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  • Following the Impossible Road to Female Passion:Psychoanalysis, the Mundane, and the Films of Jane Campion
  • Hilary Neroni (bio)

Jane Campion’s films have a mise-en-scène and editing style that put into practice her female characters’ ways of seeing and desiring. Form, in the Campion film, attempts to express something essential about content. Campion’s main character is most often a woman driven by her passion with little or no care about how this passion might affect those around her. This is evident with the devotion to writing of Janet Frame (played by Kerry Fox) in An Angel at Her Table (1990), the engagement with the piano that Ada McGrath (played by Holly Hunter) evinces in The Piano (1993), and the fascination with poetry and words that Frannie Avery (played by Meg Ryan) displays in In the Cut (2003).1 Perhaps Frannie is representative of the Campion heroine: when asked if her fascination with words is a hobby or a job, Frannie replies “a passion.” Campion’s heroines challenge us to envision female passion in a new cinematic way. Despite their involvement in activities that might lead to celebrity, these characters are women who are not aiming to be famous; indeed, their passion constitutes their mundane routine or is an expression of it. And yet, it is their passion that defines them: this devotion to passion, in and of itself, marks [End Page 290] Campion’s heroines as radically different from the average female filmic protagonist.

In using the word “passion” here, I am invoking several ideas to describe Campion’s unique female characters. Their passions are strong feelings dedicated to creation of some sort (e.g., art, love, or other things or experiences). Passion functions as a mode of giving meaning, not just because it brings something significant into one’s life, but also because it gives expression to the very form of one’s subjectivity: it is the subject’s form of life that exceeds its mere bodily survival. As Campion depicts it, passion is a formal expression of the psyche, not just what one thinks but also how one thinks. Jacques Lacan’s idea of drive helps to illuminate this aspect of passion in Campion’s films. Drive is that point at which the psyche and the body intersect, and thus is an expression of our psychic structure, but in ways we don’t always consciously notice: for example, the way we see, touch, and hear. For Lacan, the drive’s defining characteristic is its ceaseless motion around a lost object that takes place without any final goal.

The drive, like passion, does not seek fulfillment in attaining an object. As Lacan points out, “what is fundamental at the level of each drive is the movement outwards and back in which it is structured.”2 Whereas desire moves toward the object that it privileges, the drive uses an object to sustain its circular motion rather than seeking its end in an object. Similarly, in Campion’s films the main character’s passion usually does not have a final goal or culmination (they do not, for example, culminate in a brilliant piano concert). It is instead a passion that has no goal outside of itself and yet is essential to how the main character creates and finds meaning in the world. The way she expresses her passion is an expression of her own singularity as a subject, whether through art, writing, sex, religion, or whatever activity she privileges.

Campion’s films set the stage for the intersection of the main characters’ passion and the social world. Most often, this intersection provokes a nontraditional or nonlinear narrative that demarcates a filmic world set slightly askew. Female passion does not simply exist within this skewed filmic world. Instead, for Campion, female passion is the source of this skewing of the world. The implicit critique in all of Campion’s films is that the traditional masculinist narrative, both globally and in Hollywood, has no room for female passion, and that a passionate woman does not fit within the boundaries of patriarchal ideology that subtend traditional narrative structures. Unlike the passion in classical cinema that relies on a traditional...


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pp. 290-310
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