"Men Who Love Women:
Campion and Lee’s Top of the Lake"
Guest Writer: Vicky Albritton

Monday, July 15, 2013

[Top of the Lake (2013) is a 7-episode Sundance channel original series which has been available for streaming on Netflix and is airing in six parts on BBC2 beginning July 13. The below post by guest writer Vicky Albritton, an independent scholar, includes spoilers]

"Men Who Love Women"

Written by: Vicky Albritton

Not long ago I wrote on my Nordic Noir blog about Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (originally titled in Swedish, Men Who Hate Women) which, like Top of the Lake, contains scenes of shocking sexual abuse. Some criticized Larsson for turning victimization into entertainment; others praised his steely “feminist” heroine. A similar discordance renders Jane Campion and Gerard Lee’s production uncomfortably fascinating, though it helps to have a woman at the helm. Besides, the World Health Organization recently declared violence against women an epidemic; in fact, none of the acts depicted in the series are necessarily uncommon.

But while Nordic Noir features frozen landscapes somewhat removed from a tarnished government ideal, Campion and Lee push the narrative even further away from civilized society. Legal justice seems impossible here, where instinct, passion, and “the tremendous intelligence of the body” exert a heavy influence. These unseemly crimes are a little hard to believe against the backdrop of New Zealand’s sublime mountains, sparkling lakes, and mossy forests. Who would think this land could harbor a corrupt police force, a thriving methamphetamine racket, and a horde of sexual abusers? Yet the sprawling primordial woods suggest sexual violence springs from a deep well.

Robin, the detective played by Elisabeth Moss (familiar to the readers of this blog as the actor who plays Peggy Olson on Mad Men), investigates these crimes despite exceeding danger. When she jogs in the woods alone in the town where she was gang-raped as a teenager, stays at her father’s empty cabin alone, and interviews criminals in the dark forest, nature’s desolate beauty takes on an aspect of horror. This is not only a remote town at the top of one of New Zealand’s islands, but an atavistic part of human consciousness. In this sense, the casting of Moss (an American) works well. Everyone here is an outsider. Matt Mitcham’s Scottish brogue signals his foreign heritage; Tui, the missing young girl at the center of this mystery, has a Thai mother; and Turangi, Robin’s mother’s partner, is Maori—an outsider in his own land.

While Top of the Lake is full of both casual and vicious slurs and assaults against women, Campion and Lee question the idea that “hate” is the only motivating factor. Here the story includes men who love women—though their “love” is warped by ancient cycles of abuse, unhelpful mythologies, and cultures of oppression. Why does Matt treat women so callously? Of his 12-year-old daughter Tui, he says vehemently, “No one loves her more than me. No one.” He will fight tooth and nail to bring her back under his roof, under his control.

This confusion of “love” with domination leaves women scarred and unmoored, even if they were not physically abused. In the camp at “Paradise” not far from Matt’s home, middle-aged women seek refuge under the leadership of GJ, a guru-like figure played by Holly Hunter. Yet the domineering husband of one of the women, Bunny, still manages to helicopter in to berate her, while Matt and his sons come out to threaten and gawk. Freedom here is fragile and incomplete.

Campion and Lee, however, present no easy portrait of “good” women wronged by “evil” men. These women test our patience (and that of GJ) with their foolish delusions. Anita tells a ludicrous story about her failed “friendship” with a chimpanzee, naively expecting sympathy from Matt. Then she falls for him (a fling that reveals Matt is in fact impotent). Bunny is too weak willed to sleep with men without becoming dangerously attached. So she hires a man in a bar, but sticks to GJ’s stricture of seven minutes per romantic encounter. The women of Paradise are nothing if not sensitive, and almost give too much space and time to their suffering. GJ finally shouts at them to “stop your helping!”—seemingly tired of these shattered nurturers. 

GJ’s name, harsh manner, rasping voice, her body always fully clothed (while all the other women walk around naked) mark her out as deliberately less “feminine.” Yet for all her decisive one-liners, she lives amid contradiction. She praises “the tremendous intelligence of the body,” but she seems averse to the flesh, with her assiduously buttoned-down attire and her ignorance of what Tui’s ultrasound picture shows. She produces oracular insights for her female followers, but in the end leaves the “crazy bitches” behind.
Men, no less than women, suffer GJ’s withering comments. She snaps at Bunny’s husband to take care of his
own child and when Matt condescendingly asks her, “What’s beyond the void that’s so frightening?,” she answers, “your little girl.” Tui is beyond his grasp. Matt must suffer his young daughter’s disappearance just as Tui suffers her mysterious pregnancy. GJ’s comments illuminate how violence affects more than just the (female) victim. Robin’s gang-rape leads to torturous relationships with men, first with Steve, whom she cannot marry after five years, and then Johnno. We learn that Johnno’s sense of manhood was crushed when, as a boy, he stood helplessly by as Robin was gang-raped. Thus, the Maori legend he tells about a “maiden” rescued by a “warrior” from a “demon” surely burdens him with the weight of personal failure.

In the dense cultural history of this landscape, in fact, the subjugation of an entire people casts a long shadow. Recent research has shown that the indigenous Maori culture embraced diversity in sexuality. Early-modern Christian beliefs were forced onto the Maori during the period of colonization and many still feel uneasy about prejudice against homosexuality. The Maori legend told by Johnno then may be compatible with heteronormative ideals, but it fails to convey the full range of Maori sexual experience. As a technique of narrative framing, it intensifies the male-female power struggle. Yet everything collapses when we learn that Jamie (who is also of Maori heritage) was gay, and that while he played no role in the cycle of violence, he too suffered from it.

Amid this dark and bitter cultural history, romance is complicated and full of broken rules. Johnno’s forcing cunnilingus on Robin in the bathroom is both erotic and disturbing, since Robin is a rape victim and Johnno, her old childhood friend, knows it. Where is the mysterious line between romantic play and coercion here? He later tells her to keep her engagement ring on when they sleep together, enjoying a forbidden thrill. When Robin learns she may be Johnno’s half-sister, she is no less attracted to him—though Johnno clearly has trouble with it. Campion and Lee thus touch on the shifting power of sexual taboos, reserving judgment on the matter.
The women of the camp at “Paradise” navigate this same difficult terrain. No wonder they rest, lick their wounds, and bare their souls. Robin (like GJ an androgynous name) tries to hold herself apart, but in the end she too succumbs. GJ tells her, “Die to yourself—to your idea of yourself.” This advice troublingly recalls the essential harm of sexual abuse—the loss of a sense of self. It seems contrary to what any decent counselor would advise. Does GJ really have any answers? Her final command to Tui to see her baby as her “teacher” is appealing, but it contradicts her earlier command to “stop your helping.” Perhaps GJ simply thinks women should give up their self-absorbed brooding—should become, instead, a sleeping cat, or throw themselves into the physical pleasures of motherhood. She herself checks the news and stocks, focusing on the present and future in her own way.

Yet if emotionality gets roundly criticized in Top of the Lake, it also gets a lot of work done. After Robin is told to stand down, it is the male pathologist who reinvigorates her both with new evidence and the admission, “for me this is emotional.” He lost his child, but he refuses to move on (or “die to himself,” thank god). Likewise, near the end Johnno begs Robin to “pretend to be normal”— forget the past and move on. Robin cannot, and instead winds up infiltrating the Rohypnol rape house, finally unraveling the twisted plot at the center of the entire narrative.

On the whole, Campion and Lee’s stubborn poetic ambiguity places this thriller in a class of its own. Good and evil are never neatly packaged. Learning of Matt’s abusive mother, who tortures him from beyond the grave, rouses our sympathy for him. Likewise one wonders what Johnno, the supposed “hero,” was doing with Tui’s mom, his own step-mother and possible victim of abuse herself. The gorgeous mountainside dazzles the eye, but also turns Tui a little bit feral, culminating in her fantastic hiss. For a moment she’s a cat, not a girl, offering relief from the tedious male-female dichotomy. But she doesn’t curl up and sleep—and with the love of a man like Matt, the father she kills to protect her own baby, this is a wise choice.


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Ruby said...

I really enjoyed your exploration of the tropes in this absorbing series.

Sunny said...

Interesting analysis. Two things I disagree with. I think Johnno asked Robin to keep the engagement ring on during sex because neither wanted to fall for one another. They both expressed this--and Johnno saw the ring as "protection."

I do think Johnno was a bit of a player--which is why Robin was a bit miffed at him in the bathroom scene, she was jealous--but I do not think his relationship with Tui's mother was romantic/sexual. When he is in her store, it's obvious he's just taken a shower, has a toothbrush in his hand, and it sounded initially like he was doing laundry. Later that day, we see him in his tent with a blonde woman.

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