THE PIANO A-
Australia New Zealand France (121 mi) 1993 d: Jane Campion Official site
There is a silence where hath been no sound,
There is a silence where no sound may be,
In the cold grave—under the deep deep sea.
—first three lines of Silence, poem by Thomas Hood that both opens and closes the film, February, 1823, Silence by Thomas Hood | Poetry Foundation
There’s something to be said for silence. With time, I’m sure she’ll become affectionate.
—Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill)
A shared winner of the Palme d’Or (First prize) at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, with Ken Kaige’s FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE, Holly Hunter also won the Best Actress Award at the festival. The following year the film won three Academy Awards, Best Actress for Hunter, Best Supporting Actress for Anna Paquin, who at the age of 11 was the second youngest to win an Oscar, after Tatum O’Neil, who was ten, and Best Original Screenplay for writer/director Jane Campion. It is the most critically acclaimed of Campion’s films, the one that put her on the international map, as most only saw her earlier films “after” seeing THE PIANO. Campion began writing this film just after film school, setting it aside for her other films, creating a fairy tale for adults, a mythological study that examines how women’s voices were silenced during the Victorian era, where once again, the brilliance of Campion’s casting is nothing less than astonishing. Holly Hunter stunned the world with her muted performance as Ada McGrath, whose inner narrative speaks her thoughts briefly only at the beginning and end, “The voice you hear is not my speaking voice, but my mind’s voice,” remaining completely silent in between, where the fierce, individualistic power of her performance is utterly captivating, frantically using sign language or facial expressions to emphatically get her point across. Hunter fought for the role, beating out Isabelle Huppert, of all people, who claims it’s one of the regrets of her life not getting that role. Now it’s hard to imagine anyone else as Ada, as Hunter turned it into the most significant role of her lifetime, and will forever be associated with this remarkable film.
I have not spoken since I was six years old. Lord knows why. Not even me. My father says it is a dark talent, and the day I take it into my head to stop breathing will be my last. Today he married me to a man I’ve not yet met. Soon, my daughter and I shall join him in his own country. My husband says my muteness does not bother him. He writes, and hark this, “God loves dumb creatures, so why not I!” ‘Twere good he had God’s patience, for silence affects everyone in the end. The strange thing is, I don’t think myself silent—that is, because of my piano. I will miss it on the journey.
Honestly, as far as accessibility, this may be one of Campion’s most conventional efforts, but it’s so confoundingly different that it still mesmerizes audiences and critics alike for its sheer originality. Otherworldly, ethereal, with a melancholic musical score by Michael Nyman, the film is guided by a line of dialogue late in the film describing Ada’s improvisatory piano playing (all played by Holly Hunter, by the way), claiming it’s different than what they’re used to hearing, normally utilizing sheet music, no doubt written by men, where Aunt Morag (Kerry Walker) suggests, “Her playing is strange, like a mood that passes through you.” There may be no better explanation for this film. An expression of repressed passion and sexuality, the film is set in the Gothic romanticism of the 1850’s and Emily Brontë, a time when the repression of women was standard, as they simply had no rights to speak of, opening with a blurred shot through Ada’s fingers, where the lines of her fingers resemble prison bars and are emblematic of the imprisoned life she leads, yet with no explanation, she’s shipped off halfway across the world from Scotland to New Zealand to be sold as a mail-order bride in an unknown country to a man she’s never met, bringing along her two most prized possessions, her young daughter Flora (Anna Paquin, utterly remarkable in the role) and her piano. Arriving to the shore from a heaving ocean that swells with volcanic force, their belongings are collected on the shoreline, but there is no one to meet them, as they are dropped off on their own, but we quickly learn this is no damsel in distress story, as the seamen ask if they wish to be transported to the nearest town, with Ada replying with emphatic hand gestures, while Flora accentuates her sarcasm, replying, “She says no. She says she’d rather be boiled alive by natives than get back in your stinkin’ tub!” The seaman looks ready to slap the youngster for indignation, but Ada quickly places herself in front, showing a spirited defiance right from the start. It also establishes Flora as her mother’s mouthpiece, as she’s a highly skilled communicator, including facial expressions, though prone to exaggerations of her own, especially any questions concerning her father, who the viewer learns virtually nothing about from the film, instead she makes up exotic stories that seem to please her instead. With nowhere else to go, the two spend a cold night on the beach, using the wire frame of her hoop skirt as a tent for shelter from the elements. With Victorian artifacts stranded on the beach, along with their elaborately decorative clothing, we see how out of place they are in the wilderness of New Zealand, where the setting is a place where two differing worlds collide.
The next morning, Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill, always clumsy and a bit awkward in his own skin) arrives out of the harshness of the wilds with a team of Māori tribesmen to help transport the young bride and all her belongings, where Stewart is an oddly shy and humorless man that his Māori helpers teasingly refer to as “old dry balls,” but they haven’t enough men to haul the piano, which they leave on the beach, despite the objections from Ada, who would rather they bring the piano than all of their clothes. Despite the fact she brought this all the way from Scotland, so it must have some significance, Stewart dismisses her request, claiming it is unreasonable, which is the first sign he’s an insensitive tyrant. The piano is everything to Ada, who uses it as a means to express herself, while being removed from it leaves her distraught, as one of the most haunting images is a shot of Ada standing high up on a grassy bluff overlooking the brown sand and grey water of the beach where far off in the distance, the piano lies abandoned in the surf, where the one object that defines her entire identity has been left to the elements. As they trek through the forests, their pathway is traversing through endless mud, as there are no roads leading into this new world, where land crossings are strenuously difficult. The dark and bleak weather sets an ominous tone for what follows, as they are pelted by torrents of rain throughout their journey, arriving finally in Stewart’s home, where he lives with his Aunt Morag (Kerry Walker) and her helper Nessie, Genevieve Lemon from Sweetie (1989), along with a few female Māori servants. Before they have time to rest, they jump back out into the downpour of rain to get married, including a wedding photograph, none of which looks remotely like anything resembling wedding bliss. On the contrary, their relationship is difficult at best, with Ada and Flora mostly keeping to themselves, ignoring Stewart, who sleeps in separate quarters, though Stewart is not sure what he’s purchased, observing Ada play the piano on an ordinary table, thinking she might be a bit touched in the head. When he leaves to take care of business, Ada and Flora immediately set out to the home of George Baines (Harvey Keitel, one of the more surprising roles of his career), an uneducated white man who has reportedly “gone native,” a former whaler who now lives among the Māori tribesmen, speaking both languages, with Māori markings on his face, working for Stewart as his work foreman. He initially refuses their request to collect the piano, but they sit silently outside his door until he reconsiders. When he agrees to take them to the beach, he’s surprised by the elation on her face when she plays, conveying emotions that convince him this is her missing voice, as it’s clearly a surreal moment, as this element of Western civilization simply doesn’t exist in the savage wilds, yet he agrees to swap 80 acres of land with Stewart for the rights to the piano, so long as Ada teaches him how to play. Stewart, of course, pounces on the opportunity, as the English colonizers to New Zealand were largely land grabbers. Thinking only of his own interests, he agrees to the deal without even consulting Ada, as after all, it would give her a chance to play. Ada, on the other hand, is insulted by the deal, as without question the piano is rightfully hers, but in this patriarchal society, women have no rights, so the piano goes to Baines, along with agreed upon lessons. This imbalance is at the heart of the film.
Jane Campion: I think that it’s a strange heritage that I have as a pakeha New Zealander, and I wanted to be in a position to touch or explore that. In contrast to the original people in New Zealand, the Māori people, who have such an attachment to history, we seem to have no history, or at least not the same tradition. This makes you start to ask, “Well, who are my ancestors?” My ancestors are English colonizers — the people who came out like Ada and Stewart and Baines.
While it’s a bit like Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), situated in a bleak natural environment where people are used to living in the mud and the rain, struggling to bring some semblance of civilization to the wilderness, in this case the European culture they left behind, there’s a curious example of this in a Christmas pageant staged that brings together the young and old, including Flora who wear’s angel’s wings, yet included in their presentation is a retelling of the French fairy tale Bluebeard, where a frighteningly ugly nobleman marries a series of beautiful women that all mysteriously disappear. When his next young female subject explores his luxurious estate, she’s curious what’s behind a locked door, discovering the missing corpses of his former brides, with their heads hanging from a hook. About to make her the next victim, told in shadows behind an illuminated curtain, he raises an axe to her head, where the Māori men watching this become highly agitated, with one of them leaping from his seat to attack Bluebeard, causing immediate panic in the room. This amusing scene recalls the origins of cinema when The Lumière Brothers in 1895 showed “Arrival of a Train” to similarly panicked audiences who jumped out of the way, thinking they would be run over by the train. It’s interesting how this play within a play comments on the final outcome of the film. What Campion has done is pit opposite forces against one another, as the sexually repressed Victorian era of the Europeans enter the realm of the Māori indigenous peoples, who are much more comfortable with expressing themselves sexually, often seen telling sexually provocative jokes, never covering up their entire bodies with clothing, showing a lack of inhibition, as they don’t shy away from a more healthy attitude about their bodies. While one can see evidence of colonial exploitation in the way Stewart is a white landowner, where Ada is an extension of his property, always accumulating more and more land that used to belong to the natives, using indigenous labor as his hired help, one time attempting to pay them with useless buttons, a sign of his arrogance, yet the film is subject to racist accusations, as the film is about the featured European whites, and doesn’t really explore the Māori culture or native people except to show them as uneducated simpletons, sitting around in their idle time playing games or telling jokes, never once viewed as individuals, though one shows homosexual tendencies, immediately chastised by an older Māori woman, claiming, “Balls were wasted on you,” while another time Flora is playing a sexually suggestive game with other native kids, but is scolded by Stewart and instructed never to do that again, as natives are considered ignorant and amoral, where the film does play into perceived dualities, whites and natives, educated and ignorant, civilized and savage, sexually restrained and sexually promiscuous, moral and amoral. While the blue-green look of the film is beautifully captured by the cinematography of Stuart Dryburgh, who also filmed An Angel at My Table (1990), eschewing artificial light, it accentuates a mythical wildness of the land, cultivating a stereotypical view of treating natives as natural exotics, much like Tarzan of the jungle, or King Kong (1933), where the colonial environment, typically seen in the heat, is also depicted through the scents of spices and exotic flowers, strange animals, and spectacular landscapes, all of which appeal to the senses, like a forbidden fruit. It is not by accident that this is the backdrop to Campion’s film, where the male dominated universe is turned on its axis.
One of the more notorious scenes is a view of the piano, finally situated inside Baines otherwise spare home, where he strips naked, with his backside present, as he touches it gently with his hands and fingers, like an exotic object, waiting for the genie to come out of the bottle and for the magic to appear. Clearly this would not happen in a male directed movie, but it’s an interesting symbol of what the piano represents. When Ada and Flora arrive for Baines first lesson, she intends to shrug him off, claiming the piano is out of tune, but is dumfounded to discover it’s been perfectly tuned, immediately sitting down and playing rapturously, where the piano is the key to unlocking her heart, opening a floodgate of pure emotions, something Baines finds hard to resist, content to listen to her play, as there’s nothing like it in his environment. Baines decides to up the ante, where he’s willing to return her rights of ownership to the piano, one key at a time, so long as she agrees to allow him to do things. Shocked, but also intrigued, her counter position is all the black keys, which are considerably less, to which he readily agrees. Under these conditions, Flora is kept outside, excluded from the privacy of the room, as little by little Baines bargains for more, being allowed to see and touch her arms, or the back of her neck, which are worth more keys, as there is a progression over time, not only to accumulate more keys, growing closer to ownership, but she also sheds more clothing, eventually lying naked beside him, which is worth five keys. The repressive European customs are represented by the tightly wound braiding of her hair, reflecting how bound and confined women are perceived, where Flora is a miniature version of her mother. When Ada unbuttons her dress, it literally releases the moral restrictions placed upon her, changing the rules of the game, at least for her. In short order, Baines chooses to return the piano to Ada with no more strings attached, a position that alarms Stewart, as he has no intention of returning the land, but Baines reassures him the deal is done, he’s simply giving it to her. Nonetheless, he holds his suspicions, as he’s still never consummated his marriage with Ada, who she views as a total stranger, retreating into the bedroom with Flora, where the two giggle and tickle each other, especially in his presence, no doubt a way to avoid contact with him, where he’s visibly annoyed at being so rudely shut out. Surprised that Baines never learned how to play, Flora offers her own bit of insight, “I know why Mr. Baines can’t play the piano. She never gives him a turn. She just plays whatever she pleases and sometimes she doesn’t play at all.” With the piano around, Ada never plays, but instead seems to be avoiding it altogether, instead heading back to Baines, acknowledging her affection, submitting herself to him, yet Stewart, suspecting something is up, walks by and can hear them making love, helplessly watching them through the cracks in the wall, where he can’t look away, pathetically fixed on the sight, seething with anger, yet also filled with self-loathing, incredulously hating the choice she made. Incensed and outraged to the core, he follows her the next day when she attempts to return and confronts her in the forest, attempting to force himself on her despite her violent resistance, but he’s only thwarted by Flora’s presence, eventually boarding her up inside his home, not allowing her any avenue of escape.
Perhaps the only other film with a self-imposed muteness that comes to mind is Bergman’s PERSONA (1966), a much more challenging and experimental film that actually features a psychological tightrope between two female characters, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann, where the faces and personalities merge as one. On the other hand, Stewart and Baines are contrasting images of loneliness and masculinity, with a tamed Stewart living under the thumb of his suffocatingly restrictive aunt, abiding by her Puritanical rules and principles, deathly afraid of sex, despite the inappropriateness of his behavior, all wearing tightly buttoned-up clothes, while the more uninhibited Baines reflects his affinity with the Māori people, wearing much more colorful clothing, flamboyantly consorting with natives, unafraid to be seen naked or crude, where he exudes a wilder side. Shockingly, despite his advanced education, only one of them knows how to listen, and it’s not Stewart, who otherwise has all the advantages. Ada feigns affection with her husband for the first time while locked in, caressing him, but not allowing him to reciprocate and touch her, which only frustrates him more as she inevitably pulls away. But a growing trust allows him to remove the barriers, where he’s become a laughing stock to others for actually locking themselves inside, as that’s such a clear indication that something’s amiss in that household. Despite promising she won’t see Baines, she wraps a gift for him, as she’s heard he’s moving, offering him a single piano key with a personalized inscription that reveals her feelings for him, sending Flora. But by now Flora knows better, reminding her mother she’s not supposed to see him, and delivers the package to Stewart instead, who fumes with anger, becoming so enraged that he hacks off one of Ada’s fingers on a tree stump with an axe, a gut-wrenchingly painful scene to watch, mirroring the vicious brutality expressed in Bluebeard, sending Flora to deliver her wrapped finger instead, bellowing that if he ever sees her again, he’ll chop off another finger, and then another. Stewart inverses the civilized role where his savage brutality becomes even more cruel and sadistic when he attempts to rape her while she is lying unconscious. In contrast, one of the most powerful images of the film happens when Flora doesn’t return home, but spends the night with Baines, seen sleeping peacefully next to his side the next morning in an image of familial grace, providing the fatherly affection that Stewart never embraced. The violence inherent in the silencing of women is exposed for what it really is, as the film is notable for the degree of insanity on display at its most violent acts, where Stewart clearly sees himself in the right, believing strength of action is the appropriate and principled thing to do, but instead his actions are pathetic, as he’s viewed as fearful and insecure when he is incapable of having total and complete control over Ada. Oppression is shown to be just as detrimental to his own state of mind, where others view him in mockery for such a repugnant display of his weakness. Ada clearly rejects this imposed oppression, despite the devastating consequences, where we are reminded that it was only after Baines returned her piano and relinquished his power over her that she reciprocates his love. Loosening her ties to the piano, and to her former self, she liberates herself from society’s rules and imagines a different outcome for herself, even as fate is compelling her to be part of yet another existing reality, one that plunges her to the bottom of the sea. The film is a stunning mood piece about a woman's quest to control her own identity or destiny, ultimately providing multiple endings, which even in the eyes of the director have shifted over time, suggesting there will always be diverse outcomes, where each destiny will ambiguously be left open.