To the editors:
J. Rosenbaum’s laudatory review of Sweetie, Jane Campion’s first feature film (March 30 issue) contained a crucial and almost offensive blindspot. He describes Sweetie as a “compulsive flirt” writing that “even when she bathes her own father, she’s quite capable of dropping the soap into the tub as an excuse for groping him.” His easy “when she bathes her own father” makes it seem as if such an act were a normal part of any father/daughter relationship. Excuse me?
Sweetie’s “madness” and pain come from somewhere, are rooted in some past events or state that Jane Campion never shows us directly. I believe that the scene Mr. Rosenbaum so superficially describes is, in fact, the biggest hint: that Sweetie is a victim of incest. The scene is important because of how it is shown to us in relation to Kay (Sweetie’s sister). Kay witnesses this bath scene (we see it through her eyes); the next cut is of Kay lying on her bed, troubled and pensive, obviously deeply affected by what she just saw. It is the first time Kay sees this act of bathing but by the familiarity between both Gordon (the father) and Sweetie (indeed, by the very fact of her bathing him) we see — as Kay does — that this has happened before. Moreover, Sweetie’s behavior while bathing her father is not simple “flirting” but confused and child-like, her fear and anxiety barely concealed by her act of “this is okay, I want to do this.”
Painting Sweetie as a victim of incest by her father would help explain some of the family’s deep dysfunction and emotional enmeshment (to the extent that these things can be explained and certainly part of the power of Campion’s film is how much she leaves unexplained). It would explain Gordon’s abnormal and blind attachment to Sweetie; Sweetie’s inability to go beyond her attachment to him; Flo’s anger at her husband’s irrational and principal attachment to their daughter; and Kay’s sick jealousy of Sweetie and insistence that something is wrong, though she cannot articulate what, exactly. Mr. Rosenbaum refers repeatedly to the importance of sex in Sweetie without expounding on the hows or whys of its role. I cannot be certain of my interpretation of Sweetie as an incest victim, though there are other indications, like the closing scene with the young, talented Sweetie almost painfully singing a love song to her father. But I am certain that it is not “normal” for a grown daughter to bathe her father and am disturbed by Mr. Rosenbaum’s characterization of Sweetie as a “flirt.” Sweetie’s “flirting” is an acting out — as are all of her antics — of deep psychological disturbances. In his review, Mr. Rosenbaum does not delve too deeply into the reasons for Sweetie’s behavior but instead seems to accept it as a simple, rootless fact. While Campion keeps us guessing as to the genesis of Sweetie’s troubles, I doubt that she intended for us to see them as unconnected from the whole dysfunction of the family. Mr. Rosenbaum states as much, which is why I am confused by his ignorance or blindness towards what are appropriate boundaries in a father/daughter relationship. He places Sweetie, by his description of the scene, in control. But what can we say of a father who “allows” his daughter to bathe him? Isn’t he (the only person in the film capable of controlling Sweetie) more responsible because he is her parent? In short, the scene is more important than Mr. Rosenbaum describes it to be and he would have done well enough to leave it alone rather than characterizing it so wrongly.
Thank you for your time.
Jonathan Rosenbaum replies:
I’m sorry to have offended Ms. Lortie with my perhaps too-breezy account of Sweetie bathing her father and the implications of this brief scene. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that this was “normal” behavior, even for a “compulsive flirt,” and if it sounded that way, this was an unfortunate consequence of trying to convey a lot of information in a relatively short space — and, as I suggested elsewhere in the review, trying to describe a movie that resists synopsis. Ms. Lortie’s incest theory is suggestive, but, considering the lack of further evidence in the film, by no means conclusive. Campion is clearly too sophisticated a filmmaker to be blind to psychology, but it strikes me as being part of her remarkable imagination and freedom that she isn’t necessarily bound by it either — which suggests that a character like Sweetie refuses to be definitively “explained” or accounted for by anyone or anything.