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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