Butterflies in the Bedroom: Space, Place and Poetry in Jane Campion’s Bright Star

The period drama may be renowned for its indulgence, but Jane Campion’s portrait of the fragile love affair between Fanny Brawne and John Keats makes the poetic feel almost touchable.

My essay on the minimalistic beauty of Bright Star is available to read on Girls on Tops: Butterflies in the Bedroom: Space, Place and Poetry in Jane Campion’s Bright Star

5 Period Dramas for People Who Hate Period Dramas

Period dramas get a bad rap. For many, they’re fusty and elitist, strangling themselves with ribbons as they favour decadence over substance.

Even as early as 1991 critics were beginning to get fed up with crinolines and crumpets. The films of Merchant-Ivory were a primary target. In the June 1991 issue of Sight and Sound Craig Cairns lambasted them: “we are indulged with a perfection of style designed to deny everything beyond the self-contained world the characters inhabit.”

But films set in the past aren’t all elegantly repressive, and they’re not always British either. In Sexuality and the Heritage Claire Monk coined the term post-heritage, referring to period films with “an overt concern with sexuality and gender, particularly non-dominant gender and sexual identities.” She later expanded the definition to include an “aesthetic self-differentiation from the authenticity…of the 1980s heritage film.”

2019’s awards season has seen a trio of post-heritage films. Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos’ deliciously nasty The Favourite with its lesbian sex and nude pomegranate-throwing certainly qualifies, along with the defiantly queer Colette and the rather forced feminist re-telling of the Mary Queen of Scots story. The Favourite in particular has been lauded as “a period drama for people who hate period dramas.” But the post-heritage drama is nothing new.

Here are five examples of period films that take an alternative approach to the genre.

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The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)

Peter Greenaway’s deeply odd film is The Favourite’s most obvious bedfellow. Power, sex and death are closely entwined here, and the film’s towering wigs for the men and lace headpieces for the women have been cited as inspiration by Favourite costume designer Sandy Powell.

Set in rural Wiltshire in 1694, arrogant draughtsman Mr Neville (Anthony Higgins) is hired by Mrs Virginia Herbert (Janet Suzman) to produce drawings of her country estate, which he agrees to only in return for her satisfaction of his sexual pleasure. Neville soon becomes embroiled in a murder-mystery, but don’t expect any kid of resolution. The plot sounds straightforward and the camera work is formal and poised, but this film is sly and enigmatic.

Accompanied by Michael Nyman’s unforgettable score that refashions Henry Purcell, The Draughtsman’s Contract is as sumptuous as it is strange.

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Orlando (1992)

“She’s lived for 400 years and hardly aged a day; but, because this is England, everyone pretends not to notice.” Orlando is probably the definitive post-heritage film. Based on Virginia Woolf’s modernist novel, it’s an anarchic, lavish romp, in which Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp) grants the young nobleman Orlando (Tilda Swinton) eternal life, and seemingly the ability to change gender.

Potter traverses hundreds of years of history, spectacularly bringing each era to life. There’s a sense of transcendent, mythic grandeur, as if Orlando is a legend or a folk tale we can only half remember. But at the same time, Orlando’s direct address to the camera feels modern and immediate. Lyrical and witty, it’s a provocative feast for the eyes. Like its eponymous protagonist, Orlando is beautiful and unknowable.

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Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

Don’t be fooled by the floaty white dresses, Picnic is more like a nightmare than a dream. Its beauty is sickly and rotten. Based on Joan Lindsay’s novel and a major influence on Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of The Virgin Suicides, it’s still one of the most strikingly subversive films about girlhood.

On Valentines Day in 1900, a party of teenage girls from a remote Australian boarding school set out to spend the day at the imposing Hanging Rock, a dormant volcano. The sun beats down, their watches stop at twelve o’clock, and three girls and one teacher climb to the summit and completely vanish.

Framed as pseudo-history, there’s a sense of white colonisation being swallowed whole by the landscape. Headmistress Mrs Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) tries her best to civilise her charges, but on the edge of the wilderness nothing is easily tamed.

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Caravaggio (1986)

Like The Draughtsman’s Contract, Derek Jarman’s loose biopic of the baroque artist is another surreal vision of history. Vibrant yet minimalist, every scene looks like it could be framed and placed on a wall next to any Caravaggio painting.

Unsurprisingly for the avant-garde artist and filmmaker, Jarman leaves historical authenticity at the door. While he carefully recreates many of Caravaggio’s paintings, the film features several playful anachronisms. A calculator, a typewriter and a neon sign are postmodern winks to the camera.

Art, sex, madness and the hypocrisy of religion entwine. The film features the first screen appearances of Tilda Swinton and Sean Bean, who play the lovers Lena and Ranuccio, who both vie for Caravaggio (Nigel Terry)’s affection too. All three of them seem to glow with vitality.

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The Piano (1993)

The Piano, for which Jane Campion became the first (and still the only) female winner of the Palme d’Or, was so impactful it prompted a resurgence in the study of period costume in film.

Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) is shipped across the world along with her daughter and beloved piano to marry New Zealand colonial landowner Stewart (Sam Neill). Rebelling against society by choosing not to speak, her piano acts as her voice. The image of Ada in restrictive Victorian dress standing on the wild shoreline of New Zealand encapsulates the film’s themes of “civilisation” versus wilderness, female repression versus freedom.

As beguiling and complex as it was in 1993, The Piano is an antidote to every scene of inert drawing room tea-drinking. Despite scenes of full frontal nudity, the most erotically charged moment is forester Baines (Harvey Keitel) gently touching Ada’s knee through a tiny hole in her stocking. Period costume has never held such symbolic power.

A Lonely, Man-Eating Alien Named Laura

Who is that?

In Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s extraordinary adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel, Scarlett Johansson’s character is never named. She isn’t named Isserley, as she is in the novel. She is just she. She’s the otherworldly woman. The alien woman. She is and yet isn’t a woman. She’s beautiful, as women are supposed to be, and sensuous, as women are supposed to be. But she’s the predator with a coat of brown fur that prowls in a white van, who men aren’t afraid of because they haven’t learned to be afraid of smiling strangers quick to ask personal questions. She’s moulded into an unreal woman, a woman who would beckon strange men into her car on a deserted road in the middle of the night. She is alien, literally, and her human alter-ego is a male fantasy. Her apathetic stare as her prey is swallowed is shocking. But there is both tragedy and triumph in watching her consume those men who would have consumed her.

Under the Skin is a sharp slice of metaphysical surreality that, like 2001: A Space Odyssey which it echoes in its opening, takes us to the edge of human existence. But it also burrows deep beneath the surface and explores what it means to be a woman.

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She first examines herself in a mirror as she applies red lipstick before she hunts, that symbol of feminine eroticism. As she strips down to black lingerie and beckons her prey (and us, seduced along with them), her body is reflected in the surface of the dark void that swallows them whole. An encounter with a disfigured man (Adam Pearson) provokes empathy in her for the first time. She releases him and stares at herself in a mirror for a long time: who is that? For women, gazed upon in film and so rarely the gazers, appearance is everything, defining who we are to our audience far more than our thoughts or feelings. Who the fuck is that, painted with lipstick? Is she still predator, or is she something else? She gazes at herself and wonders.

She almost finds herself settled in a neat, normal little life. A stranger on a bus (Michael Moreland) is interested in her and takes her into his home. They blankly watch television, dinners on their laps, a parody of heterosexual domestic bliss. She examines her nude body closely in a mirror. Am I this woman now? The lipstick and fur coat have gone. There’s an echo of fairy tale: he carries her, bridal-style, over a deep puddle and leads her gently down the dark spiral steps of a castle. Is he truly kindly, or is he taking advantage of an attractive, silent woman, lost and alone? There’s confusion and desire and fear on her face when they kiss and begin to have sex. But something’s wrong and they stop abruptly. She examines her genitals. She’s too alien. The whole sequence made me ache with sadness and something like recognition.

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Deep in the forests of the Scottish Highlands, she wanders. The landscape is brutal, stark, beautiful, like she is, and unforgiving, like she was. Now she’s discovered compassion and her own humanity she’s vulnerable to the worst than humans can do. A logger (Dave Acton) gropes her, chases her, attempts to rape her and tears her skin, revealing a smooth, coal-black body beneath. Her alien and human selves irrevocably separated, she pulls off her human face and her two selves gaze at each other. Who is that? The logger douses her in petrol and sets her alight. She burns to death. Once a man-eating alien becomes a woman she can’t wander in the woods without violence.

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I felt a strange kinship with her. The film is a stunning exploration of that universal human experience: loneliness. Images of Glasgow’s revellers, talking, laughing, being alive, are tinted gold and layered into a swirling mass of movement, dancing around each other. Her face looms in the centre of the frame, surrounded by vitality and yet isolated from it. How much time have I spent walking through London alone, sometimes leaving a social situation and feeling relieved yet deflated to be once again alone in my own head? We all, sometimes, feel alien. But while loneliness is universal, her loneliness is female. All women live with the societal pressure of performing desirable femininity, a role which she must perform to survive. Her attempt to discard her performance and become a “real” woman ends in rape and murder. Humans are just as cruel as aliens, and being a woman is dangerous. At the beginning of the film she takes the clothes from a female corpse. A tear falls from the dead woman’s eye. Whether this is a human woman or her alien predecessor is unclear but the inevitability of their fate is not.

She is The Female, according to the credits, or “the alien” according to many synopses, but in the feature on the DVD about the editing she is suddenly referred to as Laura. That’s my name. Hearing it was bizarre, shiver-inducing. She’s referred to as Laura in multiple reviews and articles about the film and I would love to know why the name was chosen and yet unchosen. The coincidence only deepened this odd feeling that this character and I were somehow alike. Perhaps stories about being human are best told through the eyes of the alien. But to me Under the Skin is so specifically about being a woman and being a woman incorrectly, and of the simultaneous desire and fear to shed your “Otherness”. I never expected to identify with a man-eating alien, but of course the film taps into that other very human emotion: empathy. She might have been constructed in the film’s opening minutes and torn apart at the end but as her ashes intermingle with falling snow and become part of the earth so she’s left a haunting, lasting impression on me.