Blog Directory CineVerse: Playing in the key of erotic

Playing in the key of erotic

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Released 30 years ago this May, The Piano, directed by Jane Campion, is set in the mid-19th century and follows the story of Ada McGrath (played by Holly Hunter), a mute woman who travels from Scotland to New Zealand with her young daughter (Anna Paquin) and her beloved piano. Ada is forced into an arranged marriage with a wealthy landowner named Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill), and as she struggles to adapt to her new life, she forms a powerful connection with a local Maori man named George Baines (Harvey Keitel), who becomes obsessed with her piano.

The film was critically acclaimed upon its release, winning the Palme d'Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, along with Academy Awards for Best Actress for Holly Hunter, Best Supporting Actress for Anna Paquin, and Best Original Screenplay for Jane Campion. The movie was also a commercial success, grossing over $40 million worldwide.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week, click here.

The Piano challenged conventional gender roles by offering a groundbreaking representation of female sexuality and desire. The movie's portrayal of women's experiences is complex and nuanced, paving the way for future filmmakers to explore these themes. Moreover, the stunning cinematography of New Zealand's landscapes and the haunting score by composer Michael Nyman are noteworthy elements that contributed to the film's success.

Campion fashions a fascinating female lead in Ada, who has remained mysteriously mute for much of her life. She is unable to fully express herself in a patriarchal society where females are suppressed and repressed. The message here could be that women often don’t have a voice of their own in a man’s world. This is a film about the power of sensory stimulation and the lack of it in some people: She cannot talk, but her other senses are highly acute. Her husband, meanwhile, is metaphorically deaf and blind to her needs and concerns.

Likewise, Baines is a remarkable character, especially in how he differs from all the other males in this story. He’s half settler/colonialist and half native, in a way. While he is not Maori (one of the indigenous Polynesian people of mainland New Zealand), he has “gone native” and assimilated into their culture, even adopting their facial markings. Because he’s more in tune with the land and sympathetic to the native peoples, he perhaps personifies the opposite of what Stewart represents—arrogance, hypocritical puritanism, and patriarchal righteousness—especially to Ada. He’s symbolically half and half, which insinuates that perhaps he isn’t fully any one thing. As Campion said in an interview: “The face decoration is a half-hearted thing; he doesn't have the full tattoo that they have. Perhaps the pursuit of this woman is the only thing that he's ever really given his hundred percent to.”

The piano itself stands as a powerful representational symbol in the film. It could signify Ada’s voice, her means of expression, her personal freedom, and her route to catharsis. Moreover, the piano is an externalized symbol of Ada’s corporeal self and how women don’t often have ownership over their own bodies. It’s adrift and abandoned on the shore when deemed as unnecessary by her husband; it’s sold and bartered for between two men almost like a prostitute-like exchange; and then it’s finally set free at the end. It also exemplifies Ada’s individuality and agency. Her husband prefers that she doesn’t have an identity of her own, and thus deprives her of the piano and, later, her full ability to play it.

Campion’s work often employs unspoken images to convey emotion and meaning. Consider how Ada runs the back of her hand across certain objects, textures, and surfaces, underscoring the power of touch and sensory stimuli. Recall the overhead shot that shows her progress on the boat, without moving the camera. There’s the scene on the beach where three characters each choose a different path: Ada walks straight on, Flora proceeds in a dancing rhythm, and George takes a curving route; eventually, all tracks merge. Additionally, ponder the juxtaposition of the piano alone in the jungle, suggesting civility vs. savagery, decorum and expected etiquette vs. animalistic urges, and the European settlers vs. the indigenous Maori people.

Roger Ebert was perceptive to the film’s nonverbal, emotional design, writing: “It is one of those rare movies that is not just about a story, or some characters, but about a whole universe of feeling - of how people can be shut off from each other, lonely and afraid, about how help can come from unexpected sources, and about how you'll never know if you never ask… There is a moment in the movie that is among the most erotic I have ever seen…as (Ada) plays and (George) peers under the piano, he sees a tiny patch of her skin revealed through a tear in her stocking. And he touches that little pink oversight with trembling reverence.”

The Piano is also extraordinary as a cinematic text that differs from other romantic and erotic films and works of literature. As in many romance narratives, this involves a love triangle of sorts, in which two men desire the love of a secretive woman who only learns to love the man who shows her true affection and respect. However, there are long, lingering, relatively still scenes and significant stretches with no talking. The Piano communicates information about the characters and situations via implied content and suggestion, often more than through dialogue or direct exposition. The filmmakers build up erotic tension to almost unbearable levels, especially in the scenes between Ada and George. Unlike other romantic works, it doesn’t try to objectify Ada’s physical attributes nor titillate the audience with her physical charms. The woman isn’t necessarily shown from a man’s point of view as an object of desire. In fact, it often shows eroticism from a woman’s point of view; consider how we see George (Harvey Keitel) fully nude before we see Ada naked. And female characters in The Piano often do “unladylike” things, like vomit, squat down to urinate, and simulate the sexual act with trees.

The finale of The Piano continues to intrigue. While it appears to be a happy ending in which Ada and Baines have made a new life together in another part of New Zealand, she can play her beloved instrument again thanks to a prosthetic appendage, and she is learning to speak again, she admits to occasionally dreaming of still being tied to her piano resting on the ocean floor. One reading is that, earlier in the boat with Baines, she places her foot within the circle of rope tied to the overboard piano, which suggests that she intentionally chooses to be thrust into the water in a suicide attempt. Or perhaps Ada wasn’t so much attempting to end her life as to demonstrate agency and a desire to remain within the more comfortable silence she took refuge in for so long. Recall the Thomas Hood poem she quotes: “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 epilogue of The Piano can feel unsettling, making us wonder if she still has morbid thoughts, nihilistic tendencies, or regrets about choosing to survive and begin anew with Baines. On the other hand, this ending hints that, while she is happier and more expressive with Baines, there’s a mysterious part of her psyche that yearns for solitude and a life removed from the world of men and their expectations of women.

Criterion Collection essayist Carmen Gray wrote: “Letting Ada have it both ways is perhaps, on the part of Campion, the ultimate rebellious license. Ada has given the grand gothic narrative the slip in its velocity toward full operatic catastrophe, for a more unassuming (and antipodean) nonconformity. She is allowed to keep her man while also retaining an unconquered mind full of roaming possibility.”

Similar works

  • The French folktale Bluebeard, in which a brutish nobleman murders his wives
  • Gothic romance novels by Charlotte and Emily Bronte and Jane Austen like Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Mansfield Park
  • The eroticism of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover
  • Jane Mandeer’s novel The Story of a New Zealand River
  • Anna Karenina
  • The African Queen
  • The Painted Veil
  • In the Realm of the Senses
  • Firelight
  • The Portrait of a Lady
  • Sex and Lucia

Other films by Jane Campion

  • Sweetie
  • The Portrait of a Lady
  • In the Cut
  • Bright Star
  • 8
  • Power of the Dog

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