Trees signify a myriad of themes in narrative storytelling, everything from growth and sturdiness to menace and disintegration. In Sweetie, Jane Campion’s stunning debut film about a troubled Australian family coming apart at the seams, the presence of trees takes on an altogether unnerving quality, representing the character’s doubts, fears, and repressed emotions in profound ways. Kay (Karen Colston), the straggly and unyielding center of Sweetie, confesses as much in her opening monologue about nature’s power and darkness. Kay’s strict perception, and ultimately unflinching disdain for specific natural markers, is linked to a childhood of great frustration caused by her unsettled and erratic black sheep of a sister, Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon). The objects and symbols of the past constantly remind her of this pain, a slow form of suffocation that inhibits any chance at closure. The trees aren’t the roots of the problem, but a stoic reminder of continuing traumas that won’t wither.
Kay’s fragile state is immediately apparent when she visits a suburban psychic and her handicapped son, a Lynchian session that leads her to seduce a co-worker’s fiancé named Louis (Tom Lycos) because of his disheveled lock of hair. Kay wants to believe in familial happiness, or even contentment, but this newfound invigoration grows stale after only a year. Louis is obviously in love with Kay, but she remains emotionally distant. This trend comes to a head when Louis decides to plant a young Alder in their backyard, an “anniversary tree” to represent their love. Kay reacts aggressively, believing its yellow leaves to be poisoned before rationalizing the roots will destroy the foundation of the house. She remains steadfast in her negative outlook on natural symbols, secretly ripping the tree up and placing its carcass under the guest room’s bed. Kay continues to drift away from Louis, sleeping separately in the room where the tree is hidden. Her personal space becomes a burial ground for past and present.
When Sweetie and her deadbeat boyfriend arrive unexpectedly (literally breaking into Kay’s house), every corner of Sweetie becomes infused with a certain degree of discomfort, proving that Kay doesn’t have a monopoly on suffering. Louis’s frustration with the now asexual Kay grows exponentially, and Campion expands the narrative to include parents Gordon (Jon Darling) and Flo (Dorothy Barr), a disjointed elderly couple trying to rekindle their own relationship. But it’s Sweetie, a delusional woman-child yearning to be both center of attention and favored daughter, whose violent outbursts and volatile behavior divides the family permanently. Particularly upsetting are the quiet moments between Sweetie and her father, who may or may not share an ongoing incestuous relationship hidden behind closed doors. These are small windows into her jaded point of view, moments of nonjudgmental observation crucial to Campion’s overall vision. Once again the motif of trees becomes essential, cover for Sweetie’s pain and a clearly defined border between emotionally distanced family members.
However bleak Sweetie occasionally becomes, Campion prefers lyricism and ambiguity to full-blown tragedy. Every interior space houses an intricate design pattern, melding floral wallpaper, colorful shades, and unique carpets resulting in a warmth that offsets the character’s deepening angst. Campion’s off-kilter compositions reveal poetry as well, with Kay’s legs, hands, and mouth often framed to punctuate the heightened mood of a specific moment. Sensuality lingers on the periphery like many other desires waiting to be discovered and not repressed. The densely personal mise-en-scène, often brimming with color and shade, beautifully reflects Campion’s diverse choices of music. Beginning with the call and response echoes of the Café of the Gate of Salvation Choir to the haunting rendition of “Love Me with All of Your Heart,” performed by a ghostly, juvenile Sweetie underneath the protection of a gigantic tree, music always provides a tonal context to the character’s shifting moods.
While Kay and Sweetie are sisters in name only, they represent the origin of Campion’s career-long obsession with female characters silently suffering in plain sight. It’s Louis’s fateful words that best describe both women’s stagnation and inevitable realizations about family. “Illusions don’t go away, they just become more subtle.” The long road from hopeful childhood to resentful adulthood is filled with small reminders of such a transition. Sweetie’s brilliance stems from how Campion inventively explores the relationship between inanimate objects and personal memory, Sally Bongers’s static camera lingering on the precipice of a family unit brimming with secrets and lies. Whether it’s the figurine horses Kay so lovingly clings to (and Campion so lovingly photographs), or the princess tree house Sweetie accidentally destroys in her final debilitating performance, each trinket relates to a specific space, containing a story, a memory, a desire. In order to understand why these experiences continue to affect us, we must allow them to branch out, flourish, and become ours again—truly passionate moments.
When Sweetie was announced as an upcoming Blu-ray release, I was overjoyed that a mass audience would get to experience Campion's lush and textured film on high-definition. Not surprisingly, the Criterion Collection has delivered a stunning 1080p transfer, cleaning up some of the skin tones and scratches on the standard-definition release. The intricate lighting and set designs are all superbly realized, presented in pristine clarity that affords the viewer a special look at Campion's attention to detail. One particularly sublime moment stands out: Gliding along a row of Kay's toy horses in a lateral tracking shot, the camera captures the unique glean and sheen of every object. The booming voices from the Café of the Gate of the Salvation Choir sound like chants from the afterlife, while the western twang of the banjo during the cowboy ranch sequence are equally affecting, indicators of an wonderfully realized sound design.
The same extras provided on the original standard definition disc are once again included on the Blu-ray edition. The audio commentary by Jane Campion, cinematographer Sally Bongers, and co-writer Gerard Lee covers their collaboration in film school, how personal relationships shaped the characters of Kay and Louis, and the vast tonal diversity in Sweetie. "Making Sweetie" nicely represents the rapport between stars Genevieve Lemon and Karen Colston, who discuss their experiences working on their first film together and being surrounded by energetic, creative women filmmakers. Three of Jane Campion's shorts films—1982's An Exercise in Discipline: Peel, 1983's Passionless Moments, and A Girl's Own Story—all exemplify the director's ongoing interest in familial discontent and fate. Another dry interview entitled "Jane Campion: The Film School Years," allows Campion to discuss her early experiences making films, doubts about attending university, and development of style and narrative technique. Behind-the-scenes production stills, a theatrical trailer, and a booklet featuring a very detailed analysis by film scholar Dana Polan are also included.
Natural forces war with repressed emotions in Jane Campion’s Sweetie, where the wind in the trees signifies the obscured memories and potential salvation of a family mired in stagnation.