The Piano | Critical Review by Stuart Klawans

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of The Piano.
This section contains 712 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Sarah Kerr

Critical Review by Stuart Klawans

SOURCE: A review of Sweetie, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 250, No. 7, February 19, 1990, p. 252.

In the following review, Klawans praises the narrative structure and visual style of Sweetie.

One of the first things you see in Sweetie is the muddy-hued, domestic equivalent of a Rorschach blot: the pattern in a carpet. The camera peers down on this floral invitation to daydreaming, which takes up most of the screen; to one side, a fragment of the narrator's body is visible. Kay (Karen Colston) begins to talk in voiceover about her fantasies, but you already know plenty about them from the image. Sweetie—the utterly distinctive and assured first feature by Jane Campion—will be about the meanings people read into whatever they choose to see as clues: tea leaves, a tossed coin, a stray curl of hair, a little girl's aptitude for clowning. And just as the opening shot is off-center, so too are the characters. Not only do they spend their lives interpreting auguries, but they invariably look at them askew.

Kay begins by deciding that her auguries lead straight to Lou (Tom Lycos). He is the sort of earnest, not-too-bright young man who, believing whatever he's told, spends a lot of his time trying to understand pure nonsense. Though engaged to one of Kay's friends at work—a commitment that has lasted "for fifty-five minutes," as he points out—he yields immediately when Kay declares, "I'm destined to be with you." Within seconds, the two are grappling on the grease-stained floor of the parking garage where Kay has made her revelation. "Lou said there are seven spiritual planes," she explains later on the soundtrack, "and the love we had was somewhere near the top."

The next time Kay reads an omen, though, it makes her heartsick. When Lou plants a tree in the backyard, Kay fears that the sapling portends doom. She has nightmares about germination—eruptions of fierce cytoplasmic tendrils, which roar like dinosaurs as their maws break open. Kay uproots the sapling, which means, quite naturally, that she also stops sleeping with Lou.

In a less original film, this would probably be the first fifteen minutes of a drama about pregnancy, or the lack of it. In Sweetie it leads instead to the arrival of the title character, a woman even more fantastical than Kay: her disorderly, willful, half-cracked sister (Genevieve Lemon). Whereas Kay is pretty in a pert, dark, conventional way (dampened by an expression of perpetual worry), Sweetie has a fat, puppyish face under a butchery of greasy hair. She considers herself a theatrical star, though she has never worked; she dresses in a style that might be called thrift-shope glamour, except that her clothes look more like the discards from the alley behind the shop. When first seen, just after she has invaded Kay's house, she is in bed with her current boyfriend and "producer," Bob (Michael Lake), regaling him, herself and anyone within earshot with the pleasure of her ample flesh.

Again, a more conventional film would probably set about contrasting the riotously life-affirming Sweetie with the dour, frightened Kay. But Sweetie continues to mutate. Very soon, Kay and Sweetie's parents enter the picture, and we begin to see how everyone here is atilt. Though Kay disavows any connection with Sweetie—"She was just born," she tells Lou, "I don't have anything to do with her"—the eccentric branchings of love have entangled her, too, along with the rest of the family. Kay sometimes fights Sweetie, sometimes humors her, sometimes conspires with the others against her, all in an effort to cope with someone who is either crazy or just an impossible burden, depending on your point of view.

With a narrative structure as skillfully off-center as its characters and visual style, Sweetie keeps the viewer in delighted suspense through a swift ninety minutes. There is no way to predict the next turn of events or camera angle, though once something has crossed the screen, it invariably feels just right. With the collaboration of Gerard Lee as co-screenwriter and with the help of a winning cast—especially Genevieve Lemon, in a self-sacrificing performance—Jane Campion has made a droll, witty, moving, understated triumph of a feature-film debut. It's set in Australia, by the way. Don't let that keep you from seeing it.

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This section contains 712 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Sarah Kerr
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