An Angel at my Table


I. Introduction

My memory of myself contains now myself looking outward and myself looking within from without, developing the view that others might have of me. (To The Is-land, p.143) (2)

In her 3-volume autobiography Janet Frame repeatedly links the problem of identity to matters of perspective. Her preoccupation with how others might see her, a typically feminine one, is both debilitating and a source of creative energy. On the one hand, looking within from without causes her to adopt and discard various socially approved feminine masquerades whilst her ‘real’ self remains in hiding. On the other hand, the fact that this self-scrutiny is balanced with an outward focused gaze leads her to investigate and articulate the power of this view from the other. The result is a literary autobiography in which the self revealed is simultaneously the self concealed. Frame is not fooled as Narcissus was by his image in the mirror.

Jane Campion is also a director who understands the intricate circuits of vision between a woman and the world she tries to see. Her films are remarkable for the independence they give to images of women and their gazes. In her adaptation of Frame’s autobiography Campion creates a visual language to match Frame’s literary preoccupation with seeing her self from both within and without and placing herself within those frames of vision.

In this paper I want to argue that Jane Campion, herself identifying with the ‘Janet Frame’ of her books, has created a film which psychoanalytically-inspired film theory has trouble imagining, one in which active and mobile female identifications are enabled beyond the stultifying logic of either narcissism or masochism. In my reading, An Angel At My Table creates a desiring female subjectivity in its particular imaging of the heroine as a woman who sees as much as she is seen, and who, in being seen, does not simply absorb the spectator’s look, but, in her agitation, throws it back. Unlike the voyeurs of classic narrative cinema, we become collaborators in Campion’s task of releasing her heroine from the mirror which freezes her image in its preordained poses, and lovingly framing a window from which she can safely gaze out and retreat at will.

II. Reframing The Mirror


The gap which strictly speaking separates identification and desire for the male protagonist . is abolished in the case of the woman. Binding identification to desire (the basic strategy of narcissism), the teleological aim of the female look demonstrates a becoming and hence, a dispossession. She must give up the image in order to become it. (3)

What concerns me here is the problem of identification, the relation of subjectivity to the representation of sexual difference and the positions available to female spectators. (4)

Psychoanalytic film theory worries about women’s identifications with women. The mirror is the dominant metaphor governing this worry. The Lacanian mirror phase and the Freudian narcissistic mirror have been central to psychoanalytic understandings of how the spectator’s psyche engages with screen images (5). These mirrors have received a great deal of feminist scrutiny since the 1970s due to the realisation that the mirror is far from neutral and innocently truthful: it can, in fact, create theoretical traps and distorted reflections (6). The mirror as narcissistic medium has been applied most damagingly to women, to their relations with themselves, other women and the screen. Theoretically speaking, women are confined to a closed relation of self-looking, trapped in their images, unable to have access to desire, unable to transcend this closed relation, this contiguity of their relation to their bodies, unable to release their otherness. Theorising loss as loss of the mother and desire as a compensatory and individuating relation to this original loss, psychoanalytic theory deprives women of desire by denying them a relation to loss. From a Lacanian perspective, women, it seems, lack desire because of the lack of difference between their mothers and themselves as daughters. They are mirror images, too close. This sameness of mothers and daughters throws them both into the abjected waste of the symbolic order and gives the ground of desire and language, of subject – object manipulations to men and the masculine.

Psychoanalytic theory describes the father as the “third term”, the one who effects this separation, unsuccessfully for the girl, as far as her psychic identification with her sex is concerned. With his sexual difference (penis as signifier) he marks out the route towards autonomous subjectivity and sexuality. Unable to identify, at least without perverse manoeuvring, the girl is lost without the possibility of a psychic mooring of her subjectivity in a sexed body consonant with her own. The daughter, if she doesn’t masculinise herself, repeatedly falls into a languageless loss: speechless, unable either to distance herself from the mother or to reinvent her, she abandons herself in her futile quest for subjectivity. In losing her mother she does not move along the linguistic chain to the place of a different signifier. No, she falls somewhere between sameness and difference, losing her self before she has found it. According to this reasoning the female spectator’s identification with the screen image of her sex is bound to be over-involved, lacking the distance required for the operation of desire, movement and subject positioning. Instead, she abjects herself, throws herself into the image, where she stagnates. This reasoning also has it that the movement of desire requires the overcoming of an obstacle: in manipulating an object one becomes a subject. In An Angel at My Table, the obstacle in Janet’s path is not the mother, the path to her subjectivity does not involve conquering or subduing or dominating an object: it involves freeing herself from the debilitating force of socially imposed identities. Theoretically and imaginatively, it becomes crucial to separate and relate the mother and the daughter, to allow the daughter her mourning and her survival, but without the necessity for an abjecting, an abandonment of the mother which can only leave her stranded.

…and dreams

With these issues of identification and images of mirrors preoccupying me, and an early draft of this paper written, I recently re-watched Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table (1990). That night I dreamt that I had false teeth which were rotten to the gum. I took them out to inspect them and they divided into four segments. Try as I might I could not put them back into my mouth. The parts were in the wrong order and they would not fit. Clumsily I poked at them, attempting to organise and subdue this painful mess of teeth. My mouth felt so thick and stuffed that I could not speak.

Here, clearly, was an unconscious reflection of my own identification with Campion’s representation of Janet Frame: her suffering, shame, bodily discomfort, indeed horror, and inarticulateness crystallised for me in the powerful abject image of a mouth full of decayed, false teeth. What do I make of this dream identification? Is it masochistic, an identification with pain? To an extent, yes. Certainly I took on the degradation and the fear. But there is a gap between my nightmare and the one projected onto the video screen, an important difference between my dream image and the screen image (and Frame’s autobiography for that matter) where a creative movement out of pain gathers direction. In my identification there is also interpretation: Janet’s decayed teeth were her natural teeth, I re-invented them as being false. But her false teeth, whilst providing the escape route from one bodily horror, lead her indirectly into an even deeper and more encompassing horror: the false teeth are strangely linked to her entrance into an eight year history of institutionally prescribed ‘madness’. Jars of false teeth arranged on a trolley are wheeled around the psychiatric ward by a nurse. They belong to patients who have had ECT. The toothless patients are gagged as they endure the shock treatment. They bite down on pieces of cloth with their bare gums as their bodies convulse. Much later Janet discovers that the diagnosis of schizophrenia was false. According to the Frame’s medical dictionary, schizophrenia is a gradual deterioration of the mind, without cure. Deterioration. Decay. False. The cure more damaging than the complaint, not true to the woman. My new image is more than a mirror image. It empathises with and revolts against the blocking of a woman’s mouth with falsehood.

In this paper I set myself the task of the envoy, receptive to the projection of new images and frames which don’t repeatedly return us to a closed specular economy for women’s self-reflections. Beyond masochism, beyond narcissism, the mirror might be reframed, the harsh returned glance of its empty eye might dissolve into the enlarged perspective of an open window.


Journeys In The Is-Land

A quest

The first image, dark against the bright colours of an outdoors landscape, taking up most of the screen space, mother with her arms outstretched. Towering without dominating. Carving a silhouette against the light. The first boundary, marking an early register of difference, shadow and light. The dark continent reaching out towards her daughter. She is seen from below, from the perspective of the baby Janet. She beckons: “Come on, a bit further, come on darling,” and creates a territory from and towards her. The second image, a baby’s feet and legs, taking steps across green grass. Mother assists: “Come on”. The beginning of a journey, starting from the beginning of the daughter’s recognition of her mother. The mother enabling the journey. The third image, body of a young girl now alone, fully visible and centrally situated in a gorgeous, perfectly satisfying landscape. Alone and on a road. The sky is blue, the yellow road parts the green, green hills. Her hair is red, red, red. The classical proportions of a child’s painting. An insistent visual effort to locate the female body in space, to not reduce her to space. She defines it through her journeying. Janet’s adult voice-over introduces us to the child and to her origins, informing us of her date of birth and that her twin brother died soon after birth. The spectre of death and bereavement accompanies her journey from the beginning. The child Janet walks towards the camera, alone and centred in that long parting road, giving definition, a point of entry, into the scenic world, looking directly at us, before taking fright-as if at the knowledge of her loss and lone survival-turning, and running back towards the horizon. Towards and away again: the boundaries of an adventure. The next image takes us to the horizon of adventure. A train, mid screen. A moving space. Inside, the children look out the window as the train approaches Seacliff, the mental institution. The film will return to this destination. Already it haunts and halts the possibility of locomotion for the young female traveller. Incarceration is the major obstacle impeding Janet’s life journey. She stares out of the train window at one of the “loonies” on the platform. Her mother’s hands on the glass, attempting to make a shield for her daughter against the sight, instead provide a shadowy frame through which the female viewer (Janet, us) is able to glimpse a portentous image. And yet this is not a reflection of her own future self, but an image of a man: institutionalised as mad. For now she is still looking safely through a window, from a distance, not yet practising a gaze for the mirror.

…into boundaried space

Janet’s story is largely one of suffering: from her childhood onwards she experiences grief, poverty and social stigmatisation, deprivation, fear and isolation, physical pain, manipulation. The film details such events as Janet’s enforced separation from her first friend, the shame of having an epileptic brother, the witnessing and fear of beatings at home, the deaths of two sisters, her attempted suicide, wrongful diagnosis of schizophrenia leading to eight years in a psychiatric hospital, betrayal by her first lover, a state of homelessness. How does the film evoke empathy for this character and make the visualisation of this painful narrative bearable? In Frame’s writing of her life this suffering is mediated and framed by the narrator’s voice, a first person voice which indicates the survival of the narrated, past tense character. Direct comment regarding the passage of time allows immediacy to be tempered with distance. Irony, perspective and self-reflectiveness also work to sympathetically frame the reader’s responses to Janet as a complex of past, present and future selves. Voice-overs can also signal first-person authorship and memory but without being able to sustain it as can the omnipresent narrative voice of writing. In place of this guiding and commenting voice Campion has developed a visual commentary which includes a careful and guiding eye, compassionate, intimate framing and patient camera work.

Let me take, as an example, the first extended narrative episode in the film. It involves Janet’s humiliation, shame and punishment at the hands of her brutal (though, we are given to understand, quite typical and ordinary) primary school teacher. Janet is first shown sneaking loose change from her father’s trouser pockets. Cut to her handing out lollies to her classmates, buying friends, as it were. Next we move to the classroom where a slow pan reveals that the pupils are all chewing gum. The warm humour evoked in these shots, enhanced by the rich, nostalgic, mellow golden light, quickly drains away as the camera focuses in upon the severe countenance and rigid body of the disciplinarian teacher. As she turns her interrogation upon the pupils Janet is named as the one responsible for this breach in classroom behaviour and punished for refusing to tell “the truth” about how she got the money, refusing, that is, to indict herself (“My father gave it to me,” Janet insists). The camera moves in to a sustained close-up of Janet’s tearful, anguished face with its lonely shadow mirrored darkly against the blackboard. The elements of this episode are repeated many times in other contexts throughout the film: the clash between truth-driven discipline and the different truth of emotion; between narrow-minded conformity and yearnings for imaginative freedom; the lonely figure of suffering in an unmoved institutional environment. Deep sympathy for the little girl’s trapped misery is evoked in this scene in ways which become characteristic. The camera stays close to Janet, lingers, defines a protective space around her. It contains her, providing a sympathetic boundary within which her painful experience can be held and understood. As she cries at the blackboard the camera softly frames the sunshine in her red hair, caresses like the palm of a hand. Later, when Janet as a young adult again stands trapped against a blackboard, in fear of the inspector at the back of the classroom, this framing is repeated. Patiently the camera stays with Janet as she stares at the inexplicable chalk in her hand. Now that she is an adult, this event becomes a ‘breakdown’, and yet it is not sensationalised but compassionately rendered. There is no dizzying angling, nothing frenetic in the montage or the score. As she runs from the school she is kept in centre frame, shot from a steady perspective. The mother’s framing hands cannot change what happens, but their presence makes a difference. When viewed, across time, she is not entirely alone.

The spaces traversed by Janet are created in the film as spaces which Janet defines. Typically they are not huge, romantic, exotic, panoramic, but, more often they are intimate. It is as if the camera operates to create ‘manageable’ relations between the female artist and her external environments, be they built or ‘natural’. I read this composition as an effort to create contained locations in which Janet’s emerging desire can travel in directions which do not repeatedly circle back to the castrated/phallic mother, causing the girl/woman to be without a place at all, without a means of putting herself into the world, or to journey, only, in the ill-fitting shoes of a man. Woman as landscape to be narratively controlled and visually surveyed is a familiar trope in cinema, as well as in other mediums such as literature and art. In this trope woman is the maternal feminine, the location of loss, a land to be occupied and deserted, a site to be plundered by its opposite, the masculine imaginary. In place of this representation of space as maternal An Angel at My Table constructs space as grounded imaginative connection. The elements of the maternal which continue to play a role in the construction of space are aligned more with the screen, the frame, than with its interior, providing an empathetic boundary, a moving threshold which keeps company with the heroine without inhibiting or fracturing her movement. And it needs to. Travel, for a heroine, for a woman whose traditional place and meaning has been home, is not easy. Nor is it easy for this particular woman, born into a poor and sometimes nomadic family, in the rigid and conformist society of 1930s New Zealand.

…to and from the mirror

…out of a desire to be myself, not to follow the ever-dominant personalities around me, I had formed the habit of focusing in places not glanced at by others, of deliberately turning away from the main view…My memory of myself contains now myself looking outward and myself looking within from without, developing the view that others might have of me. (Frame, 1984:143).

In To The Is-land Janet Frame makes connections between the search for an identity and the search for a place in which she can be at home. In Campion’s film images of mirrors, whilst not abundant, play a significant role in expressing this connection. They create an extended metaphor for preoccupations with identity, identifications and alienation as well as being a literal instrument through which Janet’s frustrated quest for selfhood is partly measured. There are five occasions in which Janet’s reflection in a mirror is highlighted. The first of these follows two short scenes in which a classmate, Shirley, features: a classroom scene in which the English teacher praises Shirley for being a dreamer; a music class in which Shirley impresses the other girls with her soulful singing. Like Janet, whose sister Myrtle has recently drowned, Shirley has suffered a grief-in Shirley’s case the death of her father. This combination of bereavement and being “lost in the poetic world of [her] imagination” gives Shirley a quiet kind of fame amongst the other schoolgirls. Janet (whom Frame describes as “in an adolescent homelessness of the self” [TTI, 136]), wanting to inhabit the identity of poet, to possess the quality of imagination, tries on the persona for herself by practising the facial expressions, the poetic sigh and the affectedly absent-minded hair twirling of ‘The Dreamer’ in her bedroom mirror. As a university student she stands before the same mirror repeating aloud the compliment paid to her by the psychology lecturer, John Forrest., with whom she is infatuated: “You have a real talent for writing.” As she speaks she adopts the pose of a sexually assured and admired woman, drawing down one strap of her petticoat to reveal and stroke a glamorous neck and chest. Searching for an outward form to reflect her desired identity as a writer and confusing it with her budding sexual desire Janet fastens upon the unlikely and superficial image of the idealised movie star. Ironically, John Forrest is at this same moment standing in the corridor outside Janet’s room, with two other medical professionals who have come to encourage Janet to seek a rest cure in the psychiatric hospital. An image of nervous insecurity promptly replaces that of the glamour star when a knock at the door startles Janet from her fantasy. This fall from the mirror reinforces the notion of the mirror as ultimately disappointing, as unable to offer a route to transcendence. A little earlier her mirrored smile had thrown back the unflattering image of her rotten teeth. And yet the mirror continues to exert power. Even after she has become a published writer and is lauded by her publisher, Janet uses the mirror to practice the smile and demeanour expected of a successful writer and appropriate to the new hairstyle also adopted (under pressure) to mark her status. The point of these scenes is to underscore Janet’s desire to find and become an ideal self, the ideal being constructed through a negotiation between the constraints and potentialities of her body and experiences and the possibilities suggested by others. She does not study her own self in the mirror-she performs for the mirror. What is striking about these mirror-scenes is the lack of confirmation of identity they provide and the limited cultural repertoire of images available to the artistically motivated woman seeking to build her social self. The mirror reflects a social mask, or the desire for one: it signals, ironically, the wide gap between the authenticity and originality sought after and the socially motivated self-construction. The sympathetic laugh of recognition offered by these scenes return the mirror images to their grounding in the frustrating limits of the lived body. The images resist a pull into narcissistic fantasy by making desire itself the focus.

Janet’s search for identity swerves into a more fruitful path when it is embraced as a search conducted through the imagination. Her attempts to create an identity through more socially interactive means lead to the adoption of disastrous masquerades, principally the masquerade as the mad genius, the schizophrenic, but also the masquerades of the studious woman without appetite, the woman who always wanted to be a schoolteacher, the pure and sexless Janetta. Janet attempts to mirror the acceptable identities proposed for her by others: John Forrest’s Van Gogh; her aunt’s “no trouble at all”; Patrick’s “fancy free” woman; Francesca’s innocent and pure Janetta. These are all impostors, identities which cripple and isolate Janet; she never can become merged with the mirror, as her suffering, her survival and her writing attest. Her real identity as a writer is much less visible, existing not in the outward signs of gesture, dress, appearance, teeth, hair, conversation, but in the process of writing. There is a single occasion when Janet’s reflection appears comfortably in the mirror. She is sitting before the mirror in her London boarding-room, typing. She looks up, but not into the mirror. The mirror is there for us, holding her creatively-absorbed image. We see her as a writer as she does not see her own self.

As well as mirrors, windows figure significantly in the mise en scène of An Angel at My Table. In contrast to the flat and empty mirror which reflects the hobbling of Janet’s imagination under the demands of the social body, the windows through which Janet is frequently viewed also offer her a more enlarged view. In the Spain sequences of the film Janet, on several occasions, is shown writing before an open window, suggesting a conjunction of sexual expansiveness and writerly freedom. It is in this section of the autobiography that Frame introduces the concepts of the envoy and the mirror city, concepts rendered visually by the film through this focus on the open view returning to the creative viewer. Framed by the window Janet is still contained, but protectively, as in the early scene where her mother’s hands frame the daughter’s view out of the train window. The final image of the film is of Janet, writing in the caravan in her sister June’s backyard. She is filmed from outside the caravan, through a rounded window, suggesting the internal space of a home. The intimate frame is visible, enveloping, maternal, but offering a view out too, offering a two way view. Janet looks up at the window, not out to the outside but out to the inside, the window offering a view to return to her writing. She speaks the words she has found to write, comforting words, paralleling the film’s aesthetic: “Hush, hush, hush.”


Visualising The Writer’s Vision

This, the other world

I wanted my life to be the “other world”. (TTI, 126)

Frame writes in To The Island that as a child she would have liked to have been regarded as a dreamer. As mentioned earlier, she envies one of her school friends whose absentmindedness and problems with maths are kindly viewed by the teacher as evidence of her imagination. ‘”What a dreamer you are Shirley! Always lost in your poetic world of imagination.”‘ (TTI, 114) However, she also claims that she wanted ‘an imagination that would inhabit a world of fact, descend like a shining light upon the ordinary life of Eden Street, and not force me to exist in an ‘elsewhere.’ (TTI, 126). She disliked Keats, ‘a poet who could go into such boring details about his feelings as to say ‘My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains/my sense.’ (TTI, 120). Janet’s writing protects her from her shyness and social isolation but not in the sense of providing an escape into fantasy. Frame describes her childhood imagination as practical and grounded in the ordinary. The young Janet is obstinate in resisting the call of poets to locations beyond her experience and in returning the extraordinary in her reading to the familiar sights and events in her own history. For instance, her interpretation of Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ relies upon an anchoring of its characters and moods in her local environment:

In my ignorance, not even familiar with the biblical story of Ruth, I thought only of a girl at school, Ruth, who had left school early to have a baby; and having no experience of nightingales, my Eden Street having been filled night and morning with the moaning and cooing of the pigeons of Glen Street, and with the chattering of the flocks of goldfinches that haunted our garden, I felt the reality only of those ‘hungry generations,’ the perilous seas, and the faery lands forlorn. (TTI, 121.)

Of the relationship of literature to her life, of literature as the place where she lived, Frame writes:

it was not an escape in the sense of a removal from the unhappiness I felt over the sickness at home or from my own feeling of nowhereness in not having ordinary clothes to wear even to prove that I was a human being and there was a peopled world beyond home and school; there was no removal of myself and my life to another world; there was simply the other world’s arrival into my world, the literature streaming through it like an array of beautiful ribbons through the branches of a green, growing tree, touching the leaves with unexpected light that was unlike the expected deserved habitual light of the sun and the seasons. (TTI, 142. My emphasis.)

Although she is lonely, literature is not the refuge of the lonely; although she is shy and isolated, it is not a withdrawal from the world; although she is fearful and timid, it is not a hiding place. The life brought to language in Frame’s autobiography is a life in language, a life ordered through memories of the effort of the imagination to verbally compose itself. Words do not belong to a second order of experience doomed to chase the tail of a first order of lived experience. Nor are they the means of transcending the immediate reality of living. Words are where the living happens. The ‘other’ world of imagination is not a refuge from this world-it is folded into this world. Or perhaps it is the other way around. Elsewhere and the other world make their way from the mirror city to irradiate this one.

If desire is predicated upon loss of the original object, the mother, and woman cannot control that loss because she already has nothing to lose, then woman’s desire is either aimless or self-destructive. However, these scenarios only makes sense in a context where difference must be played out oppositionally against the phallic measure. Janet’s desire, whilst stifled and difficult, is not aimless: it is stubbornly directed towards writing. In An Angel at My Table Janet’s losses, which mark out her increasing isolation, are compensated by writing. Writing becomes the limit which her subjectivity leans toward. It is also her salvation. She literally writes her way out of the psychiatric institution which misdiagnoses and mistreats her. The losses which she suffers (her mother’s outstretched arms, her best friend, her two sisters, mother and father) are not entirely recuperated, or denied, by writing. But writing does function as the object of desire for the heroine, that which she quests after, that which sustains her subjectivity and gives her consciousness of otherness in the world. Writing provides another container enabling Janet to connect with and have some distance from that world. Writing, as a means of access to the other world’s entrance into this world, provides a trope for rethinking the daughter-mother relation in terms of a permanent tension between separation and attachment, sameness and difference, one and two.

…. the other self, imagined

To define autobiography is a large and vexed task, and one which I don’t wish to take up here. But in thinking about the translation of Frame’s autobiographical trilogy to the screen it must be asked how a film can hope to render the autobiographical nature of Frame’s writing. An autobiography is, of course, composed by the author of that life. Clearly then, An Angel at My Table cannot be called autobiographical in the sense of being scripted or directed or produced by the author of the life. But the film is also not biographical: it does attempt to give the telling of the life to the one who has lived it, Frame. Campion’s film insistently stays with Janet’s experience from Janet’s perspective. Her ever-present screen image is more a witness within the film than an object of consideration. Nothing happens or is seen without Janet’s presence in the scene: the film refuses outside commentary. The significance of all events relates to the interpretations Janet makes, the effects she registers, the consequences she must manage.

It is commonplace in film-book comparisons to talk of faithfulness. This is a concept which is not without its problems since it is frequently used to privilege the book (as source) over the film (as translation) whilst obscuring the very different signifying resources and capabilities of writing and filming (7). Nonetheless, I want to inflect the concept somewhat differently in order to get at the non-hierarchical yet indebted relationship between two authors. I want to say that Campion’s An Angel at My Table is faithful to Frame’s autobiography, specifically to the writerly vision of the writer’s life. It is faithful, then, not simply in terms of not altering the story (which at certain points it does), but in its inventiveness, in its construction of a filmic language which allows “imagination” to be, as Frame puts it, “only a word”. (TTI, 140). Frame was consulted by Campion, Brigitte Ikin and Laura Jones on various occasions during the making of the autobiography into a film. She seems to have been pleased by the result. I have also read this remark:

Of course, it is not my life. (8)

I don’t take this to be meant as a qualifier of her approval, but rather a statement about representation, narrative, image, about language. A film text does not mirror life any more than autobiography does. The mirror city can only arrive in this world via the envoy. As well as working literally, Frame’s statement can also alert us to a way of reading the film which is not dependent upon the measure of reflective reproduction. It also helps me to think about the possibilities for women’s exchanges of identifications, beyond the concept of narcissism: it/she is close, but it/she is not me. An important means by which the ‘faithfulness’ of An Angel at My Table is achieved is through its creation of a relationship between texts, where neither is subordinated to the other’s superior reality. An Angel at My Table is a reading of the autobiographies informed by respect for that text and its writer. The film is modest. It does not compete with the source texts. Nor is it self-effacing, simply a mirror for the subjectivity of the other.

This leads me to think about the interaction between faithfulness and identification in the task of lovingly creating a film as a means of exchanging an experience of being touched by reading. Campion has said that Frame’s novels and stories had reached into her understanding of her own childhood. In making An Angel at My Table she had wanted to share her love of Frame with a wider audience. This task involves the communication of at least two potentially contradictory, irreconcilable experiences for the director: the reader’s and the writer’s. At least two subjectivities are involved, and a third, in the form of the spectator, is also called into being and addressed. The film itself becomes an analogy for this generative relation, an exit through the mirror relation via identification. Faithfulness becomes not a submission of one text (and its subjectivity) to the power of the other, nor a capturing of the other text (and its subjectivity) in this one, but the construction of a relation in which the faithful text moves towards that “other” world which neither text can simply reflect. In being faithful to the writer’s vision of this other world the film must be simultaneously dependent, attached, and independent: dependent because of the mission to present the vision of another and independent because that vision relies upon an openness to otherness, the experience of subjectivity as a movement between a boundaried self and an unknowable self. The film, therefore, must do its own work in generating this ceaseless and unfinished subjectivity, generating an un-identical, unfixed position, a little to the side perhaps, from which the female spectator may align her sights.

…for the female spectator

Identification for the female spectator with the female screen-character evolves in relation to an autobiographical character whose narration guides her moving images and is supported by a detached yet interested direction. These images are of a changing yet continuous experiential body, whose agency is immediately established in terms of her femaleness. The female body imaged in An Angel at My Table is not abstract, generalised or idealised. It is not archetypal or mythologised but is, rather, specific, particular and historicised. It is not singular. Janet’s body, in specular terms, alters over time. Not only does this body age, its image is also allowed to register such variables as emotion, stress and fatigue through a flexibility of appearance which is not reduced to the cosmetic. The face blotches with tears and blushes in embarrassment, blemishes appear, bad teeth are visibly hidden behind a nervous hand. The conventional repertoire of female poses, gestures and appearances, the repertoire which describes the feminine body around the terms of classical and grotesque, is abandoned in favour of a greatly expanded repertoire which can tolerate an interchange between these terms. This body is imaged in terms of how it is experienced and inhabited, that is, in terms of a female subjectivity lived in relation to significant female bodily events such as menstruation, pregnancy and miscarriage.

In not objectifying, fixing or capturing the heroine, in giving her a body to subjectively inhabit, the film enables the spectator’s relation to her to be defined neither through the “feminine” processes of narcissism or masochism or the “masculine” processes of voyeurism or fetishism. This process of identification with a female image which does not arrest the narrative or the gaze, allows a space for female experiential differences to circulate, through allowing space for comparison between the spectator’s experiences and the heroine’s. The female spectator may look out with Janet, anticipating the shape of the journey ahead, rather than be pulled and absorbed into her reflection. Refusing the classical cinematic devices which follow the female body as a visual spectacle, making it an object of fascination, An Angel at My Table creates a marked alliance of the camera with a female ‘flow’ of view. There is an assumption and production of an identificatory female spectatorship and a refusal to accent what have historically been described as male psychic structures of sexual differentiation. The camera, in looking at Janet (and other female bodies), also looks with her. There is an intertwining of these looks, an oscillation backwards and forwards between seeing her and being her.

Identifying with the process of freeing one’s subjectivity from a maddening order, from the institutions and authorities which imprison a woman’s creative desire and unnameable identity, the female spectator may receive yet “another” text, delimited by a specifically female framing and direction-the mother’s hands, the daughter’s story. Rather than seeing her image reflected back the identifying female spectator may look towards the place where the looking goes, where other women look, a place that exists in the looking. An imaginary place perhaps. Desire does not only look backward or inward, seeking mastery of or comfort in the mother. It flows towards this, the other world. And it flows from women.

…via the envoy from mirror city

The world stays on the outside, mirror-like, and she, her reflection partially attached, records her wonder at it. Janet looks into her looking glass, practising a number of reflections for a public audience. We see the performance of the feminine, the dreamy girl with the far away look, the seductive woman. These are fleeting images, there by way of contrast. These images do not bounce back, entrancing, capturing her-they fall flat at the knock at the door as the knowledge of her actual observed self rushes to the defence. The mirror is not true, does not deceive. The ideal self which sustains her throughout it all is not the one in the mirror. In fact, she is the receiver of the envoy, not the mirror. She moves past the obstacles in the way of her narrative, setting her sights on a self-generating horizon.

* * *

This essay was refereed.


  1. A rather different version of this essay was first presented at the Screen Conference in Glasgow, June 30-July 2, 1996, under the title “Identities and Identifications: Jane Campion’s An Angel At My Table“.
  2. Janet Frame, To the Is-Land Volume 1, The Women’s Press, London, 1984, p.143. Other works cited are Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table The Women’s Press, London, 1984 and Janet Frame, The Envoy From the Mirror City, The Women’s Press, 1984.
  3. Mary Ann Doane, ‘Caught and Rebecca: The Inscription of Femininity as Absence’ in Constance Penley (ed.), Feminism and Film Theory, New York: Routledge, 1988, p. 199
  4. Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema, London: Macmillan, 1984, p.75
  5. In ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, for instance, Laura Mulvey writes, ‘Quite apart from the extraneous similarities between the screen and the mirror (the framing of the human form in its surroundings, for instance) the cinema has structures of fascination strong enough to allow temporary loss of ego while simultaneously reinforcing the ego.’ Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Screen 16, no 3, Autumn 1975, pp 6-18.
  6. It is not my intention, in this section, to directly engage the specific intricacies of psychoanalytic theory, but rather to sketch out the context in which the possibilities for female identity and desire have been considered. The following ‘summary’ draws from a range of writers working in the psychoanalytic tradition. See, for instance, the writings of Pam Cook, Claire Johnson, Laura Mulvey, Jacqueline Rose and Mary Ann Doane and Teresa de Lauretis on feminism, film and psychoanalysis. The train of my own departure from the Freudian and Lacanian platforms is influenced by the creative critiques of Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva.
  7. See Brian McFarlane, Novel to Film: An Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation, Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1996.
  8. An Angel at My Table – a sleeper waking up to fame…and fortune?’ The Sydney Morning Herald (February 16, 1991, p. 45).

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.

Related Posts