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Jane Campion’s moral wilderness

Discussed in this essay:

Top of the Lake. Sundance Channel.

Jane Campion’s police procedural Top of the Lake — a miniseries that aired this spring on Sundance Channel and is now available on Netflix — has the look of transcendence and the theme of sexual postapocalypse. The catastrophe that is men and the different catastrophe that is women are foregrounded against the romantic sublime — breathtaking and perhaps occasionally computer-enhanced locations in New Zealand, shot unmockingly by the Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (who also shot the crime drama Animal Kingdom). The landscape gives Campion’s tragic ironies and bone-dry comedy a little something spiritual upstage, like a humming chorus. Part Deliverance, part Road Warrior, part Winter’s Bone, part Hobbit — as well as part Old Testament and part New — Top of the Lake creates, in spite of its self-aware collaging, something quite original in this harsh, lush South Pacific. For Americans unfamiliar with this fantastical backdrop, it may in its initial minutes seem to be Japan or British Columbia, with high mountains plummeting dizzyingly to water. One is reminded of Ava Gardner’s (probably apocryphal) comment on arriving in Melbourne to film On the Beach. “I’m here to make a film about the end of the world,” she is said to have told the press, “and this seems to be exactly the right place for it.”

Although much of the patchworked story occurs in a small town where the Southern Lakes police have a station and desks and look at files and interrogate witnesses in an aggressive fashion, Campion is interested primarily in two adjacent communities — one of women and one of men — both of which have gone off the grid. These communities consist of refuseniks of the libertarian and sexual variety, staked out against modernity, supporting their lifestyles with illegal activities (in the case of the men) and divorce settlements (in the case of the women). Using a dozen or so shipping containers, a string of outdoor lights, and a generator, the women have set up a desert sanctuary — on a plot of land called (thank you, Toni Morrison) Paradise. There are massages, meditation and hairstyling sessions, support discussions, and naked Gauguin-style swimming, plus a pseudoguru named GJ, played with crisp, enigmatic derision by Holly Hunter. Under GJ’s guidance, the group’s consciousness is not so much raised as smacked around. She believes in biology as the primary teacher of her flock. “Just go with the body!” she goads them, letting it be known that she despises their minds. The women who have followed GJ here are recovering addicts of various kinds. They include Bunny, who pays men to have seven minutes’ worth of sex with her, and Anita, from Syracuse, New York, who is getting over the grief of having had to euthanize her best friend, a violent and possessive chimpanzee. GJ is a figure of mysterious magnetism and caprice. She has picked the settlement’s location totally at random, closing her eyes and putting her finger on a map. Campion does not overuse her, which makes her every appearance in the series riveting.

The men, on the other hand, are the local lugs. Sometimes seen in the dartboard-decorated pub, the younger ones occasionally communicate in animal sounds: they are largely the motherless sons of the area’s de facto patriarch, a drug dealer named Matt Mitcham, who, as a major landowner, controls the area’s law enforcement and seems to have sired half the town’s population. (The threat of incest lies everywhere in Campion’s story line.)

The mesmerizing Scottish actor Peter Mullan plays Mitcham as a bellicose aging hippie gun-nut anarchist, one with an inexplicable brogue. Like all great villains, he controls the series as he controls the community: with charisma and bullying. That he is rough-and-tumble handsome makes the viewer’s response to him all the more uneasy. One may find oneself hoping that a good-looking man depicted washing a dish or two, as he is, won’t turn out to be completely evil. Mitcham also regularly flogs himself with a belt, stripped to the waist and on his knees, before his mother’s gravestone. He holds the series together through sheer force of personality, and the moment he appears by surprise, midlake, from below the deck of a large motorboat is one of the most hair-raising screen/scream moments since Jessica Walter emerged from the next room as the new apartmentmate in Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me. When Mullan as Mitcham is absent, Campion’s world grows safer, less full of dread, and less interesting. Even in the final episode of the series, when his ostensible cremains are placed triumphantly on a tabletop, they possess the feeling of a genie in a bottle.

Elisabeth Moss does serviceable work as the dewy-skinned detective Robin Griffin, who comes to town to visit her dying mother and escape a fiancé about whom she is ambivalent. Like the other women, she is there for a “bit of a think,” as she puts it to Al, a local police sergeant, on one of their several dates — but soon she is investigating the disappearance of a pregnant twelve-year-old named Tui, who happens to be (what else?) the daughter of Matt Mitcham. When asked who the father of her baby is, Tui writes on a scrap of paper “No one.” Tui’s confusion as to how she became pregnant is less diffidence or ignorance or a virgin-birth allusion than a real clue to solving the case. Alas, it is continually misinterpreted. As in most police procedurals, each step forward by the detective is at a diagonal, so each hunch is at once astute, revealing, and slightly inaccurate. Because the path to answers is zigzagging and in constant need of correction, and because Campion has seven episodes to fill, there is room for detour. Sexually violent backstories are ignited (Griffin, we discover, was gang-raped at a high school prom and subsequently had a child of her own); new characters come to town and earlier ones disappear; blind alleys are run up, with or without canine assistance. A face-concealing blue hoodie becomes the most plot-pointed hoodie since the red one used to terrifying effect in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Like Roeg’s Venice, Campion’s town is an insular maze with plenty of secrets, as well as a built-in idea that no one is really watching. Many of its residents, however, have fled. Or have tried. Or would like to. But if one has a legal conviction, like Robin’s ambiguous love interest and former prom date, Johnno (also Mitch’s son), one cannot even escape to Australia, which of course long ago was once solely for convicts. The sense of nowhere to go is accentuated by the encasement of mountains. If one cannot flee, however, there are places to hide in the surrounding bush, tents to pitch, and birdsong to learn as a summons for food and allies, as in The Hunger Games — another tale of corruption and exploitation in the literal and moral wilderness.

Not for nothing is short-haired, blue-eyed Elisabeth Moss made to look a lot like Kyle MacLachlan of David Lynch’s anti-Brigadoon, Twin Peaks. Campion alludes to Lynch not just via Moss or the many cinematic peaks but most explicitly in a scene where Moss pulls over a vanload of women and asks where they are going.

“Book club,” they lie.

“Oh, whatcha reading?” she asks.

There is silence, then someone says, “Blue Velvet.”

Moss persists. “Didn’t know it was a book. Who wrote it?”

A woman growls, “We don’t care.”

It is the funniest homage in the series, and because Campion herself wrote the novelization of her 1993 film The Piano, the humor goes in several directions at once. The scene also may express some tossed-off cynicism about contemporary readers and the sororal dependence on language activities. For the series’ societal dropouts, words are seldom useful or true; the survivalist tactics of listening closely to one’s body and not talking too much are always paramount. The result is an oddly quiet production. Even GJ, the gnomic pronouncer of the body’s superiority to the mind — “Disillusionment! Get that and get it good!” she advises; “Stop your helping” — grows tired of the streaming thoughts of the “crazy bitches” she has attracted, and by the end diverts herself with curt inquiries to an assistant about the best air routes to Reykjavík and the current price of gold. One is reminded of a line Hunter delivered playing a producer in Broadcast News: told that it must be nice to feel you’re the smartest person in the room, she replies, “No, it’s awful.”

Those who have seen The Piano, another tale of New Zealand, may feel clued in to Campion’s directorial coding. Tattoos suggest a nurturing man and conventional appearances, societal authority, and middle-class righteousness are likely to obscure sadism. (The men whom Griffin and her mother love are prominently tattooed.) New-age keyboard arpeggios signify a transient meditative state. And speech — its misuses and deformations, its futility and taint — is an object of deep suspicion. This despite Campion’s wonderful film Bright Star, about the poet Keats. (Although poetry, too, it might be argued, is about verbal inadequacy, the ineffable as it struggles into analogue.)

Perhaps Campion’s skepticism about language is one of the reasons she has thrown in so many incongruous accents. (Holly Hunter played a mute in The Piano; her voice-over was in an invented accent heard only by the audience.) When Elisabeth Moss’s accent wobbles, her character is said to have been living in Sydney. When GJ speaks in Holly Hunter’s tight-lipped Georgian sibilants, she is said to be “a Swiss national.” Though hilarious, this explanation is uttered deadpan and received matter-of-factly, as if this far corner of the earth were routinely visited by such global runaways. Matt Mitcham’s Scottish trill-gargle-bray goes unremarked completely.

This eclecticism of vocal style has been used by others. In Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, though Linda Manz was playing a girl from Chicago, her Brooklyn-accented voice-over never threw the viewer out of the film for a minute (that what she was saying often contradicted what was on the screen only increased the narrative richness). And no man from Wisconsin ever spoke as Daniel Day-Lewis did in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. But Campion clearly believes that certain “mistakes,” rather than remove us from the story, pull us further into its power; irrealism can add not only to the dream logic — the “movieness” — of the movie but also to its convincing magic, since such incongruities are often part of life. “The confusing signals, the impurity of the signal, gives you verisimilitude,” Donald Barthelme once said.

The most haunting and heartbreaking parts of Top of the Lake have to do with mothers and sons; this is the relationship Campion’s story most believes in. What few examples she offers of such relationships are suffused with the deep devotion, hope, and remorse that constitute love. One mother-son bond involves the drug-addicted Simone (terrifically acted by Mirrah Foulkes) and her bone-collecting semimute son, Jamie (played by Luke Buchanan), also a friend of Tui’s. Jamie works at the local coffee shop, where at-risk kids are put to work as baristas. At first the clean and orderly café seems familiar and neutral; adult characters repeatedly assemble there to drink coffee and discuss Tui’s case. But slowly the shop, modeled on a Danish initiative to assist troubled teens, becomes a character, with its own unspoken lines. Its walls, lined with photos of the local children, begin to stare back at our detective, much like her own working wall of suspects’ photos. It all casts a freckled light on the idea that it takes a village to raise a child, suggesting that a village may widen the possibility of things going wrong. (One hears the echo of GJ’s “Stop your helping.”) In seeking answers, Campion’s tale finally has few places to turn. One may think back on Wild Kingdom if not Animal Kingdom, and on the suspense of animal appetites: will the submerged crocodile eat its mate right there in the water, or graze on the tender gazelles onshore? The natural world at the top of the lake is all emerald moss and sexy fog. But humans, as they always do, add drugs and guns and money and violence.

Top of the Lake is not especially didactic, despite criticisms that Campion is programmatic and thus predictable in her take on dangerous men and wounded women. And despite the strictures of a medium that demands intermittent commercial breaks and a piled-up finale, and despite story questions that might easily be answered by DNA tests but are instead scuttled by quick cremations, Top of the Lake is a complex and spooky work of art. Campion uses her storytelling tools loosely but laceratingly; cold steam rises from the plot holes. She, her cast, and her crew give felt life to the world’s vast variety of creature and tone, fashioning an experience no viewer could have possibly dreamed up alone. This is what television at its collaborative best is supposed to do.

currently holds the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair in English at Vanderbilt University. Her fourth collection of short stories will be published next March.

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March 1998

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