drama of castration and phallic potency through the spectacle of the female body. For example, in the scene where Louis and Kay meet for a prearranged sexual rendezvous (Louis suggests this as a strategy for rekindling their sex life) the camera observes both of them undressing and lying flat on their backs on the bed. In this sight of their nakedness there is no reduction of either person, no privileging of one sight, no overcoming of either body or subject in the overall drama. Instead there is a kind of equality of nakedness.

Commentators have noted how the film shifts its attention from Kay to Sweetie about one third of the way through. It has been said that Sweetie steals the film and that the film took a risk in so shifting its centre, a risk which worked. Undoubtedly Sweetie’s entrance and her continuing presence is striking. In thematic and narrative terms her role is that of the overwhelming problem, she is the character through whom the emotional and relational problems of all the other major characters are focused and enacted. However, the subjective camera which begins with Kay in the opening shots as she walks along the street trying not to step on the cracks in the footpath, continues to stay most frequently with her. We follow Kay’s line of vision. Three examples: the camera zooms in a beeline between the closeup of her mouth gasping “Question mark!” to the ringlet of curl, underscored by a full stop mole, on Louis’ forehead; as she tries unsuccessfully to meditate, the montage moves from her closed eyes to a rapid montage of assorted images, a kind of dream sequence of flashes without narrative connection — raw chops, seeds penetrating through soil in frightening time lapse photography, men holding shovels and shaking hands over the holes they have dug and the trees they have planted, the little girl Sweetie performing tricks at her father’s command — and then quickly the camera is back with Kay as her eyes spring open in fright. It is Kay’s line of sight which delivers the shock of the cut from the humour of Sweetie’s chair trick, a mid-daylight scene, to the night-time bathing ritual with Sweetie on her knees washing her father, fishing the soap from between his legs. We see this through the doorway (a reconfiguration of the classic voyeuristic situation), except it is the meaning which fascinates, the confrontation with a forgotten or perhaps inassimilable knowledge, and not nakedness (indeed it is the father who is naked, not a woman). And then the next cut is back to Kay, in her bed, blankets clutched at her chin, the camera travelling from her still, blank face to the little china horses, broken survivors from the sisters’ childhood fights, lined up on the cupboard by her bed. It is Kay’s vision which most frequently defines the screen spaces, the concentration on angles, the meeting-places of edges; the doorways through doorways; tightly closed in frames; an unblinking, static quality of shot. It is through the resistances to Kay’s vision, through the spatial blockages which restrict her access to a clear view, that a female viewer may identify with Kay, not as image in herself, nor as a narrative agent, but as a viewer who wants to, yet cannot, see more than meets the eye. It is the quality of Kay’s looking which reproduces (or creates) the familiar contours of my personal experience.

A particular scene comes to mind. Kay is wrestling in the wind with a little tree in a wire cage. She seems to be trying to pluck a leaf. The camera looks down at her from a window in the building where she works. Her female colleagues are watching her with contempt. (2) I have never ‘understood’ this scene. But what I see is this: Kay is buffeted by the wind. She is alone and being watched without sympathy. There is a dead tree under her bed and her voice over at the beginning of the film has told us that trees have always been significant in Kay’s family life. So there is her struggle with a crucial symbol and this struggle is absolutely mundane. Perhaps from the outside it even looks ridiculous, or cruel. From the commanding view of the window, from the perspective associated with a rival woman (and the women friends who support this rivalry), nothing of Kay’s drama, or her meaning system, can be seen. From this view she is dismissed as weird, just as Louis, upon discovering the tree hidden under the bed, calls her abnormal. So there is this comparison. We see her completely from the outside, all the way down there, small, blue-uniformed, insignificant, an unloved other, scorned. And we see from this other. We look through her eyes into the recesses of what haunts her and remains invisible from this outside.

Not seen, not secret

This is a film which changed me (and no doubt I change it too). It’s like a home from which I can look out upon my personal landscape. Moreover, this home is always, and remains simultaneously, unheimlich and heimlich. I know that the film is more, and less, than this, but this is something rare, in my experience at least. It is rare because this is a film which seems to ‘know’ just how difficult it is to know, with any certainty, in clear pictures or closed systems of dialogue or voice over, what it was like growing up female and working class, in Australia in the 60s, in a family where husbands are sons to their wives, and daughters are wives to their fathers, where mothers and daughters are rivals and the father a destructive child. What I love about this film is what it does not say, and what it does not show and how it does both without hiding a secret. (3) The film tantalizes me with the feeling of — there must be more; there must be a single thorn embedded somewhere in that half-remembered childhood where the dog barks and the little feet dance as father claps his hands. It is important that there is the sensation of the thorn (it leads also to the longing for release from pain), but the perfection of the film is that the thorn does not materialize, the film does not simplify, and does not isolate and privilege the experience of any one character in a cathartic ambition. The female ego does not come away from this film strengthened and justified, the film does not ’empower’ through a justice-directed narrative, but it addresses me and understands the daughter’s experience (which is still not the same, not identical, to that of either Kay or Dawn).

If this is a film about incest, it circles around that event, seeking its own interpretation, seeking out its affect, its experiential dimension, its symptomatic consequences. The event does not crystallize but this in no way suggests a blurred line between reality and fantasy. (4) Sweetie’s mode of investigation maintains a focus on the inseparability of the past from the present of the woman who looks back, a present which includes her thoughts, fantasies and symptoms. This mode distinguishes Sweetie from films such as Nuts (Martin Ritt, 1987), Prince of Tides (Barbara Streisand, 1991) and She’s Been Away (Peter Hall, 1989) where individual recovery from the symptoms of sexual abuse coincides with, and indeed depends upon, the discovery of the actual event, isolated from and untainted by fantasy. Memory, in these films, builds a bridge between two distinct territories, and like a bridge, remains distinct from these territories. Sweetie suggests different metaphors for memory as an ever-presentness of the body in the present. Its visual mode of evocation gives intensity to the lived experience of trauma, rather than simultaneously distancing and containing traumatic events through the clear certainty of conventional flashback techniques. The subjective saturation of space (the space between the viewer and the objects at the reaches of her vision) generates an apprehension, a re-membering of traumatic response, very much through and not in spite of, the lack of a scene. The camera’s deconstructively feminist way of looking creates a language which attempts to approximate the confusing immediacy and felt truth of experience rather than reductively mastering an unchanging and already available, re-viewable knowledge.

I like to watch this film with other people. I like to know that there are others in the public space of the audience and I wonder if they are seeing what I am seeing. They may not be, but still, the film is out there, and, though it certainly tests me and even in a way wounds me, I do not have to squint to watch it, or protectively hold myself aloof from the screen representative of my sex. To push the metaphor, I can look straight on, eyes straining for more, without being punished. And I can do this in public, shamelessly, indulgently.


The unsayable and the unseeable are important recurring elements of Campion’s films. They court a mode of attention which strains after vision and hearing without being satisfied. This is not simply a matter of capriciousness or teasing (I would prefer terms like yearning, tugging, dragging, stretching, to teasing). Partiality is perhaps the fullest and truest way of being faithful to the reality of experiences which cannot be reduced to or captured, finalized, summed up in the would-be plenitudes of image or dialogue. Experiences are always a matter of how they have been experienced. They are not meaningful without the affective dimension (which may be stimulated in the audience and signified for the characters on the screen, but not simulated — the camera, organ of only one sense, stays on the outside of experience, bodiless). Experience is a vibration in the body as it is animated by various contacts through its various inner and outer skins, it comes about always through an invisible movement between a self and its innumerable objects. Sweetie attempts to suggest this movement largely through techniques of frustration — tight, awkward and very composed compositions, frequently featuring barriers, frames, angles; a limited horizon; an erasure of the natural (world of nature; ‘natural’ sign); flat, habitual dialogue which disallows blame and catharsis; the obstinacy of objects as they confront the gaze. The spectator is also pressured to experience this frustration at the limits of comprehension, the limits of recognition, the limits of meaning. And yet it is by the way of those limits, at the edges of the mise-en-scène and around the frame of the screen, that meaning and knowledge and the reality of experience are affirmed for the identifying female spectator. Not only do the unseen, the unsaid, the unexplained, the unnamed signal towards an imagined off-screen space: they also create the opportunities for the speculation upon, elaboration and insertion of one’s own, at least partly invented, history and desires.


  1. My thanks to Xavier and Geraldine Pons for their hospitality during the drafting of this essay.
  2. I should explain that Kay is cast out from this female group initially because she is not interested in marriage: “It’s not my sort of thing,” she says when asked to look at Sandra’s engagement ring. “Kay’s into serial monogamy” is the retort she receives. The group’s dislike of Kay is intensified when she and Louis, who is supposed to be engaged to Sandra, become lovers. Kay is thus scorned as a rival. She does not see her behaviour in this way, however. Her own interpretative framework is drawn from prophecy and superstition. Louis has been read in the tea leaves. He is her destiny.
  3. In this way Sweetie compares with, but differs from, the women’s films of the classical Hollywood cinema where the secret, usually concealed in a forbidden room, is eventually revealed. See Mary Anne Doane in Christine Gledhill (ed.), Home is Where the Heart is, p.289
  4. See Ann Scott, ‘Feminism and the Seductiveness of the “Real Event”‘ in Feminist Review (Special Issue: Family Secret: Child Sexual Abuse), no 28, Spring 1988, p. 97.

About The Author

Sue Gillett is the author of Views from Beyond the Mirror: The Films of Jane Campion (ATOM, 2004). She lectures in film, literature and women's studies at La Trobe University Bendigo.

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