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Sunday, April 27, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Piano (1993)

Director: Jane Campion
Starring: Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neal

The Piano is writer/director Jane Campion's lush, lyrical take on the place of women in the world. It takes place in the mid-19th Century and stars Holly Hunter as Ada, a mute woman given into marriage by her father to Alistair Stewart (Sam Neal), and sent with her daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin), to live with him in New Zealand. With them are Ada's prized piano, her only form of expression and a bone of contention between her and Stewart. In the course of the film, Campion will weave together themes of feminism, colonialism, and sex, all revolving around this piano.

Ada is mute by choice, having simply stopped speaking when she was six. "The voice you hear is not my speaking voice," she tells us at the beginning, "but my mind's voice... The strange thing is, I don't think myself silent. That is because of my piano." The fact that Ada is mute by choice has deep meaning. It essentially makes no difference that she doesn't speak because, as a woman, she wouldn't ever be heard anyway. She's married to Stewart by her father, seemingly having no choice in the matter. Later, Stewart trades her piano to Baines (Harvey Keitel), because as her husband it is now his property; she doesn't have anything. By being mute, Ada is basically refusing to be complicit in her own subjugation through the polite acquiescence employed by other women. She wouldn't be listened to, so she doesn't speak. But she expresses herself through the piano, which is first abandoned on the beach, then given away, then bartered for and finally destroyed. The piano is her voice and in losing it, she loses herself.

Baines wants the piano not because he wants to play it himself, but because he wants to listen to Ada play it, and because he wants her. He makes a deal with her: a sexual favour for each key of the piano. She reluctantly agrees. She has already been violated by the fact of his having her piano so entering into a trade for it doesn't actually make the situation that much worse. He lets her play whatever she wants, listens to her and in return asks only small favours, at first, and then bigger ("Ten keys," he tells her in exchange for intercourse). Slowly, Baines comes to mean more to her than the piano itself, a fact proven when she has the piano back and removes one of the keys to inscribe it with a message to Baines. This message could have been her undoing, intercepted as it is by Stewart by way of Flora. Stewart removes her finger with an axe (which is foreshadowed in various ways, most notably in a scene of shadow theatre where a man pretends to take an axe to a woman's hand) and sends it to Baines, informing him that every time he and Ada see each other, he'll remove one finger. Prior to this, Stewart had kept Ada locked in the house ("I trust you to stay here," he says on the day he removes the bars from the door; the same day she removes the key from her piano).

The film obviously has strong feminist overtones, but it also plays on themes of colonialism. Shortly after the bars on the house have been put in place, a neighbour remarks to Stewart that he's put them on the wrong side. "The Maori will lock you in," she says, assuming that his aim is to keep the natives out rather than his wife in. The Maori are treated in much the same way as the women, as people who need to be taken care of and told what to do by the all-knowing white men. "You treat us like children," one of the Maori says at the moment the colonialists begin to lose control of them. Prior to this we see a scene of Stewart attempting to barter for land, which the Maori won't give up because it is a burial ground. Stewart doesn't understand. They aren't cultivating it, they aren't improving it. They don't know the "proper" things to do with land. The fact is that Stewart and the other men like him are the ones that don't know. They walk through the wilderness dressed like English gentlemen in their top hats and coats trying to impose a replica of the place they just came from in this other place where it doesn't seem to fit. They are attempting to mould this new land to their old habits, rather than adapting their habits to this new land.

The Piano is a film that is narratively and visually strong. For a film about repression, it moves with amazing fluidity. Campion and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh have created images that look almost like paintings, that move with the smoothness of a brush on canvas. This is especially true in two of the film's most emotionally charged scenes, both between Stewart and Ada. In the first, Stewart catches her on her way to see Baines. She flees, her catches her and attempts to rape her and is stopped by Flora's calling to her. The second is the scene where he takes her finger. In both these scenes we see him dragging her towards what he has decided is her destiny as she struggles to free herself from him. Both are visually stunning sequences, especially the first where Ada's face appears so ghostly white in comparison to that of Stewart.

In the end, Ada is given once again, this time by Stewart to Baines. They leave New Zealand and as they're rowing away, she orders that the piano - which has been "spoiled" - be tossed into the ocean. It's tossed overboard and she allows her foot to get caught in the rope, so that she’s dragged over with it. As she's drowning, she surprises herself with her will to live and fights her way back to the surface, where she will live with Baines and Flora and get another piano... or does she? I've always been intrigued by the idea that these are just her dying thoughts, a musing on what life could have been. The last shot of the film is, after all, of the piano at the bottom with Ada floating above it, tied to it as her voice-over tells us about the silence. If she lived, why would this be the last shot of the film? If she still plays piano, why are her last words concerning silence? But regardless of questions of interpretation regarding the end, this is an excellent film with an amazing central performance by Hunter, who expresses so much you forget that she isn't speaking. But, of course, she doesn't have to. She has the piano.


Sister Sassy said...

one of my favorite films, I first saw it in High School. It never occurred to me that she may have died. It's been awhile since I've watched it so now I want to go back. But I will always choose to believe she lived happily with her metal finger, naked Harvey Keitel and her daughter :)

Sister Sassy said...

one of my favorite films, I first saw it in High School. It never occurred to me that she may have died. It's been awhile since I've watched it so now I want to go back. But I will always choose to believe she lived happily with her metal finger, naked Harvey Keitel and her daughter :)