A moment, if I may, of personal reflection.

I do director-a-thons a lot. Not on the blog, obviously; but in setting up the ol' Netflix queue I tend to stack the same director's work in bunches, chronologically - I find this makes for a generally more satisfying intellectual experience, laying the development in a certain filmmaker's career open for much readier analysis. Most of this work goes on "behind the scenes" as it were; for while I can see the value to having seen every Joe D'Amato film on DVD, there is no value whatever to my sharing that experience with anyone else (choosing to see the complete Joe D'Amato oeuvre is a little bit like deciding the acquire as many STDs as you possibly can in one month).

My point being, though, that in the last two years I have been introduced to new (to me) filmmakers at a much greater rate than at any previous time in my life, and for the most part, this is a vaguely satisfying but not hugely revelatory experience. Which brings me to An Angel at My Table, Jane Campion's second theatrical feature, from 1990, the film that has finally pushed me to where I can no longer ignore it: Jane Campion has become, in the last two weeks, one of my favorite living directors. For the first time in all my months of home-brew filmmaker retrospectives, I've found an absolute, undeniable, top-tier cinema genius.

At least part of the reason for this enthusiasm is that AAAMT represents Campion successfully navigating an exceptionally tricky bend: it was her first work that more or less broke from the aesthetic she'd been developing up until that time, proving that she wasn't just a one-trick pony; and yet there's a certain something about it that makes it unmistakably her work, even as it stands as an outlier in her career in a number of ways: the first of her films based on a true event (the only one, in fact, prior to 2009's Bright Star), originally conceived not as a movie at all, but as a three-episode television miniseries; and I wonder if it might not be the case that AAAMT, with its tripartite structure, would still work best in that format, not that watching it all in one 158-minute blast was any kind of imposition or irritation. Indeed, that is the very same reason that I finally decided to give in and confess my love for Campion's work: anyone who can make a more than 2.5-hour biopic about a New Zealand writer feel as quick and fleet as this is clearly doing something extremely right.

The film is divided into three nearly equal thirds, each based upon one book of Janet Frame's three-volume autobiography: To the Is-Land, concerning Frame's childhood and adolescence up to her departure for college; An Angel at My Table, relating her difficulties at school, her unhappiness at becoming a teacher when all she really wanted to do was write, and the eight years she spent in psychiatric treatment for a mis-diagnosis of schizophrenia, based upon nothing more, apparently, than her excruciating social awkwardness; and The Envoy from Mirror City, about her subsequent voyage to Europe for seen years, where she published several significant early works while living in London and Spain, and finding love for the first time, all while attempting to deal with the fall-out from years of electroshock treatments. Each of the three parts possesses a clearly defined arc to itself, the three parts together form a classic three-act structure; this means, essentially, that AAAMT is a nine-act narrative, and by that point it probably makes the most sense just to be done with the concept of act structure at all.

Which is, I am certain, the exact point of Laura Jones's screenplay (the first of her two collaborations with Campion): to make the narrative of Frame's life so sprawling and uncontainable, despite the fiction that it slides into three nice divisions, that we can't think of it as a "narrative" at all. Rather, we're looking at sections taken from a life span, each section relying on those before it, and leading into those which follow, but not in any clean-cut "This is how Janet Frame learned to be a writer" way. It's much messier and more interesting than that; a rare example of a biopic that is more concerned with the woman at its center as a person than an artist, and nothing about the presentation of this story indicates that her first success as a writer is the culmination of anything. On the contrary, it essentially suggests that being a massively important novelist was just her job; her life's story was about developing the self-reliance to be able to live the life she wished for, to be with a family that she loved, and to not let other people's expectations drive her conduct. I am reminded a bit of the recent French biopic SΓ©raphine, which also failed to hit the anticipated notes (and also includes a stint in an insane asylum), but that film, though lovely and brilliant, is not nearly as vast as Campion's and thus lacks the same panoramic view of its subject's self - an internal life that we get to understand more fully than any of the director's heroines to this point. Although there are still holes in the story, as characteristic of Campion's work, those holes do not interfere with our understanding of Janet; they rather reflect Janet's own difficulty understanding much of what happened around her, particularly the whirlwind process by which her shyness and reluctance to stay in a dull job was misunderstood to be a mental disease; nearly every moment of that misunderstanding happens off-camera, away from our (and Janet's) perception.

In the film's opening moments, we are introduced to a young girl with a shocking ball of orange hair (Karen Fergusson, an immensely gifted child performer with no other acting credits), in a series of quickly-cut shots that serve mostly to launch us on what will become the chief visual motif of the first portion of the movie: other people obstructing Janet's ability to see what's going on. Now, it should be said here that AAAMT - while looking in every frame exquisite, the work of unmistakable masters - does not look much at all like Campion's preceding films. Certainly, there are none of the skewed angles and terrifying distorted focal planes of Sweetie, nor the fragmentary moments of "An Exercise in Discipline: Peel", nor the carefully framed tableaux of 2 Friends (like the current subject, a film whose visual style was at least partially driven by its television origins). Comparatively, AAAMT is almost "boring" to look at, with a certain over-reliance on close-ups and medium shots (especially medium shots!). And yet it's always a fascinating thing to look at, partially because of Stuart Dryburgh's gift for the camera (the cinematographer here making his very first feature, the first of three he's shot for Campion), but mostly because of a certain X-factor that pushes those medium shots from being merely descriptive, and instead serve to keep our attention, at all times on the intimacy of the story; particularly since the vast majority of the shots include Janet (like 2 Friends, there isn't a great deal of cross-cutting in this film; editing is used sparingly, to move from one scene to another, not one position inside a scene to another). We are brought in to meet her by the film's limited visual language, in a way that we rarely are allowed to do.

And since Janet is embodied by three extremely gifted actresses - Alexia Keough, in her only performance, as a teenager, and Kerry Fox, in her debut (how does Campion keep picking out such fantastic performers with no backgrounds?), as an adult; there's a magic in that though none of the women look terribly similar outside of their hair, we never for a second doubt that it's always the same character - the camera adores watching her. It's no slight to Fergusson and Keough to say that Fox's work as the Janet we see the most of is something truly special, so much said with just the nervous set of her eyes, which always seem to be just on the verge of crying.

This is biopic filmmaking the way it's supposed to be: we have a remarkably full picture of a wholly remarkable woman, with nearly every shot in the film adding something to our understanding of her and the environment that created and formed her. Once again I find that I have left so much unsaid and untouched; An Angel at My Table is the kind of film that stymies simple, straightforward reviewing, because there is just too much in it for that kind of reduction. It is a sprawling portrait of an insular life, and exactly the sort of thing that demands a second and third and fourth viewing, to even start teasing out everything that makes it work. It is a brilliant work by a woman who was by now in full command of her powers, seemingly unable to make a wrong choice.