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Cannes: With ‘The Piano,’ Jane Campion Explored the Same Feminist Vision That Will Drive ‘Top of the Lake: China Girl’

The Palme d'Or-winning filmmaker is returning to the festival with a new vision that continues to explore her enduring passions.

“The Piano”

It’s a theme that Campion has long explored in her work, including a slew of often misunderstood or overlooked offerings. Her first post-“Piano” feature, 1996’s Henry James adaptation “The Portrait of a Lady,” cast Nicole Kidman as a young woman suddenly saddled with a massive fortune and a slew of suitors. She’s willfully misguided by many of the people closest to her, and the true tragedy of the film is the kind that chips away, evidenced in every time (and there are many) she works against her own self-interest, falling apart at every step.

Campion flipped that paradigm with her dark comedy “Holy Smoke,” which matched up Keitel with an absolutely electric Kate Winslet. As Ruth Barron, Winslet’s big issue is that she’s fallen prey to a weirdo cult — or, at least, that’s what we’re initially told is her problem — but when she’s matched up with Keitel’s PJ Waters to “cure” her, we discover that she’s a woman possessed of her own unique mind. Similar conflicts unfold in the dead sexy “In the Cut,” Campion’s 2003 murder mystery, which combines eroticism with Meg Ryan have a total breakdown (in kind of the coolest way possible).

Sally Bongers/SundanceTV

The filmmaker tapped back into her ability to bring intense life to forbidden romances with 2009’s stunning “Bright Star.” Though the film, which dramatized the waning days of poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw), is more concerned with its male characters than Campion’s previous efforts, it finds its heart in Abbie Cornish’s delicate performance as Keats’ beloved Fanny Brawne. The film establishes the pair as equals (in fact, Fanny is actually the better of the two, in terms of station and productivity), though Keats is the more famous of the pair, and spins out a love story based on mutual affection and intelligence. Of course, in true Campion style, it never starts soaring until Fanny knows — and expresses — her own mind.

Campion will be reunited with her “Portrait of a Lady” star Kidman for her next Cannes premiere: the second season of the Sundance TV miniseries “Top of the Lake.” Campion and Gerard Lee conceived of the series five years ago, which spawned a lauded first season starring Elisabeth Moss as Robin Griffin, a haunted Sydney detective pursuing a horrific and bizarre case that returns her to her small hometown. Like any good Campion heroine, Robin only finds her stride when she’s free to tap into her deepest emotions and desires, as dark as they may be.

READ MORE: Cannes: Before ‘Good Time,’ the Safdie Brothers’ ‘Daddy Longlegs’ Reinvented the New York Movie

The newest season of the series, officially known as “Top of the Lake: China Girl,” will again dive into Robin’s own psyche matching her up against Kidman (who plays the adoptive mother of Robin’s first child), who clearly knows her way around a Campion story. Seeing these two face off — or come together to fight a common evil? the trailers for the series are maddeningly slim — will bring Campion’s feminist (if you’re going for labels…) drive to an entirely new level. Two heroines, two characters, two women who must turn inward to express something greater to the world. Or the screen.

The Cannes Film Festival runs May 17 – 28.

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