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Jane Campion on Lack of Female Filmmakers, ‘Top of the Lake: China Girl’

Jane Campion is a hugger. The Oscar winner, who punctuates every other sentence with a loud, earthy laugh, is so into physical affection that she won’t let a reporter from Variety leave an interview without dragging him onto a couch to snuggle with her and her “Top of the Lake: China Girl” co-director Ariel Kleiman. It’s definitely an unusual way to end a grilling by the press, but Campion claims this kind of emotional openness is one of the things that separates female filmmakers from their male counterparts.

“There’s a different ethos,” she says. “We’re always cuddling and carrying on. I was with Andrea Arnold last night and we were cuddling. Then Uma (Thurman) came along and we were all cuddling.”

Not that “China Girl” should be mistaken for something light and fluffy. It’s a hard-edged mystery that delves into the world of sex trafficking, prostitution, and illegal surrogacy. It follows Det. Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) as she tries to figure out who murdered a sex worker and stuffed her body in a suitcase. Warm and cuddly, it decidedly is not.

Campion and her collaborators believe that the two seasons differ thematically. “Top of the Lake” was about a commune of women who set up camp in a town dominated by men, whereas Season 2 is about motherhood and parenting. As she tries to solve the mystery, Griffin is also grappling with the guilt she feels over giving up her daughter for adoption.

“The first series was about the matriarchy versus the patriarchy,” Campion said. “This one’s more internal and maternal. Guys go to war, women have this drive to have babies. Very often they are dealing with death. Miscarriages are common and quite private, really. There are dramas that go on in every woman’s life that not many people know about.”

The second season of the award-winning series had its premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, earning raves and a standing ovation, but also some pearl-clutching from traditionalists upset that television has invaded an event for cinephiles. “China Girl” isn’t the only series getting the red carpet treatment. Showtime’s “Twin Peaks” revival is also screening at Cannes. “China Girl” will air on Sundance, but Campion maintains it’s not a television show in the purest sense.

“These long pieces, we make them as if they actually are films,” she said. Nor does she think that Cannes should limit itself simply to movies. “Cannes is a great curator of the world’s screen storytelling,” Campion said. “They’ll screen what they want to. I think there’s value to it. “
It shouldn’t come as a surprise for fans of Campion’s earlier, elliptical dramas like “Holy Smoke!” or “The Portrait of a Lady,” but the director was never interested in making a standard detective show.
“Most detective stories are ‘we’ve got to figure it out by the time the bomb blows up’ and you cut to the clock ticking down,” said Gerard Lee, the series’ co-screenwriter. “There’s an imperative to solve the case. These girls are just talking about getting pregnant. It’s like where’s the urgency here!”

There are very sequences of Griffin interviewing suspects or piecing together clues. The series plays more like a tone poem than a posher version of “Law & Order.”

“I’m not interested at all in procedural police work,” Campion said. “I’m interested in how the themes of the story weave together.”

It was this interest in creating an atmosphere of loss and foreboding and that led Campion to tap Kleiman (“Partisan”) as her co-director.

“I really connected to these characters,” Kleiman said. “Jane and I are tonally driven filmmakers.”

Campion has been a barrier-breaker throughout her career, becoming the second woman to earn a best director nomination and having the dubious distinction of being the first (and, so far, only) woman to win the Palme d’Or. Both honors were for her work on 1993’s “The Piano.” When told she’s an icon, she laughs, quipping that it means people are just saying, “she’s still doing this!” But she acknowledges that not much has changed since “The Piano” landed on screens. Women comprised just 7% of all directors working on the 250 highest-grossing domestic releases in 2016, a decline of two percentage points from the previous year. Moreover, only two other women, Sofia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow (who won), have nabbed directing Academy Awards nominations since Campion broke into the club.

“We’re a long way from really understanding the female experience of being in the world,” Campion said. “There’s not enough female storytellers out there. We’ve been brainwashed a bit by the patriarchal experience of the whole way of being in the world.”

Campion says she’s been approachd by Maren Ade, the director of “Toni Erdmann,” about starting a “wonder woman” film school with other prominent female filmmakers. It’s an idea she thinks has promise.

“It’s all about turn your aprons into capes,” Campion said. “If all of us ladies that have done something strong and good got together, I think it would give the issue some focus.”

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