The Piano
d. Jane Campion (1993)
The Criterion Collection

I was too young to watch The Piano back in 1993, but I still remember watching the Academy Awards, hearing the Michael Nyman score lead into or out of commercial breaks, and, while waiting for Steven Spielberg and Schindler’s List to win the big prizes at the end. As the show went on, though, I remember being captivated by short scenes of Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin, both of whom won Oscars for their performances in The Piano. I looked into the movie, and most of the stuff I read made me think the movie was essentially dressed up soft porn.

It was years before I learned more about Jane Campion and came to love her work through her 1990 Janet Frame biopic An Angel at My Table. It was even later in life that I learned she was the first woman to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes (the second woman to win didn’t happen until this year!) for The Piano. Still, I didn’t watch The Piano until this past week when it was released by The Criterion Collection on Blu-ray and 4K UHD.

Wow! I’m sure there are others like me who were persuaded it was simply historical erotica and moved on to other things, and that’s a shame. It’s not that at all! I found it fascinating as it explored a few exceedingly problematic relationships centered around a woman (Ada, played by Holly Hunter) who, for reasons she doesn’t explain, perhaps because she herself doesn’t even understand, is electively mute — has been since she was six — in the mid-1800s. Beautifully shot, impeccably acted, The Piano is an exquisite blaze of fire as a Ada rebels against the pragmatic patriarchal mores that would shut her down entirely just to acquire a bit of property to tame.

I thought it was extraordinary, but I still don’t know entirely what to make of it. That just means there’s a lot more to explore!

The film begins with Ada sailing from her native Scotland with her young daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin). Ada has been sent to New Zealand by her father to wed a landowner named Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill). She has brought with her a beautiful piano.

When they arrive on the shore, no one is there to meet them. Still, Ada does not wish to wait another second on the ship (offending the captain as she says so, though that was clearly her point; presumably he and his crew, more than the sea sickness, are the reason she would rather wait on the beach). So the crew unload her cargo, including the piano, and leave it on the beach, allowing Ada and Flora to fend for themselves.

Far from being scary, though — instead of being foreboding at all — this brief stint on the beach seems to be a welcome respite for Ada and Flora. Flora herself is very artistic and lays out seashells in beautiful patterns around their little camp. Ada tests her piano.

Late, but not too worried about it, the groom to be approaches the shore with some Maori laborers to pick up Ada and Flora. It seems he wants to make a good first impression since he keeps on combing his greasy hair. Sam Neill does an amazing job playing the part of Alisdair Stewart.

The men start picking up her belongings (thinking of their hike back through the wild growth makes me tired), but the one thing Ada wants to get off the beach is her piano, telling her fiancé, through Flora, that she’ll leave everything else on the shore if it means his men can get the piano to whatever home awaits her. But Stewart refuses. He does do so without anger, and not just because he is trying to make a good impression. He considers himself a good man, proper, polite . . . where it’s due. And he expects to be treated justly — as he understands both sides of the equation — in return. As for the piano, he just doesn’t consider it important enough to deal with. He’s practical, and to him that is paramount and clearly correct. The mud is too deep, the piano is too heavy; plus, it’s not like he has a spot for the piano just yet. Clearly he sees nothing wrong with his stance, dismissing with calmness all of Ada’s worries.

They leave without the piano.

Who knows how this marriage would have begun had Stewart taken the piano home. At this point, though, Ada will live in the same home, but she will not connect in any way with her new husband. For his part, Stewart feels more comfortable discussing this with Aunt Morag (played perfectly by Kelly Walker), an older woman whose mission is similar to Stewart’s: this is a land to be subjugated, all “impropriety” (meaning, anything that is not in line with her own beliefs) to be erased over time (in the background of the film we see that she takes particular responsibility to doing this with the Maori).

Yes, it becomes clear to Stewart and Aunt Morag that Ada is a problem to be dealt with. In theory, Stewart was likely attracted to the idea of a mute wife. But quickly he has found that Ada’s silence is not born from submission or subservience. It is fierce and aggressive. It’s too hot for him to touch, though he desperately wants to touch her.

A man more open to Ada (and the Maori, we can see from his facial tattoos) is George Baines, played by Harvey Keitel.

Baines is also attracted to Ada, and he comes up with a scheme he hopes will bring them together. In exchange for the piano, Baines gives Stewart some land (Stewart never realizing that the piano is not his to bargain away). Baines get the piano to his home and invites Ada to play. Indeed, he will give her back a piano key for, say, playing it with her sleeves off so her arms show.

At first, Ada is taken aback by the arrangement. But, so she can play her piano, she gives in.

This is where the film becomes problematic — I think deliberately so. Ada does start to look forward to her time with Baines and engages in an affair in which she appears, eventually, to be a willing participant. But what brings this about? Is it that she sees Baines’ manipulation and coercion as a romantic gesture, and she accepts it as such? Is it that Baines starts to show that he wants this to be a reciprocal relationship, and thus gains her respect where her husband is a lost cause? Is it because she despises her husband so much she gets a thrill out of cheating on him?

It is clear that Campion’s Ada does get a thrill from her relationship with Baines, but I think it is also clear that Campion makes it deliberately problematic, forcing us in the audience to step back a bit. There are, after all, so many metaphors in the imagery that complicate the picture.

The Criterion Collection release has a lot of great supplements that contextualize the film in ways I found extremely helpful and enriching. For example, an aspect of the film I found problematic but also didn’t feel like I knew how to deal with was the portrayal of the Maori. They are portrayed as ignorant (maybe just because of the communication barrier) and there’s a scene where they react to a play with violence. Both the essay by critic Carmen Gray and the feature by Waihoroi Shortland, who was the Maori adviser on the film, helped me grapple with that better, explaining some of the cultural and historical aspects that I would never have recognized on my own. I also found the various features — interviews from the past and present, and a commentary — with Campion herself to be engaging and interesting. She made a film she knew would be confrontational, though it’s a shame that when I first heard of it — and from whom I heard of it — the controversy centered around some nudity and completely failed to wrestle with what was actually being conveyed in this film.

There are several other features on the disc, all of them worth checking out. I highly recommend it!


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