Here we are, as promised: the first in a month-long examination of the films of Jane Campion, arguably the most prominent female filmmaker currently working, as well as one of the chief artistic ambassadors from the countries of Australia and New Zealand, although which of those she is more readily aligned with is a matter of some debate, and one that I shan't be getting into now.

Compared to the last time I did something like this, I'm going in pretty much blind; prior to a couple of days ago, I had not seen one single Campion film, and I have no idea what are generally considered to be her pet themes or notable visual signatures. I'd like to keep it that way, I think; if I'm not constantly trying to figure out how a certain film prefigures the rest of her work, I suppose I'm likelier to appreciate it on its own merits as a film.

But enough of me: this is Campion's place to shine. So what do we know about her? Born in New Zealand in 1954, she went to university in Australia, and started making films in 1982, at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. There she made a handful of well-received short films, one so well-received that it won the short film Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1986, leading to her first theatrical feature film in 1989. From that point, she settled into an increasingly stretched-out schedule of making new movies; this year she premiered Bright Star at Cannes, her first feature in six years.

Of the five short films that the IMDb credits to Campion's name, the first four are readily available on DVD; and thus we're able to begin at the true beginning, with the very first film Campion ever made, one that still gets cited as one of the most important and characteristic of all her works.

"An Exercise in Discipline: Peel" (1982)

Four years before it won that aforementioned Palme d'Or, Campion's debut must have been quite the earth-shaker at AFTRS. I have seen many a student film in my day, and hardly a one of them has anything near to this level of ridiculous self-assurance, a willingness to force the viewer into the most challenging places, challenging despite being so incredibly straightforward. It is a simple thing, if you just consider its component parts: first, the words "An Exercise in Discipline" in orange over black; then a quick shot of road speeding by. Then "PEEL"; another shot of the road. Then the words, "A true story/a true family". Which is even, perhaps a little true: the credited actors are Tim Pye, Katie Pye, and Ben Martin. One assumes that the Pyes are related; I do not know if Martin bears the relationship to either of them that the film suggests.

Next up, we have a triangular diagram explaining the relationships. In the upper left, "Tim: Brother/Father". In the upper right, "Katie: Sister/Aunt". In the bottom middle, "Ben: Son/Nephew". Then the film properly begins, although there's something about the monolitically certain presentation of all these titles that makes me feel, far more than usual, that the opening credits most definitely are the film proper. The first thing that happens is that Katie says, angrily, to Tim, "If you don't want other opinions, don't ask for them". We never learn the exact details of their fight, although there's some implication in the next couple of lines that permit the viewer to form her or his own opinion on the matter.

A steady tapping noise, something like a ball being thrown against pavement, turns out to be Ben in the front passenger seat, throwing an orange at the windshield. He starts to peel it, throwing the pieces out of the window. His father tells him to stop, which he does not do. Eventually, Tim gets angry enough to stop the car and tell his son that if he doesn't go pick up the pieces of peel, that car is going nowhere. Ben leaves the car, throws the orange at the window, and there is a brief impasse before he storms off, furious; Tim and Katie resolutely do not speak to each other.

After a few minutes of awkward silence, Tim walks down the road, past the busy traffic, to find Ben piecing together as much of the peel that he can find. They go back to the car to find Katie peeling an orange and tossing the pieces on the roadside, hugely upset that this whole event has made certain she'll be late for an appointment. Ben starts to taunt her, Tim gets absolutely livid, and Katie regards the both of them with unabashed scorn. As the film ends, Katie is sitting inside the car, Tim is sitting on the trunk, and Ben is standing on roof, bouncing, as cars roll by.

That is all that happens. What does not happen - what is not said - what is not explained - is the heart and soul of "Peel", as rich a film about the complex, often hurtful relationship dynamics inside any family as many prestige dramas ten times as long as its fleet nine minutes. The film has the depth of a biblical parable, where the least amount of detail yields the greatest amount of meaning. By leaving so much empty space in the story, Campion invites us to read whatever we can into the the few facts we are given, telling us more about ourselves and our own families than whatever is happening between Tim, Katie, and Ben; but then, isn't art supposed to be about what happens in the audience?

Campion and her cinematographer Sally Bongers (credited also as "collaborator") also shoot the film in a way that increases the audience's work putting the whole thing together, while irresistibly suggesting certain things about the content. This is a visually fragmented film; we always see parts of a whole, never a whole. This is never truer than in what feels to me like the very heart of "Peel" and its mysteries: at one point, after the final explosion that leaves Katie and Tim silent, Ben stares at his aunt's face, intently: we cut from his eyes, filling the frame, to a shot of her left eye, that pans across to her right. Then to his eyes again; then to her mouth. When he looks at his father's face, both of Tim's eyes are in frame together. Ben is trying, in this moment, to understand the adults through intent study, but he cannot remove himself enough to see them in more than isolated scraps, devoid of inherent meaning (in a way, this is the structure of the film as a whole).

It is difficult to say what one thing "Peel" is about; it treats on the idea of human interaction at its most elemental, a matter of competing and incompatible wills, and this is such a broad subject that it cannot be reduced to one or two simple arguments. And yet the film seems to contain everything within it; every line and every shot adds to our sense of who one or all of these three people are. It is the universe in nine minutes, and a bold, challenging masterpiece of the short form it is indeed for that reason.

"Passionless Moments" (1983)

"Ex-directed" by co-writer Gerard Lee, Campion's second student short is exactly what it says on the label: a series of tiny film-lets within an already slight 15-minute running time. Each of those tinier films is about one incident happening to one person on a certain day (October 2, 1982, in Melbourne, if my memory serves; but I didn't take notes, and part of the film's purpose is to show that those details which it provides at the start are completely meaningless). Each incident is given its own modestly amusing title, with the action narrated by an uncredited man, who I assume is likely Lee.

If "Passionless Moments" suffers in comparison to "Peel", it is for one predominant reason: the earlier film made a point of giving us nothing to work on besides individual pieces of fact, while the latter presents its theme unambiguously in both the title and the concluding narration (which observes that a million moments like these happen and die unobserved every day). The point is that at some point, hundreds of times, we all have a moment of realisation or speculation, something when our mind drifts out from under our direct control and just works over a problem that we weren't even aware we cared about. These moments of reflection are "passionless" because we really don't care about them enough to commit them to memory or follow these ideas to any conclusion; and yet, life is made up of virtually nothing but such moments.

Two films in, and it becomes clear that one of Campion's chief points of interest as a filmmaker is behavioral minutiae; by which I mean, she observes characters performing unexplained actions that are natural to them, and only "significant" because it is those moments that we in the audience are watching. If that's what connects "Peel" with "Passionless Moments", I think it's worth pointing out that this is the overall theme of "Passionless Moments" itself.

Visually, however, the two films are mostly distinct. Where "Peel" is in full, evocative color, "Passionless Moments" is in high-contrast black and white, full of lingering shots and very few cuts, although for that reason every cut that occurs is given the force of an atomic bomb. The chief relationship between the two, and I do think it's significant, is that she shows in both of them pieces of things, rather than whole things. There's one mini-story in the latter film that showcases this idea: a man sits on the bed, ignoring his lover, while trying to figure out why you can only focus on one plane at a time. The film then cuts to a POV shot of his thumb going out of focus while the back wall comes into focus. This idea that there will always be something you can't notice, at the exclusion of noticing something else - you can't be in more than one place at one time, taken to its ultimate extension - is perhaps the key unifying force between the two films. If you're looking at this, it is necessary that you are not looking at that. "Passionless Moments" serves to memorialise that fact while nothing, with some ironic melancholy, that even this lasts for such a brief duration that it does very little good to look at it in the first place.

"A Girl's Own Story" (1983)

The first "period picture" for a director later to be well-noted for them, although the period in question is only the mid-'60s, the time when Campion herself was just a year or two younger than the protagonists. It's also the first film in her career that is strongly feminist, although it is my understanding that Campion is not usually considered a strongly feminist filmmaker.

Chiefly, this is a film about sexual awakening - or rather, awakening to sexuality. The three girls at the film's center, Pam (Gabrielle Shornegg), Stella (Geraldine Haywood) and Gloria (Marina Knight) go through a great deal in the film's 27 minutes: homosexual experimentation, awkward first-time sex, unplanned pregnancy, disintegrating families, betrayal by the adults whose job is supposedly to be protective. None of these things are treated with the melodramatic seriousness of an after-school special, mind you; the film maintains a carefully neutral tone, sympathetic to the girls, certainly, but never cloying or wracked with sorrow over their problems. Which is a lovely thing for the viewer; it leaves that space for us to react in, honestly and without coercion.

Possessing a richer and more expansive narrative than Campion's other shorts, "A Girl's Own Story" is probably the easiest to engage with immediately, although it does not seem to have the same rugged discipline of her earlier work. For one thing, the ending gets a bit ragged and meandering, anchored by a chorale performance of a slightly off-putting song composed by Alex Proyas (yes! the future sci-fi director), who I assume was a fellow AFTRS student at the time. That said, it is still a remarkably sure achievement for a third film, and as Campion's first true story, rather than artfully broken story fragment, it demonstrates a new kind of aesthetic, not so consciously built around being an anti-movie. The feeling present in both "Peel" and "Passionless Moments" that she makes a film of isolated moments is still present - nearly every scene seems to take place in a bubble, though the later on in the film we get, the more those bubbles seem to leak together.

However, "A Girl's Own Story" feels in the main to represent a break for the director from her earlier works. The film is slowed-down and serious in comparison, full of surreal or at least borderline-surreal imagery. This is because, unlike the early films, which were mostly observational, "A Girl's Own Story" is unmistakably an argument: its concerns the difficulties of becoming a sexually mature woman in a world defined and controlled by men. Hence, Campion's "feminist" film. The fragmentary nature of the plot and the deliberately unsettling images are both suggestive of a world that increasingly makes no sense. It is a world in which affection does not exist, though it is to be desired: the most common recurring theme both in the imagery and the screenplay is of coldness versus warmth, with the unifying element of the film its frequent use of heaters - a source of warmth and therefore safety & affection, perhaps; but a mechanical source of those things.

It is a terrifying movie, something that Campion's earlier work was not; yet it feels ultimately to be a mere extension of her previous films than a wholesale rejection. Like those films, the chief element of "A Girl's Own Story" is that the events it presents are domestic scenes separated from their context in such a way as to become nigh-inexplicable; it is about isolated moments that we are not permitted to fully decode. We are, then, like the protagonists of the film: something is happening, but we don't quite know what it is.

"Mishaps of Seduction and Conquest" (1984)

The internet is curiously silent about this movie; I have found some indication that it may in fact be Campion's first movie, never screened outside of AFTRS until after she'd graduated. If that's the case, it's rather more explicable why it is the least interesting of her shorts that I have seen, although by no means a "failed" work. Just one that lacks the same interests as the others.

I cannot vouch that story is true or false, but I suspect the latter: Geoffrey Mallory (Richard Evans) is the brother of George Mallory (Stuart Campbell), the mountaineer who died climbing Mt. Everest in 1924, and who famously (and apocryphally) argued that "Because it's there" is sufficient reason to climb the mountain. While George is making his final attempt to conquer the peak, Geoffrey is attempting to achieve an impossible task of his own: to make Emma (Deborah Kennedy), a lovely writer whose work must always come first to her personal life, love him as much as he loves her. Barring that, to get her to notice him in more than an offhand way. It is an epistolary story: while George writes to Geoffrey, describing the torments and triumphs of the mountain (over vintage documentary footage of Everest-climbing teams), Geoffrey writes back, describing his latest failures in love.

There is a certain cheeky amusement in the idea that love is like climbing a dangerous mountain; and a certain level of ironic feminism in the conceit that loving a Modern Woman is a perilous activity as found in the pages of a boys' own adventure. Neither of these ideas are explored, though, just sort of put out there. The feminist reading, perhaps, is given a bit of a boost by the final third of the movie; but even if so, it's not very interesting, particularly given that I am not by temperament a social-theorist critic of any stripe, and digging things out that aren't on the surface is more work in this case than I'm prepared to do.

Still, it's charming if slight, and the performances are good enough to give it some real emotional "umph". What really hurts the film is its very construction: shot on video, using a conventional three-camera setup, "Mishaps" looks for all the world like a TV sketch comedy.

Campion attempts to salvage that with a weird but effective little trick: everything red in the film is kept red, while everything else is desaturated to black and white. By leaving points of red as the only color onscreen, she is, I think, subtly pointing out that this is a film about passion and eroticism (red of course being the color of love), doing so maybe sarcastically. After all, the only real carnality to be found is in Mallory's treatment of his mountain: Geoffrey has a proper English gentleman's revulsion towards sex once he's had it, while Emma's only response to physical love is to be frozen in time because of it. Sex is thus to be avoided in the world of "Mishaps", and I suppose even the title suggests that: seduction and conquest, insofar as they are different things, are both prone to failures, potentially life-ending ones. All that said, the film is not and could never be other than minor; the only one of Campion's early shorts to remind us that yes, even she is mortal, and can make clumsy (if well-intentioned and briefly entertaining) movies like anyone else.