The Power of the Dog: Jane Campion signs a winning return on Netflix [critique]

After twelve years of absence, Jane Campion abandons her dramas in costume to survey the terrain of the western. But under the quiet classicism, the filmmaker burns the male discomfort in a strange melody.

It is perhaps Julia Ducournau who speaks about it best. Mid-October, before awarding the Lumière prize to Jane campion, the director of Titanium had started a long litany: “Through Sweetie, Janet, Ada and Flora, Isabel and Serena, Frannie, Ruth, Fannie, Robin and Rose, Jane Campion showed me savage or resilient strength, disobedience, irreverence, mistrust, violence, solidarity, independence, fragility, the unbridled romanticism of raw desires, and freedom. “Listening to this list of the heroines of the New Zealand filmmaker, one wondered how the protagonist of the Power of the dog, the filthy Phil played by Benedict Cumberbatch, could integrate this cohort of ill-adjusted women, young and innocent, who come up against a masculine universe where nothing is forgiven. And then we sank into this western tragedy and we finally understood: as the adorable Sweetie was dripping with love, Phil oozes with hate. And what makes him a full-fledged character in Campion’s cinema is fundamentally his extraordinary complexity, his repressed desires and his inability to blend in with the world that is coming. His loneliness. And his thirst for freedom …

This was the main theme of the novel by Thomas Savage from which the film is based. A dark tragedy hidden under the air of a bucolic western. Campion has taken it all over: the whispers of the wind and the pain of men, horses snorting and fates shattering, summers blazing and death stealthily advancing, in a paralyzing crescendo. In the heart of Montana, in the mid-1920s, two brothers, hardened bachelors, reign over a large herd. George, the youngest, is a silent but generous worker. Phil, the eldest, a fine mind coupled with a calculating monster. Cultivated, arrogant, perverse, he plays his macho role to perfection to hide his secret … which the film will reveal in a staggering moment of change. When George decides to marry Rose, a former waitress who comes to live with these two brothers with her son Peter, the drama can explode.

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The first part of the film is confusing. Campion keeps the rustic simplicity of Savage’s novel, using a very elliptical form of storytelling. She does not always manage to get rid of the Freudian symbolism that weighed down the book, and her pointillism does not excuse the wobbly characterization of the characters. Cumberbatch’s Phil is often cartoonish and, intoxicated with beautiful images, the filmmaker reduces him to an almost clumsy expressionist silhouette, a bit like the Keitel in a red robe from Holy Smoke. Until Peter’s arrival at the ranch, the film is wobbly, at the same time mysterious and strangely academic, filmed à la David Lean (majestic, imposing), but too often turning into neo James Ivory, therefore heavily melodramatic.


And then when we enter the eye of the storm, we find the power of Campion, this way of dragging us into the minds of his protagonists, his so particular way of recording landscapes and filming on a stand. equality of plants, minerals and humans. The disorder is permanent, we are constantly walking on a wire. Like Sweetie, young Peter sees signs everywhere (looking at a hill or a dead animal). And by the sheer power of his executives, his intuitions, Campion makes us understand that love, suffering and violence are omnipresent. The power of the dog says that you shouldn’t be afraid of great feelings. They’re bigger, that’s all. It was not obvious at first, but this funny western revisits the themes that innervate the filmmaker’s film – bruised adolescence, monstrosity, the gaze of others. From there to joining Phil to the cohort of his misfit heroines …

The Power of the Dog, by Jane Campion. With Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons … Available December 1, 2021.

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