THE FIRST FEATURE film by Jane Campion, director of The
Piano, is scheduled to play this weekend at The Screening
Room, and it's well worth taking a trip downtown to check it out.
The 1986 film, Two Friends, has all the hallmarks of Campion's
early work--it's subtle, offbeat and surprisingly funny, though
the theme as a whole is one of sadness and loss.
Two Friends traces the friendship of two adolescent, Australian
girls through several rocky months in their lives and relationship.
Instead of progressing, the film follows the pattern of Pinter's
Betrayal and tells the story by hopping backwards through
time. At the beginning of the film, the friends Kelly (Kris Bidenko)
and Louise (Emma Coles) couldn't seem more different. Louise is
a rather straight-laced parochial schoolgirl concerned with getting
her homework done; Kelly is a fuming punkette drop-out living
on the beach with some guy. The two girls don't see each much
of each other and their friendship seems to have broken down.
Each time the story jumps back in time, we see a little bit of
Kelly's dissolution undone until, at the end of the movie, she
is as balanced and full of hope as Louise.
By moving back in time, Campion and Helen Garner, who wrote the
screenplay, accentuate the sadness of Kelly's incremental loss
of innocence. Sharper even than this loss is the sense that Kelly
is being somehow broken by the adults around her, who refuse to
notice she is clever and talented. Louise, by contrast, has much
more supportive parents who worry about buying her a case for
her French horn. One of the things that makes this film so good
is how complex and layered the relationships between the characters
are. Louise, for example, seems to feel guilty that her life is
so much easier than Kelly's, and this drives the two even further
Campion shows enormous sensitivity to the problems of girls in
this film. Unlike American fantasy versions of female adolescence
like Clueless, she takes the problems of girls very seriously,
in a wider, social sense and also on a case-by-case basis. In
other words, she treats them as whole people, complicated, worth
watching, and not always agreeable. You practically have to see
Two Friends to realize how rare this is, though Campion
achieves a similar feat in Sweetie, and Anna Paquin's role
in The Piano had something of this complexity about it
too. At one point Kelly has been left alone at her father's house
with one of his male friends, and for some reason she wanders
into his room and curls up next to him in bed. The man begins
making out with her; she responds for a minute, then jumps up
and runs out into the street. It's a disturbing but perceptive
depiction of a lonely adolescent girl testing out her new power
Campion achieves all this without much cinematic fanfare.
In fact, her technique in Two Friends is fairly minimal,
with mostly wide, stationary master shots. Campion seems more
interested in the variety of human emotions in Two Friends
than in telling a story in a conventionally cinematic way. Characters
wander in and out of the frame at will, and it's pretty much up
to the audience to decide which part of the story is significant.
This is not the Jane Campion of The Piano; there's nothing
operatic or overwrought about Two Friends. There are few
beautiful, sweeping shots. Instead it's more reminiscent of her
fabulous short Peel (which is out on videotape), a deadpan,
uncannily funny little film about a family battling over a discarded
The only problem with this technique is that without the lip-reading
help of close-ups, it gets difficult at times to understand the
Australian slang and accent of the girls, who nosh on "Vegemite"
and describe undesirable boys as "daggy." Despite this,
the performances of the young actors in this film are so natural,
and Campion's style is so unadorned, that at times Two Friends
begins to seem like a series of real-life vignettes, something
almost unheard of in Hollywood movies. Bidenko, as the rebellious
Kelly, is especially interesting to watch, not only because of
her fine, low-key performance, but because she doesn't look like
an actress at all. With her big legs, pink skin and unsympathetic
face, she looks more like a bad-girl teen guest on Jenny Jones
than someone who'd turn up on the silver screen. In such choices,
Two Friends is always an unusual film.