Jane Campion’s debut film Sweetie is about a woman named Kay (Karen Colston), and the dysfunctional relationship between herself and her family, specifically her sister Dawn (Genevieve Lemon), a.k.a., Sweetie. Sweetie proves to be a destructive force in Kay’s life; she forces herself into Kay’s home, tears things apart, throws tantrums, and even comes on to Kay’s boyfriend, Louis (Tom Lycos), when the former isn’t around.
Sweetie’s re-arrival into Kay’s life does more than disrupt her domestic life but also her private one; Kay’s relationship with her boyfriend is slowly dissolving, because the two no longer have sex. For Kay, the attraction just isn’t there, a factor I see as stemming from Sweetie’s presence. There is also another important element in seeing why Kay’s life has become disrupted however, and that’s the existence of a baby tree Kay’s boyfriend has planted in the backyard. Sweetie opens up with a voice-over narration from Kay, and we learn that when the two were children, Sweetie had her own tree in the backyard:
“We had a tree in our yard with a palace in the branches. It was built for my sister…and it had fairy lights that went on and off in a sequence. She was the princess. It was her tree. She wouldn’t let me up it. At night their darkness frightens me. Someone could be watching from behind them—someone who wishes you harm. I used to imagine the roots of that tree crawling—crawling right under the house…right under my bed. Maybe that’s why trees scare me. It’s like they have hidden powers (1:10).”
From the quotation above, we can note that trees and Sweetie are inextricably linked for Kay. We can also note the danger that the tree poses to Kay’s sexual life; she imagines the roots of the tree crawling into her home and getting right underneath her bed—an intimate space. When Kay’s boyfriend plants the tree in the backyard, Kay is against it and later on, while sleep-walking, uproots the tree and hides it in a closet. What the tree symbolizes then, is the sense of terror Kay feels from her sister and to have one in the backyard would be a constant reminder of that.
Despite her efforts in removing the tree, however, Kay’s life does not go back to normal because Sweetie arrives soon thereafter. Consequently, I see Sweetie as being about the unconscious disruption of Kay’s private life from the presence of her sister and the tree. I say it’s unconscious because as evidence from the earlier quote shows, Kay’s fear of her sister is one she’s had since child-hood and it seems Kay has attempted repressed that fear, which is then why she would uproot the tree while sleepwalking—a moment of time where one is not conscious of their actions. The result of Sweetie and the tree’s presence on Kay’s life is that Kay is no longer able to have sex and her life becomes skewed. Campion and her photographer, Sally Bongers, show how Kay’s life has become skewed through the use of shots featuring Kay set in canted angles. As if it to say that this disruption is only affecting her, the canted angles are only ever used for Kay.
Yet, Sweetie is not just about the mere disruption of Kay’s sexual life but its restoration, and Campion shows this rather oddly and that’s through images of feet. There are three key moments in the film dealing with Kay’s current sexual life and all three are defined by shots of feet.
The first image is the one that opens up the film. A medium shot reveals to use Kay’s feet resting on the floor as she sits on the bed. The image is supplemented by the voice-over narration which clues us in to Kay’s childhood. As I stated earlier, Sweetie and the tree is the cause for disrupting Kay’s sexual life but now we have this third factor, and that’s Kay’s feet. It is through Campion’s use of feet then that we understand the scene will be dealing with sex.
The next scene to focus on feet is one where in an attempt to fix their sexual life, Kay and her boyfriend plan an appointment to have sex. Campion films the scene from outside the doorway of the bedroom so that we only see the edge of the bed and a fraction of the room. Kay and Louis awkwardly lie in bed, unable to have sex, and what’s left lingering in the frame are their feet. Once again, the scene is sexual in nature and it is shown through the inclusion of feet.
The last scene in the film that deals with sex and shows this through images of feet is one towards the end of the film. Without spoiling too much, the tree and Sweetie are no longer presences in Kay’s life and so her sex life becomes restored. Campion shows this through a conversation between Kay and Louis in which their passion is reignited. What’s to take away from here is how Campion photographs the scene.
Once again, Campion focuses on feet. Lying on two different beds close to one another, Campion films the scene from a top-down perspective zoomed in, so that we only see the edges of the bed and thereby Kay and Louis’ feet. In short, they start to play footsies with one another and Kay asks, “Do you know what your feet do during sex,” thereby cementing the link between feet and sex. This scene shows the restoration of Kay’s sexual life, because it follows the removal of Sweetie and the tree from Kay’s world and also because of the physical contact present—following the appearance of Sweetie and the tree, Kay wouldn’t even touch Louis, and I think this is best seen when they try and have sex but merely lie next to one another.
Jane Campion’s Sweetie is about the disruption and restoration of Kay’s sexual life due to the appearance and later, removal of her older sister Sweetie. Campion shows this disruption and restoration in three parts which place a focus on Kay’s feet. Each part shows a different aspect of the process beginning with the initial disruption, its consequent effects, and finally, its restoration.