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Mired in desire: Jane Campion's Portrait of erotics

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This article considers the political and representational implications of Jane Campion's 1996 film adaptation of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady (1908). Campion has said in interviews that one of her goals for the film was to recuperate the sexual content she claims is merely latent in James's novel and a reflection of Victorian society's repression of female sexuality. The article analyzes two specific revisions to the novel: the film's re-inscription of James's portrait metaphor with metonymic modes of representation, and its anti-realist anachronisms that dislocate the text from its nineteenth century context. By manipulating the novel's mode of aesthetic representation and its historical context, Campion sets out to create a space for the depiction of Victorian female sexuality. Although Campion's film ultimately fails to negotiate the knotty relationships among the female body, social world and historical moment, Portrait nonetheless makes an important contribution to ongoing debates about the representation of women on screen.

Keywords: Henry James; Jane Campion; Victorian; female sexuality; metaphor / metonymy; representation

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of Colorado.

Publication date: 2009-12-01

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  • Adaptation, or the conversion of oral, historical or fictional narratives into stage drama has been common practice for centuries. In our own time the processes of cross-generic transformation continue to be extremely important in theatre as well as in the film and other media industries. Adaptation and the related areas of translation and intertextuality continue to have a central place in our culture with a profound resonance across our civilisation.
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