What’s so mesmerizing about Jane Campion’s THE PIANO (1993) is this feminist mindset captured by the lens tethered to vivid imagery and subtle language translated in strange silences, hand gestures, and facial expressions along with a compelling soundtrack that hypnotizes the mind into a strange, euphoric lull of bewilderment and sometimes frustration because it leaves this creeping essence of a melody that permits no escape nor can it be ignored. It’s a period piece, it’s a dark love story, there’s passion, there’s soul wrenching music, it’s erotic, it takes place on an island in New Zealand alongside the Maori tribe, it’s stylistically astonishing, it’s mysteriously magical, I mean the list goes on and on as to why I’m so enamored by this film.
The magic remains mysterious and there’s a simple reason why I’m irrevocably drawn to this film, Ada (Holly Hunter) selectively chooses to be a mute and as a unit of her expression passionately plays the piano. The piano is her voice. This resonates heavily with me personally, because at the age of 5 I was selectively mute. (Just ask my mom) I was the only kindergartener without a speaking voice, and I can’t even explain why I choose not to speak, I mean technically I did but it only resulted into whispering. Yeah I was a weird kid, but who isn’t?
Aside from my personal admiration for this film, there is a surplus of elements that I’m constantly interpreting every time I view this film whether it be in camera angles, mood, lighting, coloring, or even the cryptic dialogue that unveils certain mannerisms behind a character, I can marvel, oh and ah this film to the end of time. This is of course a period piece, a love story, flirting with expressionistic nuances of dark, erotic, and sometimes horrific themes all streamlined with the lives of the characters. Campion paints a world so meticulously and prolifically, about a woman who simply lives for her music while bound to an arranged marriage she never asked for which is heightened when her piano gets sold to George Baines (Harvey Keitel). She’s robbed of her freedom as a woman bound to the chains of a loveless marriage, but also of her expression from another man who uses her piano as collateral delving into the erotic throes of sexual lust. Ada is reluctant to play such a game but is essentially drawn in for her love knows no bounds when it comes to playing her piano. It becomes a very intriguing cat and mouse game which is further complicated by her husband Alisdair (Sam Neil) and her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin). She has her duties as a wife and a mother but would rather be expressing herself through the notes of her piano as an outsider, a lone she-wolf but also finds love in George Baines who essentially accepts her for who she is.
There are scenes so prominent and dramatic such as the moment Alisdair’s anger unleashes emotional havoc on Ada’s opposition to his advances which literally results in him chopping her finger off. Such an intensely and provocatively captured scene is heightened when we realize Flora is traumatized screaming, witnessing this in horror as the blood splatters across her. There’s rain, mud, rage, bewilderment and encapsulating such a dismal atmosphere as the camera lingers on Ada as she slowly sinks into the sludge clutching her bloody hands together, quietly taking in the wretched desolation of this agonizing moment. Alisdair later whispers to her while tending to her care, “I simply clipped your wing.” What’s even more electrically horrifying is he hands the finger to Flora telling her to take it Baines. A child literally running off into the rain with a severed finger, crying all the way there how insane is that? It’s my favorite sequence for how violently, and strenuously these immense emotions clash together like some tantalizing dance that lures you in as a moth is drawn to a flame.
Campion choose a different ending from her original idea where Ada’s character transcends its shell of muteness and in the end chooses to live instead of relying on her piano so heavily. This is beautifully capture when she intentionally places her foot into the pile of robe as she demands the Maori boats men to throw her piano overboard as she sails away from the island. Her body is literally flung overboard with the piano plunging deep into the ocean. However, she’s later brought back to the surface, in a breathtaking overhead shot, in slow motion as she gasps for air. It’s a new beginning where she actively decides to pick up the pieces and cultivates a new life for herself. It’s an ingenious and eloquent moment brought to life on film. I ooze with fascination every time I watch that sequence and the cherry on top is how Campion ties in Thomas Hood’s poem “Silence” fairly nicely with the stanza: “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.”
THE PIANO is moving and I can’t even articulate why, as it’s a feeling that surpasses explanation but acknowledges recognition of reverence to the pathos of one’s struggle to maintain identity among the reality of being a woman, a lover, a wife, and a mother. Roger Ebert even wrote: “The Piano is as peculiar and haunting as any film I’ve seen” and “It is one of those rare movies that is not just about a story, or some characters, but about a whole universe of feeling”.
Watch the film, listen to the soundtrack, fall in love with this wickedly, intrinsically dark romance of a story. I can go on and on and probably will in a future blog post but will stop for now. It bewitched my heart years ago, and still does to this day forever being my most favored film.