Filmborders 3: The Piano
THE PIANO ((Australia, NZ, France 1993), 120 min.
Directed by Jane Campion. With Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill.
The Piano, directed by Jane Campion, won the Palme D'or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1993. The first film written and directed by a woman to win the award, critics were nearly unanimous in their praise for The Piano, and for the writer and director. A New Zealander, Campion made two previous low budget films with relatively unknown actors attracting little notice and small audiences. The Piano, by contrast, was seen as both an astonishing artistic achievement and a major motion picture. Featuring Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel, it made Campion an overnight celebrity. She was hailed as a "natural" and "original" filmmaker.
Campion was trained as a social anthropologist and that training has had a profound impact on her directorial imagination. More than just a spectacular period piece or a feminist tract, The Piano is an anthropological excursion into the 19th century in which the characters in The Piano are allegorical figures, not ethnographic case histories. Campion has a filmic and anthropological signature, as an expounder of myths and fables. The result for many viewers is that it has become an instant classic and such films always generate a great deal of commentary. For example, since 1994 the film has been respectively analyzed and criticized especially in Screen magazine by feminists who see it as destructive or as an important feminist work, and by post-colonial historians, both inside and outside New Zealand.
Umberto Eco has written that cult movies must be divisible into pieces, each strong enough to stand alone, clearly linked to earlier texts, and a source of instant associations that make the pieces unforgettable. The Piano may not quite be a cult film but it meets Eco's criteria. Each scene is powerful enough in its images to impress itself on our mind's eye, and each resonates in our conscious memory. If it is not a cult film, it takes its place with other gothic tales that haunt our memory.
The movie begins in shadows with what seem to be heavy indistinct bars: perhaps an abstract expressionist painting. We gradually realize that in this first image we are seeing a woman signify her own state of imprisonment. The bars are her fingers held up in front of her eyes. Campion, the artist/anthropologist is literally showing us the worldview of her heroine Ada (Holly Hunter) through her heroine's own eyes. The camera looks out through Ada's imprisoned gaze, and the audience sees a work of art. That consolidation -- individual perspective transformed into artistic vision -- is the hallmark of Jane Campion's achievement in The Piano. Ada spreads the fingers of her prison and the first distinguishable images emerge, still dark and obscure like a scene from a dimly remembered dream. Ada's voice-over establishes the basic premise of the plot: as a young girl she vowed never to speak and with a will of iron has prevailed. What we are hearing, she tells us, is not her speaking voice but the self-imprisoned voice that sounds inside her mind.
We will discuss the film as a series of scenes that re/present borders and cross thresholds within a set of archetypal symbols in the colonial history of the 19th Century. Emily Brönte’s Wuthering Heights has been identified as the major literary inspiration for the story. The Piano's mood is gothic, its temporal context is Victorian, the scene is New Zealand, but Campion's movie brings her audience back to the romantic mystification of sexuality as the unpredictable and dangerous spark that sets the fire of love. This position is explored in the final scenes in the film, by toying with audience expectations.
The film ends ambiguously. Baines, Ada, and Flora move to a town where Ada is fitted out with a metal finger, gives real piano lessons and is learning to speak. Baines is there to love her and as is Flora, but Ada dreams of still being attached to the piano in the deep sea represented in an earlier scene. We return to The Piano's dualism of imprisonment and freedom. Imprisoned by silence, by passion, by men, by New Zealand, by Victorian custom, and by a will that has not quite been her own. But Ada has escaped to a freedom to earn her own way and finds her voice. However in that escape she loses her finger, her piano, her passion, and her genius. Caught, finally, in the ordinariness of a life without art, she dreams of the imprisoning silence of death. A problematic that becomes a hallmark of all the films Campion she has made ever since.