The only woman to have won the Palme d’Or in the 62-year history of the Cannes film festival (for The Piano in 1993), New Zealander Jane Campion returned to the Croisette this past week with Bright Star. The gorgeously mounted 19th-century drama, told through the eyes of 18-year-old Fanny Brawne, is the true tale of Brawne’s romance with her 23-year-old North London neighbor, the poet John Keats. But their unconsummated two-year relationship was doomed by poverty and tuberculosis. "It was shockingly passionate and painful," says Campion, who relied on Keats’s "extraordinary" love letters to Brawne. "It’s first love. They don’t have any restraint, because they’re just discovering themselves and their love at the same time." The Keats Fanny met, says Campion, was "fun-loving, wicked, humorous and challenging."
Bright Star is Campion’s first feature since In the Cut in 2003. After finishing that film, the writer-director took four years off to spend time with her daughter, Ella, now 13, who partly inspired her portrait of Brawne. "It was a great thing for me," says Campion. "I felt midway in life I didn’t want to turn into a cliche of myself. I needed to notice what it is I’m interested in without any pressure to produce."
One of the best-reviewed movies in Cannes, Bright Star opens in the U.S. September 18. It boasts two breakthrough performances, from Brit Ben Whishaw and Australian actress Abbie Cornish, who beat out a bevy of British belles for the role of the lovelorn Fanny, a fashion plate who makes her own clothes. “I had fallen in love with her audition,” says Campion. “She’s mysterious, she stands by her instincts. She can’t be undermined.”
With three female directors in the main competition for the Palme d’Or, another festival first, “it’s a good year for women in Cannes,” says Campion, an unabashed feminist at 55. “Do the math! It’s not possible to be a woman without caring about other women.” She credits the Australian government’s insistence on equality for women in its film industry—which doesn’t have a big-studio old boys’ network like Hollywood’s—for giving female directors a leg up. “The macho flamboyance you see in American cinema, where they get excited about Spiderman—I just can’t go there,” she says.
VIEW A SLIDESHOW OF PHOTOS FROM "BRIGHT STAR".