THE PIANO (Jane Campion, 1993)

“Silence affects everyone. . . .”

Imagine a mute person. Her mind’s voice—it seems a child’s voice—tells us, “I don’t think of myself as silent—because of my piano.” Her prized possession, this piano is the “voice” that liberates her soul, bringing her to ecstasy. It’s a sensual, commanding voice, so unlike the shy, unassuming “voice” of her mind. Her piano also helps her to be bold with a third “voice”: the signing that she does which her six-year-old daughter, Flora, interprets for the world. Is there any way for this woman to become whole—for her voices to come together?

Exquisite, flawlessly shot, New Zealander Jane Campion’s The Piano plays as though it were adapted from a novel. But the oppressive story, with a liberating coda, is Campion’s own. It follows Ada, a Scottish widow in the 1850s, with her daughter across stormy waters to New South Wales, where an arranged marriage to a landowner awaits her. Her piano also survives the crossing. However, the piano is taken out of Ada’s hands. Thus Ada submits to adultery, with the settler who has bought it, in exchange for continued access to it. When the man, Baines, falls too deeply in love with her to allow the arrangement to go on, he gives her the piano. In love as well, she now can bear to mutilate the instrument by sending, through Flora, a lover’s note on one of its keys. Unsure of what is right to do, and functioning here as an agency of harsh redemption, Flora instead turns over the wrapped message to her mother’s husband, who, enraged, and feeling castrated, axes off Ada’s forefinger, sending this instead off to Baines, also through Flora, as a warning for him to stay away. This, however, severs the marriage, provoking independence in Ada, who leaves with Baines. In a providential accident at sea, Ada even chooses to free herself from her capsized piano rather than drown and, sustained by love, to risk engaging the world with her own voice. At the last she is becoming whole—for which her new metallic finger is a fitting metaphor.

I am feeling defensive here. I am well aware that a broad spectrum of women have adopted this powerful film as a kind of anthem. I respect how deeply this film has affected so many. But I find the film awfully hard to take.

Campion has rigidly composed her frames, one after the other, to convey limits placed on women—but, at two hours, the effect couldn’t be more dispiriting. Also, the film, including its symbolism, is obsessively literary—pseudo-Charlotte Brontë, to be exact; and, while some of this material might have worked in an expressionistic film, it does not, for me, in the novelistic one that Campion has so painstakingly wrought. (If you found excessive the vocabulary I used, with all the references to cutting and slicing, in the plot summary in paragraph three, I have succeeded at least in conveying one of my difficulties with this film.) Another problem: Campion and her color cinematographer, Stuart Dryburgh, are so determined to convert whatever their eye catches into austere visual beauty that they sometimes work their splendiferous magic where they might better have remained low-keyed. I find distressingly gorgeous, for instance, the angled overhead shot that captures a black hoop-skirted Ada’s collapse just after her mutilation. I grasp the stakes: the blending of Ada’s fainting to the ground, from blood loss and diminished oxygen to the brain, with a suggestion of swooning eroticism; but I wonder whether Campion appreciates the antifeminist implications that lurk in the sort of paperback gothic romance her work at this point, and others, seems to invoke. Finally, I am bewildered that the film declines to reflect on the casually brutal treatment that Flora receives even from her mother. Campion might have consulted Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between (1971) for a sensitivity check.

Mine, however, is a distinctly minority view. The Piano won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and several other best film prizes (Australian Film Institute, Bodil Festival, Robert Festival, César, Independent Spirit Award, Los Angeles Film Critics), and prizes as well for Campion’s screenplay or direction, or both (National Society of Film Critics, New York Film Critics, Los Angeles Film Critics, the Oscar).

Both Holly Hunter and little Anna Paquin also won Oscars. Indeed, Hunter hit a jackpot in Best Actress prizes: Cannes, Australian Film Institute, British Academy Award, London Critics, National Society of Film Critics, New York Film Critics, National Board of Review, Golden Globe, Chicago Film Critics, Los Angeles Film Critics.

Hunter’s Ada is an entrancing, fully realized performance—remarkably feeling, and without a trace of sentimentality. But I like Hunter better in Broadcast News (James L. Brooks, 1987), where she doesn’t get a finger lopped off.

And I remain in search of a Campion film since to match the freshness and expressive beauty of her An Angel at My Table (1989), with Kerry Fox vibrant and unforgettable as Janet Frame.

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