The actor Ben Whishaw has that dying poet thing down. In Jane Campion's new movie Bright Star, he is a tender presence, portraying the ill-fated John Keats who dies at age 25 before fulfilling the bright future suggested by the poetry that survives him, including "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," "Endymion," "Lamia," and his famous odes.
To make such a stunning movie that can convey the poet, his muse, and their world, that at the same time defies the conventions of period drama, is indeed a feat that augurs a bright future for the Australian Campion, and her distributor Apparition in their debut venture.
Hosting the movie's stellar premiere at the Paris Theater with an afterparty at Rouge Tomate, Apparition's Bob and Jeannie Berney were joined by Campion, Whishaw, Abbie Cornish who plays Fanny Brawne, the poet's neighbor and muse, Paul Schneider as Charles Browne, his friend and fellow writer, composer Mark Bradshaw, producer Jan Chapman, and a collection of the finest directors: Mira Nair, Tamara Jenkins, Sofia Coppola, Julie Taymor, and fiction writer Joyce Carol Oates, among them, who all happen to be women.
An impressive turn out for a special luncheon the next day at the Plaza's Oak Room included producer Christine Vachon, director Joan Micklin Silver, and Barbara Kopple. You can hear the award buzz with such fine films as Bright Star, Kathryn Bigelow's Hurt Locker, and the forthcoming Amelia, directed by Mira Nair: this is our year.
At this point, so many years after the second wave of feminism in the 1970's, is it fair to ask: are women different? More, is their aesthetic different?
Let's not forget: Among her many distinctions, in 1993 Jane Campion brought us The Piano. Under her distinctive direction, in a role of innocent betrayal, young Anna Paquin won an Oscar and a maverick Harvey Keitel famously and unselfconsciously bared all, providing full frontal views.
Paul Schneider who plays Keats's brash and bloated friend Charles Browne with a heavy brogue, offered some insight. Surprisingly, Schneider is slender and hails from Asheville, North Carolina. As a measure of tribute to Campion, he said, if asked to do so, he would trust her to film him nude too.
Given the emotion of the love story, Keats with his Fanny Brawne, the movie is chaste, with a PG rating; no bodies writhing suggestively, and yet the screen quivers with repressed longing.
After much acclaim at Cannes, Campion, who wears her grayed hair straight and a silver peace sign around her neck sat down to croissants at Soho Grand Hotel with a group of reporters in mid-summer and addressed some issues:
Q: The opening image is a closeup of a needle piercing fabric. Why was it significant to emphasize this detail?
Campion: Sewing was really important to me. I took 4 years off to be with my daughter. I wondered what would happen. I took up sewing. At the same time I read Andrew Motion's biography of Keats and was drawn to the love story said to have inspired the poem, "Bright Star." Fanny Brawne was an ardent seamstress. I began to embroider pillow cases. I collect women's sewing, embroidered table cloths. The work takes hours and hours and there is no recompense. I see this work as a metaphor for women's lives: nobody gives a damn.
Q: You spoke about that at Cannes and challenged women to speak out, to be tougher. What is the situation for women making film in Australia?
Feminism flourished in Australia because it had no natural predators. There was no dialogue, therefore, no combat. Feminism swept like a bush fire. Women got public funding. Guys were searching around to find a woman to front their projects. Jan [Chapman] gave me my first job after film school. Before you hire her, they said, meet some guys. Jan gave me a script for television feature and we got to know each other. She's honest and smart, the pre-eminent film producer in Australia, and never lost her humanity. I like to work with friends. I've worked with males too.
Q: Do you fear that critics will disparage this movie as a chick flick?
Men love this movie. They love the idea of being loved by a woman like that. It's surprising: it gives them permission to be emotional as well. Tenderness, delicacy, emotion, what's wrong with these things? Men love tenderness. People are witnessing what it is to be in the body of a human being. The romance in the movie is painful-like an addiction-a disease. Romance involves identity loss-merging with the other. In a healthy relationship, you maintain your own identity. You come together and apart. Some people don't like that: you mean I have to be myself? Bugger.
Q: Please talk about becoming an artist.
I felt I was hiding and it was uncomfortable. I was in art school and the subject was not involving. I wanted to expose myself, my real concerns, what I was really curious about. What was holding me back was fear of exposure. When you are young you are innocent. You become self-conscious and then you have to earn that innocence again through knowledge. I feel like I've become innocent again. But I had to work for it.
Q: Can you talk a bit about how your work with these actors.
You have to say this is it, you don't have to try to be Keats, or try to be Fanny-just BE Keats, Fanny, that's all you've got. I trust the actors to bring their own kind of fusion. Ben [Whishaw] is exceptional, a little inscrutable, kind, like an angel. Abbie Cornish-she's very unusual and independent. She has a strong intuitive sense in performance; she protects her choices and is not easily dissuaded against what she thinks is right. Paul Schneider can be spontaneous and funny. When I contacted him he said, 'It's so weird that you rang me up because I have a ticket to The Piano in my wallet all this time and that's why I went to art school, film school.' He showed me the ticket. He could be the Jack Nicholson of his generation. He'll be singled out by critics. He is so funny to work with. One day he was pretending to breast feed off the second assistant. That is how wild he is.
Q: Is it easier today for young people?
You have to be a kind of freak not listen to public opinion--got to have a little more enthusiasm than fear.
Q: In your movie, Fanny's family is so supportive of her. Did you take that from your own family?
From my research I learned Mrs. Brawne was very well liked. My own family is a lot tougher. They'll say your hair looks terrible when no one else will tell you. That's their idea of love. My model for the Brawne family is my yoga teacher's family, an Indian family. They are so accepting, gentle and loving. And I could see from being around them how powerful that can be. That's probably why Fanny survived the experience. Her mother really did say to Keats, you can come back and marry our Fanny. She probably guessed he wouldn't be coming back, but she was exceptional and kind.
Q: In fact the mother-daughter relationship seems quite unusual. Was your mother supportive?
My mother could crush me. She was orphaned at the age of 9. She really didn't have much to lean on. There was alcoholism, depression. It was important for me to go through that with her. She was astute: If she read a poem or Shakespeare, she would get to the heart of that meaning. Being with her taught me: jobs are probably more secure than husbands.
Q: Who inspires you?
Louise Bourgeois, Alice Munro, the Brontes, George Eliot. Michelle Obama. My next project is a film of Munro's story, Runaways.
Q: Only 3 women directors were nominated for an Oscar. Do you think you will be nominated?
I'll be thrilled for the film. More people will hear about it.