Writing for Playboy magazine last year, Kate Hagen investigated the state of sex in cinema. Working on a hunch that sex was slipping away from our screens, her hypothesis proved to be correct. “Only 1.21 percent of the 148,012 feature-length films released since 2010 contain depictions of sex,” she wrote —the lowest percentage since the 1960s. It might seem counterintuitive that sex in film could be taboo in a world saturated with pornography, but shifting market demands are pushing sex back into the shadows.
Among the filmmakers who consistently and intelligently deal in eroticism, Jane Campion has showcased boundary-pushing depictions of feminine desire for over three decades.
In an era where women still represent the minority of filmmakers and sex on the big screen has continue to diminish, Campion’s cinema explores new depths of desire by examining how the erotic imagination can transform reality. With most of her filmography recently made available for streaming on the Criterion Channel, there’s a new opportunity to delve into her work, including some of her lesser-known films.
In spite of an all-star cast, The Portrait of a Lady (1996) — an adaptation of the Henry James novel — struggled to find critical success at the time of its release. Starring Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer, Campion reimagines the tale of an innocent woman of independent means swindled by Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey) and Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich). Isabel’s fortune allows her unusual freedom for a woman in a repressive society; it also makes her a target. Campion’s vision, however, reimagines Isabel’s fall as willing.
As outlined by philosopher Georges Batailles, at the heart of eroticism is the transgression against taboo. In a society structured to repress women, desire presents an opportunity for rebellion. Campion’s filmmaking lingers on the sensuality of this dynamic — the stiff textures of costumes, the cracks in crockery and canvases, and cold wisps of warm breath. The film’s rich textures invite the viewer to touch and engage with the sensual environment by looking, drawing us deeper into Isabel’s world.
Under Campion, Isabel becomes a more active participant in her downfall than she was in the novel. When Osmond, prematurely, declares his love for Isabel and she refuses him, their parting ends in their first touch. Osmond, dangling her parasol moves to return it but won’t let go; the umbrella, like an electrical conductor, draws them together. Their fingers touch briefly, and Osmond goes in for a kiss; their mouths barely meet, but it almost seems as if Osmond will swallow Isabel whole, shattering her sense of self. From this moment onward, Isabel becomes so entranced that she forgoes self-preservation. While she knows that Osmond will likely ruin her, the power and promise of his touch propel her towards self-effacing destruction.
Throughout Campion’s filmography, moments where the erotic imagination and the sensual reality meet abound; Keitel’s (George Baines) finger lightly prodding a hole in a stocking in The Piano, Janet Frame (Kerry Fox) in An Angel at My Table absent-mindedly playing with an orange rind as she reads Byron and the orgasmic spiritual transcendence Ruth (Kate Winslet) experiences in Holy Smoke as a guru grazes her third eye.
Campion treats eroticism as transgression in these films and beyond. It becomes a way of acting against social and cultural expectations — the act of infringing upon taboos becomes the source of need. Touch becomes an anchor for imagination. As fewer films explore sex and the nature of desire on screen, Campion astutely demonstrates how eroticism can explore the limits of the self and society.
The Portrait of a Lady (1996), The Piano (1993), An Angel at My Table (1990), and Holy Smoke (1999) — all directed by Jane Campion — are now available to stream on the Criterion Channel.