By Ty Burr
Updated May 20, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

An Angel at My Table

  • Movie

Sometimes a filmmaker can’t win for winning. At first, The Piano (1993, LIVE, R, priced for rental) was welcomed as the greatest slab o’ cinema since Citizen Kane-or at least The Crying Game. The artsy New Zealand melodrama won top prize at Cannes and was released in America to rapturous reviews. Writer- director Jane Campion was hailed as the new visionary on the block.

Then came the backlash. He-man writers pointed with disdain at the musty ”woman’s film” plot. Tight-lipped old ladies (of both sexes) groused that mute heroine Ada (Oscar winner Holly Hunter) wasn’t very nice to poor old Stewart (Sam Neill), especially since he had paid to have her shipped over to that godforsaken jungle outpost before trying to rape her. And since the party line was that the movie was art — i.e., good for you — nobody but Charlie-the-Tuna types figured it could taste good.

Hey, folks, could it be possible that the truth might lie in the middle? That The Piano could take a tried-and-true gothic sensibility and do a decent job of revitalizing it through Campion’s off-kilter visuals? That creating a heroine who is stubborn, headstrong, and not totally ”likable” may not be an entertainment crime? (I bet all those old ladies aren’t totally likable either.) That this may be less of a love story and more of an inquiry into the way that Western civilization’s values can mutate and warp in the colonial fringes?

I guess what I’m trying to do here is rescue The Piano for those who haven’t seen it yet — though that may be impossible. Not only has the hype/backlash machine done its damage in the form of hardened expectations, but this is a movie that really needs a movie theater to work. It’s a malarial fever dream with one foot in Bronte and the other in mad Hollywood melodramas like The Letter, and as such it needs to be a lot bigger than your head when you watch it.

Maybe it would help to pull your chair up real close to the TV, or to prep for the video by buying the CD of Michael Nyman’s swoony piano score (it’s an anachronism, but it’s catchy). Or maybe it helps to work up to The Piano by renting Jane Campion’s previous films, in order to get a bead on her particularly stylized sensibility. The tough-to-locate Films By Jane Campion (1991, First Run) collects three of her surreal early shorts: Peel (1982), a vivid shard of family-on-a-car-trip discontent; Passionless Moments (1984), a catalog of droll non-events that could have been scripted by New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast; and A Girl’s Own Story (1983), a tragic, impenetrably weird tale of early-’60s adolescence. It’s rocky stuff, but Campion’s aggressive uniqueness — and her interest in the mundane nightmares of family life — is in every frame.

Sweetie (1989, International), the director’s first feature film, was her breakthrough to the international art-house audience. A tale of two siblings — comically repressed Kay (Karen Colston) and overbearing nutcase Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon) — the film unfolds in a discomfiting cinematic universe somewhere between David Lynch and TV’s Sisters. Campion’s insistence on putting what’s in her head onto the screen with as few filters as possible is impressive, all right, but be warned: If you didn’t like The Piano‘s Ada, you will hate Sweetie.

With An Angel At My Table (1990, Columbia TriStar), Campion found a kindred spirit. Based on three autobiographies of New Zealand poet Janet Frame, Angel has a heroine so benumbed by inner visions that she was misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic and institutionalized for eight years. But rather than delivering an expose like The Snake Pit, Campion offers a disarmingly gentle portrait of an artist coming into her own. It’s her trickiest and most delicate film.

In this context, The Piano looks downright conventional, but the simplicity of its love-triangle story carries seismic power if you’re open to it. Anyway, Campion doesn’t seem to care; she makes the films she wants and darts out from under labels like mercury on a countertop. Is The Piano a gothic-novel rip- off? Then why does the ending playfully chuck the whole notion of tragic destiny? Is it a male-bashing feminist tract? Then why is Harvey Keitel’s Baines so tender? Why does Ada’s daughter, Flora (Oscar winner Anna Paquin), become her mother’s betrayer?

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If nothing else, Campion’s imperious originality reminds you how craven Hollywood directors are when it comes to expressing anything that can’t be articulated for a studio press release. Watching her movies is like meeting those rare people who actually have the courage of their convictions. Liking them isn’t the point. Meeting them is. The Piano: B+; Films by Jane Campion: C+; Sweetie: B-; An Angel at My Table: B+

An Angel at My Table

  • Movie
  • R
  • 158 minutes