An Angel at My Table

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #301: Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table.


Despite be­ing hailed as one of the world’s best fe­male film di­rec­tors, I’ve been ul­ti­mately dis­ap­pointed with Jane Campion. In re­gard to the tech­ni­cal as­pects of her film­mak­ing I have noth­ing but praise, she is quite able to gather the peo­ple she needs to make her vi­sion ap­pear and to di­rect them to her goal, but to me at least, the con­tent of her films leaves some­thing to be de­sired. Perhaps this is be­cause I’m a man. The Piano is a nearly per­fect fem­i­nist film, but the last ten min­utes cut the legs and a few more fin­gers from all the ex­cel­lence that pre­cedes it. And In the Cut is both a mailed-in thriller and a study in tac­ti­cal misandry. An Angel at My Table is ba­si­cally a cin­e­matic ver­sion of The Bell Jar and it is based on the au­to­bio­ga­phies of Janet Frame, who is es­sen­tially a Kiwi Sylvia Plath.

In my last se­mes­ter of col­lege I took a class called “Fictions of Insanity” which was sup­posed to be an English course on how in­san­ity as a theme is used in lit­er­a­ture. In ac­tu­al­ity it was a course on how pa­tri­archy dri­ves women mad, taught by a grad stu­dent whose the­sis was on the same sub­ject, only in an even more speci­fic area, how pa­tri­archy dri­ves women mad in the Victorian Novel. She ap­peared to read from her the­sis in­stead of lec­tur­ing. Needless to say, I didn’t en­joy the class and ended up drop­ping it. I’ve now come to the con­clu­sion that I don’t like it when any –ism fo­cuses more on as­sign­ing blame than more con­struc­tive ac­tions. I’m not say­ing that fem­i­nism does this, but that some fem­i­nists do, whether in­ten­tion­ally or not. I think Jane Campion knows bet­ter than to do this, but ends up forced into it by au­di­ence con­sid­er­a­tions. I mean that most view­ers aren’t go­ing to find au­tonomous agency very ap­peal­ing. That kind of in­de­pen­dence is cer­tainly hard to achieve, if it is even pos­si­ble; the ul­ti­mate fail­ure of any of Campion’s hero­ines to achieve it and their in­evitable re­as­sim­i­la­tion into so­ci­ety seems to say that there can be no vic­tory, but there can be peace.

aaamt2.jpg This all fits in nicely with An Angel at My Table. Janet Frame has the “artis­tic tem­pera­ment” but the de­mands of New Zealand so­ci­ety and cul­ture cre­ate a strange child­hood for her, as she is shut­tled through the school sys­tem like a toaster on an as­sem­bly line and is time and time again set apart from the group. Her de­sire to be a writer and her ob­vi­ous ap­ti­tude for the craft are sup­posed to be set aside for a “real job.” And fa­therly men are con­stantly telling her what to do. Because she hasn’t been al­lowed to grow freely, she ends up in an asy­lum re­ceiv­ing shock treat­ments for 8 years. It later turns out that she was mis­di­ag­nosed as schiz­o­phrenic. [If any­one had ac­tu­ally paid at­ten­tion to the wall­flower they would have no­ticed she was just a lit­tle shy]. Not un­til she is al­lowed bits of free­dom, in­clud­ing a trip to Europe does she learn that she is quite ca­pa­ble of tak­ing care of her­self, and that it is okay to be who she is. For Ms. Frame, that is enough. After she ac­tu­al­izes, she can hap­pily make peace with her place in the world and fi­nally live as a per­son, not a car­rot-topped toaster.

Hey, it looks like a Campion hero­ine suc­cess­fully finds con­tent­ment! Even if her agency is only lightly used as a re­sult of her reclu­sive­ness, at the end Ms. Frame’s satori is still ob­vi­ous. Apart from be­ing about an hour too long, this was a good movie.

Criterion Essay by Amy Taubin
• Senses of Cinema lec­ture by Sue Gillet

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