I have to make my reviews shorter. That’s a given. For one they are not reviews, they are more breakdowns of specific aspects and exploration of the links that these details show. Jane Campion’s The Piano has so much depth – visually rooted in Gothic and Victorian imagery, a subject and context that feeds directly into the story and subtext of feminism and masculinity. So, with this in mind, it may be difficult to keep this short but – believe me – I shall try.
Interestingly, this is apparently the last film Kurt Cobain watched before dying. It is quite depressing and morbid … but I do not see this as a bad thing. Kurt probably did.
As stated, this film is steeped in Victorian and Gothic imagery – a dark, grey and dull landscape akin to a Thomas Gainsborough British landscapes – except this film is based in New Zealand. Personally, I felt that the muddy, marshy landscape -and Harvey Keitel’s almost-Scottish accent – almost made you feel like it was set in England. The constant rain too. The Maori tribe did establish the location a little better – and maybe the cliffs on the coast looked more New-Zealand-ish rather than the White Cliffs of Dover.
So, I read, Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is a huge influence on this film – alongside The African Queen by C.S. Forester (though there is scope to assume Jane Marder’s The Story of a New Zealand River is also a huge influence, says Alistair Fox). But this does not take away from the subtext and feminist messages Campion inserts through the film.
A Female Perspective
The nature of an arranged marriage is always sexist – the man chooses the woman, the woman chooses nothing. This story shows how a strong woman – Ada (Holly Hunter) and her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin … Rogue) – are arranged to join Alistair Stewart (Sam Niell) in New Zealand through an arranged marriage. The biggest factor is how Ada is mute – representing women in the society at the time. She is a gifted piano player and see’s her music as the only audible sene of expression. Alistair Stewart is not a bad guy but he is weak – the first time we see him, he is adjusting his hair – vanity is a preoccupation – and stalling the movement of the Maori’s, directed by Baines (Harvey Keitel), who he has hired to collect Ada’s possessions. The film hinges on the love Baines – a real man – towards Ada and how this progresses. [Spoilers now…}
Baines is a ‘stocky’, well-built man – almost animalistic with his understanding to the tribal Maori’s and patterns on his face. Almost Neanderthal in his attitude – he cannot read – he falls for Ada and, through dominance, forces her to fall for him. Ada, though not a virgin (she has a child) is chaste – buttoned-up in black. Clearly Stewart has not consummated the marriage – but Ada has not made it easy. She gives him no signal as to what he should or shouldn’t do – and he begins confused and then becomes frustrated. Slowly but surely, through what Alistair believes is piano lessons, Baines takes advantage of Ada. He tells her that she can own the piano herself if she plays for him – bit by bit he tells her to take off her garments for his pleasure eventually sleeping together. Ada was locked away and he opens her up – and she seems uncomfortable but content with the progression of their relationship.
Her love for him builds and they begin an affair, which inevitably Stewart finds out about. He attempts to rape her – possibly attempting to be more masculine, akin to Baines. This is an uncomfortable sequence but, as we know, Baines was not sincere in his intentions so it does not make one man better than another. Nevertheless, he fails and he takes her home and boards up the house. He closes-her up – physically stopping her lust for Baines. Slowly, she begins to touch him and appear to be attracted to him. One scene shows her caress his buttocks – he is uncomfortable and moves to ask if he can touch her. This seems to be her dominance over him – she is the ‘man’ in the relationship, while he is the ‘woman’. Their relationship progresses and he takes the boards down – trusting her as he leaves. She knows Baines is leaving and sends Flora to him to send a last-message of love – but Flora runs to Stewart and shows him the message, clarifying that her Mother intended it for Baines. Stewart heads back, in the rain – an incredible sequence – dragging Ada out into the rain and placing her piano-playing hands on the block and chops off her forefinger. Her phallus as the dominant character in their relationship is now emasculated – and she is alone to be cared for. But Stewart turns to Baines, shotgun in hand, and tells him that he knows she wants to be with him – and Baines and Ada set sail fo a life together.
In the boat, Ada lets the piano go – she gets rid of it and consciously attaches herself to it, drowning herself. But, she decides to live and struggles free. Is this weight of thepiano symbolic of her previous love – the Father of Flora? She cannot move onto another man – Baines or Stewart – until she lets go of the past. Following this, we see Ada and Baines happy in a house – Ada even learning to speak.
Each of the details above could be explored in further detail – the roles in a marriage, previous relationships, masculinity and feminity, etc. So much to explore and this is what makes this film so incredible. This film is not based on a book – inspired by many, but not adapted from – and it has managed to create a context that completely expresses the chaste position of many women in a marraige, in a relationship even. Campion has set the scene within a small group of people – and there is inevitably further subtext through the position of the Maori tribe in the group – but the three characters, the three-way between Ada, Baines and Stewart provide a fascinating foundation for an exploration of so many themes of sexuality and sexism. Stewart even observes Baines and Ada make love – Stewart wishes he was Baines … does Stewart wish he was Ada? Stewart is not a dominant man and may desire that man. I am sure there is more depth within that, but this is what makes the film incredible. After that first watch, I would like to watch it again and maybe a second watch will develop my understanding of the dense subjects it explores.
And I haven’t even started on the soundtrack – a soundtrack I had before I watched the film. Michael Nyman is an incredible composer and this film shows how incredible his music is.