Two Friends
Reviewed in February 1999
Director: Jane Campion. Cast: Emma Coles, Kris Bidenko, Kris McQuade, Peter Hehir, Stephen Leeder, Debra May. Screenplay: Helen Garner.

Photo © 1986 Australian Film Institute
Two Friends, a film Jane Campion directed for Australian television in 1986, has all of the imagination and daring that would hallmark her later features, including Sweetie and The Piano. One must be careful in describing the action of the story, not for fear of revealing surprising events but for the precisely opposite reason that, for once, and intentionally so, nothing in Two Friends comes as a surprise. Campion, working from Helen Garner's original script, "follows," in a sense, the friendship between a straitlaced schoolgirl named Louise (Emma Coles) and the more punkish, dramatic, but equally clever Kelly (Kris Bidenko). What makes the picture distinctive—and can you imagine anything on American television, save one sub-par episode of Seinfeld, trying anything this risky?—is that the film begins with the friendship already dissolved and moves further back in time with each sequence until we end up with a closing shot of Louise and Kelly in perfect, friendly bliss. It is no accident that the film begins with a scene at a funeral wake, since the film that follows is partly a eulogy for and partly an autopsy of the dead affection between two girls who had almost no choice but to drift apart.

Louise, as I have said, is the more conservative partner of the two, but seems to be so because—as is often the ironic case in life—her parents are the more permissive and patient with her. Her mother, Janet (Kris McQuade), does not mind hosting a post-exam party for Louise and Kelly's girl's-school classmates, and she almost always assents to Kelly staying the night. In fact, she doesn't even react as badly as one might expect when she finds that Kelly has invited a male acquaintance to Louise's house to share in their sleepover. Nothing untoward happens between Kelly and the young hunk, because she perceives both Janet's discomfort and the rudeness of her own behavior. She kisses Louise's mother contritely on the cheek and makes her exit with Matt. The scene is a definitive one in our understanding (retroactive as it is) of Kelly's character, because we realize that despite the outrageousness of her appearance and the irrepressible boldness that led her to invite the boy, she has an adult's rationality and a good friend's sensitivity to the moments when she brings about insult or pain.

Though the title of the film is Two Friends, the balance between the two characters is not altogether equal, for it is primarily from revealing past events in Kelly's life that the picture derives both dramatic momentum and emotional heft. By the start of the picture (i.e., the end of the friendship), Kelly has become virtually homeless, dabbling in narcotics and perhaps truly saved from ruin only by her persistently cockeyed sense of humor. "So far so good," she tells Louise in a long letter, "I'm not yet a junkie or a prostitute." In a scene that starts out conventionally but ends as something quite interesting, Louise receives this letter on her birthday, and Bidenko "reads" its contents in an inevitable bout of voice-over while Coles' eyes run over the paper. Only a few pages into it, however, Louise drops the letter on her bed in either sadness or disinterest, and she begins to play the piano, while Bidenko's voice-over continues. The music and the voice-over clamor to be heard over one another, and Campion shows us what so many similar movie moments forget: that a letter is not merely important because someone is reading it but because someone else chose to write it. Campion does not deprive us of important information merely because one of her characters refuses it, and therefore she is careful not to align her (or our) perspective any more with Louise or Kelly than with the other.

Meanwhile, Campion characteristically comes up aces in her depiction of female adolescent confusion, revealing in several scenes the girls' discomfort with parental intrusion and with their own changing bodies, their almost daily cycles of irritation and reconciliation with one another, and the awkwardness of determining whether one's pursuit of sexual partners will mean a diminishing role for one's friends. In a sequence toward the picture's end, Campion briefly drops the unadorned and realistic visual style of the picture and lets it erupt into such abstract effects as hand-coloring some frames, increasing the film speed, and inserting fantasy sequences of the girl's play-acting their fears, hopes, and suspicions. The tonal shift takes one by surprise, but not only does Campion capture the fervent energies conveyed through a note passed between desks at a girl's school (the experimental sequence itself is a visual enactment of th note's contents), but the sequence feels as unbounded, as fresh and fertile as Kelly and Louise's friendship does at the moment that note is passed. The contrast to the opening sequence at the wake could not be stronger, and one startles to realize how much Campion has made us care about these girls and their deteriorating camaraderie. After all, what is almost the joke of the film is that this impassioned friendship expires in only nine months (again, the math here should not be read as an accident), and falls victim to the difficult but seemingly un-lethal event of the girls being sent to different high schools.

Two Friends, I suppose, must be considered a slight work, since the action it follows is quite specific and rather small, and seems to have little resonance outside its own modest bounds. Certainly the movie does not have the fireworks or the disconcerting force of Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures another story about young girls Down Under who form an uncannily close bond with one another that is fatally threatened (this time literally) by the imminent separation of the two. In her experiments with form and her immersion in her protagonists' minds, Campion's film seems like a less dangerous and unsettling precursor or companion-piece to Jackson's film, which allows its primary relationship to explode into something as terrifying as it is richly romantic. What does resonate about Two Friends, however, is how perfectly and respectfully Campion captures the emotional sea-changes that occur in the lives of young girls even when they don't provoke calamitous results or media attention.

Like her beguiling short film Passionless Moments, Campion's Two Friends honors the extraordinary and the poignant qualities of events that happen each day in the world. This story would necessarily have been watched differently if told more straight-forwardly and with less formal jerry-rigging. Always as fiercely intelligent as she is wildly imaginative, Campion knows exactly how to use the medium of film to tell this story in the way she wants. For many other directors, the dredging up of old student work or television projects would be an embarrassment or at least an oddity, a quaint exercise of professional archaeology. To watch Two Friends, however, is to continue wondering if Campion is ever going to make a wrong step in her hopefully long but already rich career. Grade: B+

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