To the editors:
I find it very disturbing that in all of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s glowing review of Jane Campion’s new film Sweetie [March 30] and in spite of three viewings over six months time he fails to discern primary elements of the movie. The subject of Sweetie is not madness. The subject of Sweetie is the long-established and incestuous family dynamic and all the ways the destructive nature of that dynamic damages the family’s lives in the present. The issues of incest and sexual abuse scream for attention in Sweetie’s character; in all the interactions between her and her father, both present and remembered, in the jealous tension between the sisters and the way the entire family revolves around the problem of Sweetie. Sweetie’s “madness,” the addictions we see to drugs, alcohol, food and her sexual indiscrimination are all symptoms of overt or covert sexual violation that continues to be denied within the family.
Jonathan Rosenbaum writes that when Sweetie “bathes her own father, she’s quite capable of dropping the soap into the tub as an excuse for groping him.” I saw this scene as one that revealed a secret at the heart of this family, anchoring the meanings of the odd and the quirky behavior displayed by all of the characters. It raised questions directed not only at Sweetie’s inappropriate behavior, but more fundamentally at the situation itself. Why would a grown woman incapable of adequately caring for herself be bathing her grown father like a child? As Alice Miller states repeatedly in Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society’s Betrayal of the Child, children don’t initiate a pattern of sexual violation. Sweetie failed to comprehend the sexual boundaries of others because her own had not been respected. This scene was chilling not only because of what it portrayed, but because of the silence surrounding the bathing that becomes a metaphor for the silence and denial of incest.
Rosenbaum states that “Gordon has certain traits that suggest instability, including bouts of petulance and his uncritical devotion to Sweetie.” This is putting it mildly and minimizes several of Gordon’s deep flaws; namely, his narcissistic training of Sweetie to perform as a child, his extreme dependence on the women in the family and his refusal to see what’s in front of his face both in Sweetie and especially in the scene where he abandons Bob in the cafe. The family’s final betrayal and abandonment of Sweetie profoundly affects her precarious attempts at normalcy and she spirals downward from her loss of language to instinctual behavior and death.
The problem of Sweetie is solved far too simply by her death. While Sweetie’s promiscuity and incoherence made her incapable of true intimacy, Kay’s inability to sustain intimacy expresses itself in her refusal of sex and her hopelessness (pulling up the tree); both seem to be two sides of the same coin: The implication (in the scene at the end of the movie where Kay & Louis are playing footsie) that Kay is somehow freed for intimacy with Louis strikes me as false and simplistic after the depth and complexity established throughout the film.
More disturbing than any of the material presented here is the fact that the female and feminist content of Sweetie remained invisible to an intelligent, well-informed reviewer willing to acknowledge and even celebrate women’s work in film. All the more powerful because not conscious, our refusal to see and address emotional incest and sexual abuse continues to protect the perpetrators of these acts and perpetuates the systematic denial of women’s experience.
Melissa Ann Pinney
Jonathan Rosenbaum replies:
Pinney’s letter repeats and amplifies some of the points made in a letter by Paola Lortie that was published in the May 4 issue of the Reader. I agree that these points indicate a regrettable absence in my review–an absence that can be partially, if not totally, ascribed to the difficulty of describing and synopsizing a film that, for me at least, resists the usual forms of verbal paraphrase. I also agree with Pinney about the relative weakness of the final scene between Kay and Louis. Where I am somewhat less in agreement is with her treatment of Sweetie as a “real” character rather than as a fictional construct, and her accompanying assumption that “overt or covert sexual violation” can adequately explain or explain away the sum of this family’s complex problems (although I agree that this may offer some highly significant clues). Finally, when I stated my regrets at the end of the review for failing “to explore how the overall vantage point of the film might be described as postfeminist,” I didn’t mean to imply by this that “the female and feminist content remained invisible” to me. (By postfeminist, I certainly didn’t mean nonfeminist or antifeminist.)