"I express myself instinctively, without an agenda, ya know?" said Jane Campion at the Cannes Film Festival last May. The 39-year-old writer-director, radiant and eight months pregnant, was struggling to explain how she had created The Piano, the idiosyncratic romantic drama that finally opened in the U.S. last week. But if words failed her, her instincts certainly hadn't: Shortly after the New Zealand-born Campion left Cannes for her home in Sydney, Australia, The Piano won the Palme d'Or not only the first for a film directed by a woman but the first for anyone from Campion's part of the world.
While she comes off a tad shy and mercurial, Campion has developed a reputation within the film industry for a singleminded tenacity not unlike that of The Piano's fierce 19th-century frontierswoman, Ada (Holly Hunter). "Ada reminds me so much of Jane in her complete and utter determination to have things her own way," says one industry-journalist friend.
Actually, The Piano earned Campion her second Cannes award: She won her first in 1986 for her Australian Film, Television, and Radio School student short called Peel and returned three years later with her anticipated first feature, the unexpectedly cool and dark Sweetie, which was roundly booed. "I was in my hotel room crying my eyes out," she recalls. "I finally got up and said, 'Oh, bugger them!"'
Campion's eventual triumph at Cannes was soon overshadowed by tragedy: Last summer, Jasper, her newborn son, died. She did not appear in public again to talk about the film until last month, when The Piano played to raves at the New York Film Festival. And now the acclaimed weepie is being touted as a top Oscar contender. If Campion does become the first woman to receive a Best Director nomination since Lena Wertmuller in 1976, she says, "maybe it would help people in Hollywood to have more faith in women directors."
Her reputation soaring, Campion could surely move to Hollywood, but she says she's staying put in Sydney, where she has lined up financing from American independent Propaganda Films for Henry James' Portrait of a Lady (which she is currently adapting with screenwriter Laura Jones). The film is set to shoot next spring, starring Nicole Kidman and William Hurt, even though a competing version was until recently on the Merchant Ivory slate. With the memory of Sweetie not so distant, perhaps, she laughs: "They're probably waiting for us to make a big flop of it."