Female Trou­ble

Jane Cam­pion’s highly an­tic­i­pated Top of the Lake: China Girl is a fem­i­nist sledge­ham­mer

Newsweek International - - NEW WORLD/INDIA - LISA SCHWARZBAUM

THE SEC­OND SEA­SON of the art-house TV de­tec­tive se­ries Top of the Lake be­gins at the wa­tery bot­tom. Through a crack in a suit­case pushed into the ocean, long black strands of hu­man hair swirl in a del­i­cate dance of hor­ror. The im­age is eerie, beau­ti­ful, fem­i­nine and chill­ing—a hall­mark of New Zealand lm­maker Jane Cam­pion, who, with se­ries co-creator Gerard Lee, in­tro­duced view­ers four years ago to an in­can­des­cent Elis­a­beth Moss as the dam­aged, un­daunted woman-of-fem­i­nist-sor­row De­tec­tive Robin Gri n.

We quickly learn that the hair is at­tached to the body of a young Asian woman, a pros­ti­tute who worked in a brothel in Syd­ney, where sex work is le­gal. We learn, too, that she was be­ing used as a preg­nancy sur­ro­gate, man­aged by a sin­gu­larly creepy man who goes by the sin­gu­larly creepy name of Puss (ac­tor David Den­cik). This makes for the umpteenth creepy man in Gri n’s life. In the rst sea­son, she faced down the drug-deal­ing pa­tri­arch of a clan of thugs in her na­tive New Zealand while track­ing the dis­ap­pear­ance of a preg­nant 12-year-old. Also, she shot a cop col­league who pimped young o en­ders. Also, she had been gang-raped as a teenager, so her a nity for young women in dis­tress is acute.

Cam­pion, the only female direc­tor to have won the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val Palme d’or—for The Pi­ano in 1993—has long been in­ter­ested in the havoc wreaked by ter­ri­ble men on vul­ner­a­ble women. Into this all-too-fer­tile fem­i­nist ter­ri­tory, China Girl brings the psy­chol­ogy and bi­ol­ogy of moth­er­hood: It turns out Gri n’s ado­les­cent trauma re­sulted in a daugh­ter given up for adop­tion at birth, and her in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the world of sur­ro­gacy adds guilt and ma­ter­nal long­ing to her portfolio of melan­cholies now bulging nearly as much as that sad suit­case—a catchall metaphor, it seems, for all that is trou­bling in the lake of wom­an­hood.

China Girl has mo­ments of bril­liance, par­tic­u­larly the per­for­mances of co-stars Ni­cole Kid­man, Gwen­do­line Christie (of Game of Thrones) and the ne young ac­tor Alice En­glert, who plays Gri n’s lost daugh­ter and is Cam­pion’s real daugh­ter (a gift to arm­chair psy­chol­o­gists). But so much is madly, gyno-cen­tri­cally cuckoo that the saga si­mul­ta­ne­ously im­plodes and spi­rals out of con­trol. As Lynchian-night­mare-strange as Cam­pion’s vi­sion can get, it’s the heavy-handed gen­der pol­i­tics and car­toon­ish demon­stra­tions of male treach­ery and stu­pid­ity that do the story in. The male cops taunt and tit­ter at Gri n with un­re­lent­ing sex­ist provo­ca­tion, and even “good” men turn out to be cheaters. None are more point­less or id­i­otic than the dudes who hang out in a co ee shop, shar­ing on­line rat­ings of pros­ti­tutes they claim to have banged, in a con­fed­er­acy of Beavis and Butt-head dunces. Mean­while, the women weep or cir­cle one another dis­trust­fully, a spirit-drain­ing ladies’ mis­ery litany. Had a man made this, he would have been wom­ansplained into con­tri­tion.

+ VALE OF TEARS: Moss as De­tec­tive Robin Gri n.

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