The talented New Zealand director Jane Campion is hardly the first filmmaker drawn to madness and mental instability. What sets her apart is the cool-headed, almost punky delight she takes in shoving the idiosyncracies of her screw-loose heroines in our faces. Her first film, the remote but powerfully acerbic Sweetie, told the skewed tale of two sisters, one so withdrawn she barely existed, the other an obese, infantile monster whose borderline psycho antics sent everyone around her scurrying for cover. In An Angel at My Table, Campion moves from fiction to nonfiction — the film is based on the autobiographical writings of New Zealand novelist and poet Janet Frame — but, once again, the thrust of her narrative stems less from anything the heroine does than from how stubbornly she avoids ”normal” human interaction. Told in Campion’s fancifully fractured style, An Angel at My Table is very accomplished, but it’s also an epic act of perversity: a 2-hour-and-38-minute movie about a wallflower.
Janet, who is played by different actresses as a child, teenager, and adult (the three performers match up with uncanny exactitude), is a singularly odd-looking creature whose searching eyes and frumpy body don’t quite go with her explosion of curly, bright orange hair. There’s an otherworldly strangeness and serenity about her. She’s like a Little Orphan Annie from Mars — and in shot after shot, Campion draws attention to that doll-like red frizz, as if it were the incarnation of Frame’s untamed innocence.
The best episodes are the early, childhood ones, which mingle banality (Janet’s schoolroom triumphs) with horror (her sister drowns during a visit to the local swimming hole). But as Frame matures into a quiet, gawky teenager and then, to our surprise, an even quieter and gawkier adult, she grows more and more elusive, and the movie comes close to fetishizing her hemming-and-hawing passivity. There’s a wrenching episode set inside a mental ward, where Frame, following a half-hearted suicide attempt, undergoes electroshock. But there’s barely a hint of explanation as to why she bounces in and out of institutions for the next eight years. By the end, you have to wonder: Did Frame’s pathologically shy and awkward exterior conceal a soul too delicate for this world — or is it just that she somehow made it to adulthood without learning the art of small talk? (From the looks of it, the electroshock was an injustice, all right; what was needed was charm school.) Campion’s eye remains extraordinary — her compositions have a cleansing purity — but in An Angel at My Table she’d rather keep Janet Frame’s subterranean engimas locked away than spoil what amounts to an elegant exercise in tortured-artist-against-the-world chic. B-