Writer-director Jane Campion has made a career of uncomfortable films about women struggling with their identities and their desires, trying to find fulfillment in some form: artistic (An Angel At My Table), personal (The Piano), spiritual (Holy Smoke), social (The Portrait Of A Lady), or rawly sexual (In The Cut). Their adversaries are usually men, who range from cluelessly obstructive to manipulative and possessive to hostile, though occasionally their well-meaning assistance is just another barrier to overcome. But Campion's directorial debut, 1989's wrenching Sweetie, took a markedly different direction. Its female protagonist tries to find herself in the outsized shadow of her sister, though it takes little stretching to see both characters as aspects of the same person, struggling for ascendancy.
Karen Colston stars as a repressed Australian woman who proves so easily led that she falls all over an engaged near-stranger (Tom Lycos) based on a fortuneteller's advice and a stray facial mole. Lycos leaves his new fiancée for her, but their relationship quickly sours, and before long, they're sleeping in separate rooms, and she's sabotaging his vague attempts to improve their lives. Enter Colston's sister "Sweetie" (Geneviève Lemon), a mentally ill force of nature who breaks into Colston and Lycos' home and takes up residence there with her "producer" boyfriend. Helpless in the face of Lemon's tantrums, denials of reality, and other violently childish tactics, Colston falls back on her own presumed childhood coping methods: name-calling and hiding behind their ineffectual parents.
It's tempting to view Sweetie symbolically, with Lemon as id rampaging against Colston's buttoned-up superego; that'd make it slightly easier to bear the film's excruciating, protracted confrontations, as Lemon climbs trees naked and smeared with paint, snarls and snaps like a dog, and destroys Colston's possessions out of insensitivity or rage. But Campion's merciless staging forces a more intimate relationship between viewers and characters; it's hard to take a detached stance when she's smearing raw emotions all over the screen. She's also made a career of pushing emotional buttons, and from her very first film, she knew how to get under audiences' skins and really make them squirm.
Key features: Three early Campion shorts, a group commentary, and a featurette in which Colston and Lemon admit they didn't understand the film at all when they were making it.