HTF Review: Sweetie


Supporting Actor
Jun 13, 2002


Studio: The Criterion Collection # 356
Rated: R
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 enhanced for 16x9 displays
Audio: English DD 5.1
Subtitles: English
Time: 99 minutes
Disc Format: 1 DVD-9
Case Style: Keepcase.
Theatrical Release Date: 1989
DVD Release Date: October 24, 2006

Feminism, madness and indecision make for the core principles of Jane Campion’s first major work, Sweetie. Kay (Karen Colston) is a young gal trying to make it in the working world of modern Australia, but she goes to a fortune teller to have her tea leaves read in order to gain some guidance in the relationship department. The swami tells her she will meet a man with a question mark on his head, and this is the guy for her. Back at work, she sees a man who has just proposed to one of her co-workers, and, oh-my-gosh, his hair hangs down in the shape of a question mark. Kay, being the emotion based being she is, leads with her heart (and the ravings of a mystic) and promptly seduces the unwitting Louis (Tom Lycos) in the parking garage, where they have sex under a parked car. Fast forward thirteen months to Louis and Kay living together in a sexless, passionless relationship, where the most interesting thing going on is Louis’ idea to plant a tree. Kay, being afraid of putting down any type of roots for fear they will simply wither and die, uproots and hides the poor sapling.

Upon returning home one evening, Kay and Louis find Kay’s sister, Dawn (aka Sweetie) (Genevieve Lemon) and her boyfriend, Bob (Michael Lake) taking up residence in their home. Dawn and her man have nowhere to go, so Kay lets them crash there. Dawn has childhood delusions of grandeur and believes Bob will be the one to produce her star making roles. It seems while she was growing up, Dawn exhibited several talents, including singing, dancing and chair tipping. The girl’s father took to calling her Sweetie and encouraged her budding talent. As we soon see, Dawn suffers from some form of mental deficiency where she acts out by growling and nipping like a dog if she doesn’t get her way (another childhood influence). Dawn’s problems may be the reason the girls mother has decided to leave their father so she can get her mind straightened out at…a dude ranch in the Outback. As these disparate characters are drawn back together by the madness (real or imagined, I’m not quite sure) that is Dawn, they must learn that it will take each other to survive. In numerous instances, Dawn shows them their strength will lie in their family, one that has the ability to nurture its roots for the future.

Campion has routinely been praised for her feminist viewpoints in her pictures, and that is one of the factors that have contributed to her success. However, if you look beyond that façade presented here, you start to realize Dawn’s family has done an excellent job of ignoring her problems (again, real or imagined) allowing her to spiral downward in a life of outbursts and dependency. We are shown flashbacks of Dawn’s father encouraging his young daughter as she sings and dances, but we are left with the question of where did it all go wrong and leave Dawn the way she is now. I tend to think it was lack of success and unrealistic paternal expectations that brought Dawn to that point, but I’d also blame her entire family for failing to deal with her. The picture tries, over and over, to show the female characters as victims in a male dominated world: Louis only wants sex, Bob takes advantage of Dawn with empty promises, the girl’s father forced his wife to make the decision to leave. Not once do any of them really take any responsibility for their actions, instead, they blame others. Kay also reacts to the praise that was heaped upon Dawn by sexually rejecting the man she just had to have. She simply followed what the leaves said, and this is supposed to be accepted as it is presented as somewhat romantic. Unfortunately, it just comes off as pathetic, both in the act itself and the fact that Louis, the dummy, never realizes it. In this case, he couldn’t even say he stayed in it for the sex!

The picture owes a debt of gratitude to David Lynch, and Blue Velvet in particular. Sweetie shares the same themes of troublesome undercurrents in familial relationships and repressed feelings that Blue Velvet has. Sweetie even looks a bit like Blue Velvet with its bright outdoor scenes, its claustrophobic night and interior shots. We also get a Lynchian non-sequitor in the form of the dude ranch and the dancing cowboys and I was looking around for Jack Nance to tell us about a barking dog. While I don’t think this is necessarily a criticism of Sweetie, I think it should temper the champions of the film who label it as such an original and breakout piece.

The picture is correctly framed at 1.85:1 and it is an anamorphic transfer. Criterion is good enough to provide us with more information about the transfer itself, so I will pass this along: “Director of photography Sally Bongers supervised this new high-definition digital transfer, which was created on a Spirit Datacine from the 35mm interpositive. The transfer was approved by director Jane Campion. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, and scratches were removed using the MTI Digital Restoration System.” The picture’s color scheme is beautiful with good saturation and a wide array of interesting hues. Colors are accurate showing clear delineation between them. Detail is inconsistent in the picture, as the darker the scene turns the less we can see. In the darkest scenes, film grain leaps out to obscure the detail, turning the blacks into a noisy mess. Edge enhancement was noticeable in places, as was some video noise. I almost wish they would have softened up the picture a little as it can remind you you’re still watching video. While I applaud the lighter scenes, I cringed at the darker ones.

I watched the disc with the Dolby Digital 5.1 track engaged, which is new according to Criterion. Criterion’s 5.1 tracks have been lacking recently, but this one is quite good. We are given a full range of sounds to enhance the viewing experience, from rumbling bass to the shrill screams of Dawn. While there is not many surround effects, when they do engage we are give a good sound field that places you in the center of the soundstage. If anything, the surrounds may need to come up a little to match the level of the fronts. Dialogue and music cues are accurate and enhance the differences between the characters and the instruments in the music. Criterion tells us, “The Dolby Digital 5.1 track was re-mastered at 16-bit from the original magnetic monaural masters and the 24-track magnetic stems

Bonus Material:
Audio commentary with Campion, Director of Photography Sally Bonger and screenwriter Gerard Lee: Lee shows up about a half an hour into the commentary to put a damper on the women’s playfulness. The trio discusses film school at length and the usual items of the shoot, characters and actors.

Making Sweetie: a new video conversation between stars Genevieve Lemon and Karen Colston (22:35): The two female leads laughingly reminisce about Campion and the production, as well as the strong female influence on the picture. They spend a lot of time on their character’s motivations, which is quite interesting. The interviews are accompanied by behind-the-scenes photos. There was a Super 8 making of picture shot by one of the actors, and some of those scenes are shown. I’m surprised this isn’t on here…

Campion’s early short films: An Exercise in Discipline: Peel (1982, 8:34); Passionless Moments (1983, 11:55) ; and A Girl's Own Story (1983, 26:30): Campion was assisted by Bonger on these films, and Lee co-wrote and directed Passionless Moments. The first picture deals with an annoying child and the parents reaction to him and each other; the second is typical art school fodder: pretentious, black and white vignettes on shapes and sounds and trivial topics; the third, also in black and white, shows some young girls exploring their impending sexuality and attraction to a certain Fab Four as well as dysfunctional family values.

Jane Campion: The Film School Years (19:11): a 1989 conversation between Campion and critic Peter Thompson for the Australian Television Radio and Film School where she studied. Make sure you watch the short films first to be ready for this one. Campion, through nervous laughter, describes her film school days and the importance of film school.

Gallery of behind the scenes photos and production stills.

Original theatrical trailer.

Also included in the package is a sixteen page booklet with an essay by film scholar Dana Polan.

Polan makes a statement in the booklet that really sums up the picture: “Sweetie shows the woman making hesitant moves toward establishing her subjectivity but frames that quest for selfhood within a larger context of chaos and confusion, loss of control, obsession and regression.”

Forum Sponsors

Latest posts

Forum statistics

Latest member