Jane Campion and the Erotic Period Thriller
by Everett Bonner
“A piece of s**t,” said veteran actor Sam Elliott in an interview when asked his opinions on this award season’s most talked about film: The Power of the Dog. Elliott panned the “allusions of homosexuality” present in the film, claiming it perverted the pure tenets of Western film, the primary genre of his acting career. Despite this, at the 94th Academy Awards, Jane Campion of New Zealand won the Oscar for Best Director for her work on the film, just the third woman to win the award and the first to be nominated twice, and the film was the most nominated movie of the night with a whopping 12 nominations. Based on the 1967 novel of the same name, the film stars Benedict Cumberbatch as a sadistic rancher in 1920s Montana who terrorizes his brother’s newly wedded wife and stepson of, whom he loathes for abandoning him and the family business. His dark secrets are eventually exposed as the stepson works to protect his mother, exposing cycles of sexual abuse within the often hypermasculine setting of the Western frontier, effortlessly juxtaposing themes of dark carnal desire with elements of the traditional period film.
Campion’s first directorial nomination was for her 1993 film The Piano, starring Holly Hunter as a mute 19th Century Scottish widow, who is forcibly remarried to an abusive colonist in the bogs of New Zealand. Her beloved piano, her only means of expression, is not able to be transported from the beach to her new house, but when she finds it has been taken by another settler, she is forced to earn her piano back by visiting the man and playing for him, with his requests growing increasingly sexual. The film similarly toys with modern psychological depictions of human lust in historical settings, cementing Campion as a director with a unique and recognizable style.
Regardless of Elliott’s opinions, these two movies are gems in a new microgenre of film gaining critical and public acclaim: the erotic thriller period piece, or an application of the psychosexual thriller genre onto the classic historical drama. Think 2010’s Black Swan, or 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut, but instead set in a hyper-specific historical and geographical location. Other popular films that fit into this newly recognized genre include 2018’s The Favourite, in which two women vie for influence in the court of 18th Century Great Britain by seducing the unstable Queen Anne, and 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons, depicting the sexual and romantic sabotage of nobles in Pre-Revolutionary France. The genre might even trace back to Black Narcissus, a 1947 thriller in which cloistered nuns in the Himalayan mountains become obsessed with a male they are nursing to health. Jealousy and treachery plague the nuns, warping a genre that depicts the past with historical accuracy into one that focuses on the themes of an erotic thriller.
The expansion and reception of this genre in recent years may have to do with the way in which a modern audience chooses to receive dramatic historicization. The sprawling, three-hour-plus-long historical epic the likes of Ben Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, and Braveheart does not spark as much public praise, as our media consumption itself has fundamentally changed. Internet streaming and content binging have forced an acceleration of the cinematic arts, with our demand for an ever-improving industry causing art that is not particularly innovative to be quickly forgotten. Audiences aren’t going to spend money on droll and easily predictable historical sagas any longer.
How does this increasing demand for new, innovative media content affect the writers, producers, and directors within the film industry? Can they easily ignore millennia’s worth of historical periods in which to set their films for the sake of a relatively new audience interest? Filmmakers have, thus, found ways to implement the tools of modern erotic psychological films, now wildly popular, into the antiquated settings that audiences would’ve ordinarily found uninteresting. I certainly would not have watched The Power of the Dog if it was just another story about cowboys and cattle ranching. Instead, I find that some of my favorite recent movies have stemmed from this new cinematic tradition, and I notice the tropes appearing in other recent international releases such as The Handmaiden in 2016.
Something of note within this genre, though, at least from the western film industry, is that the films have been almost exclusively white; people of color are virtually invisible within the genre. Because of the exclusion of African-American filmmakers in Hollywood during much of the 20th Century, their historical narratives have been few and far between on-screen; thus, many films are focused on telling Black historical stories with the emotional gravitas and artistic beauty that have only been allowed in white historical epics.
The racial dynamic of psychosexual historical films is especially relevant considering Jane Campion’s recent blunder in her acceptance speech at the 2022 BAFTAs. She bafflingly insinuated that her winning of the award was somehow more impressive than the careers of Venus and Serena Williams, two Black women who are perhaps the most famous tennis players of all time. The Williams sisters were seated in the audience to support the autobiographical film about their family King Richard as Campion remarked that her achievement was more commendable because the sisters “do not play against the guys like I have to”. While Campion has since apologized for her remark, it sparks an interesting conversation into the nature of the genre, as it applies modern conceptions of lust and sexuality, often stemming directly from the feminist philosophy to exclusively white historical narratives. If the accomplishments of Black people, especially those depicted on screen, are viewed by filmmakers through the lens of inadequacy by white feminist conceptions of art, it is apparent why only white historical narratives are chosen by Hollywood to be re-genred for the sake of popular and critical consumption.
As western media consumption evolves, so too does western media, and the emergence of erotic period thrillers as critical darlings and serious award contenders shows that audience demand can fundamentally change the nature of a genre, even one that once seemed like a standard in the art of cinema. Crafting a historical epic had once been viewed as the pinnacle achievement for filmmakers, so I welcome the fact that finding new ways to subvert genre expectations has become the new norm in modern filmmaking.
Everett Bonner is a junior in the SFS studying International Politics.