THE PIANO (1993)

  • Director: Jane Campion
  • Writer: Jane Campion
  • Starring: Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, Anna Paquin, Kerry Walker, and Cliff Curtis
  • Accolades: BBC 2019 Top 100 Movies Directed by Women (#1)
  • Where to Watch: Rent or Buy on Fandango Now or Vudu

The Piano plays more as a fable than a movie. Overdressed mid-19th Century Europeans stumble through knee-high mud in a dream landscape, fighting over a large and unwieldy musical instrument. Lovers fall for each other despite being unable to communicate. The natives don’t understand the intense struggles our main characters are experiencing and go on with their lives. One Maori touches a single key, removed from its piano, and wonders why it doesn’t make music anymore.

In last year’s BBC poll of film industry professionals and critics, The Piano was rated the top movie of all time to have been directed by a woman. This is an unlikely outcome for a small movie from New Zealand, from a director not really known outside the country. Jane Campion’s film centers around a woman, Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter), who absolutely refuses to abide by the wishes of the men around her, especially her husband by arranged marriage, Alisdair (Sam Neill). She won’t fall in love with who she’s supposed to fall in love with, she won’t talk when she’s supposed to, she won’t stay at home when she’s supposed to. The first time Alisdair meets her, on a tide-swept New Zealand beach, he says, “I didn’t think you’d be so small.” He is eternally frustrated that she’s not his imaginary ideal 19th-century woman.

Ada arrives on that beach in New Zealand from Scotland with her daughter (Anna Paquin), betrothed to Alisdair against her will. She has somehow brought her exquisite piano, her one love other than her daughter, with her all the way from Glasgow. She is mute, communicating through sign language that is then translated by her daughter, or through written notes. Different characters tell different and conflicting stories as to why. We never hear Ada speak on-screen, though she does have a few, disparate bursts of narration. There a couple of vague intonations that she may possess some sort of telepathy.

When she arrives, Alisdair leaves the piano on the beach, not able to carry it back through the woods. He seems very confused by Ada’s insistence that she’d prefer having the piano to, say, her extra corsets. With him is his friend, George (Harvey Keitel), a former sailor who has “gone native,” can speak Maori, and even has traditional tattoos on his face. Ada eventually appears at George’s door and hands him a note asking him to take her to her piano, but he tells her he can’t read. But then George gets Alisdair to trade him the piano, saying he wants to learn to play, in exchange for some land the Maori have no intention of giving up anyway. Ada starts going to George’s forest home to provide him lessons, but finds that he has no interest in actually playing. First he says he just wants to listen to her play. Then he says that he’ll give her the piano back, key by key, as long as he can “do things he likes” while she plays. She is far more intrigued by this guy than she is by stuffy Alisdair. This escalates about how you’d think it would, except more than that. There’s more scenes involving Harvey Keitel’s private parts than you might be expecting.

The attraction between Ada and George plays out while she can’t talk to him at all. He can’t read, and her daughter isn’t allowed to be there during the lessons, for reasons the daughter very much does not understand. Holly Hunter communicates a lot of different things just through her eyes. Keitel himself doesn’t have to do that much except get naked occasionally, but it works. Anna Paquin, at 11 years old, had acting experience consisting of “playing a skunk in her school play,” and hadn’t actually intended to pursue acting. Yet she ended up becoming the second-youngest winner of an Oscar, for Best Supporting actress, and found herself pursued by Hollywood agents. She’s gone on everything from X-Men to True Blood to Scorsese movies. Though born in Canada and raised in New Zealand, she pulls off a thick Scottish accent throughout, which few movies would even consider asking an 11-year-old to do.

The difference between this movie and Jane Austen is the setting, which places its characters entirely outside of their own world. They are placed against a backdrop that strips away all of that Victorian artifice, and instead they feel like ghosts playing out parts. There’s an aunt living with Alisdair (Kerry Walker), who in another movie would be basically the Maggie Smith character from Downton Abbey. She does her darndest, but it’s hard to find her tutting particularly biting when she’s literally peeing in the mud in the middle of the woods, while Maori hold up cloth around her for privacy. The Maori are always around, but they never interact with anyone except George. Alisdair is only interested in exploiting them, at one point getting frustrated when they won’t trade the land where their ancestors are buried for 12 guns. Another time Ada’s daughter starts playing with the Maori children and Alisdair gets really angry with her and makes her… wash trees? I think? In one of many memorable scenes, the White children put on a low-rent production of the story of Bluebeard, but the Maori sitting in the back don’t understand it’s not real and run onto the stage to save the young wife in the climactic scene (“How would you like my club up your arse!” one yells in the subtitles).

In the end, things come to a head, and Alisdair cuts off one of Ada’s fingers to keep her from playing piano, in driving rain and mud. Her reaction isn’t screaming, or any noise, even then. Her face is one of those things you can’t describe in words. But then he lets her go. The piano ends up dreamily at the bottom of Pacific, but Ada gets to stay with George in Nelson, giving piano lessons, with a fancy silver finger George made for her. It’s the ending a fable would have.

The movie ended up winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the first won by a female director. It went on to win three Oscars, for Screenplay, Actress (for Hunter), and Supporting Actress, but lost Best Picture to Forrest Gump, because of course it did. Campion has since basically done what she wanted, including such disparate fare as Portrait of a Lady and In the Cut, and recently received a great deal of acclaim for her TV mini-series Top of the Lake.

Look, certainly men can tell stories about women, but there’s a different perspective you get when a woman is writing and directing. The Piano has to get you right inside Ada’s head, because the script isn’t handing you anything. The Piano isn’t the first movie on this blog that I’ve said feels like a dream, but I think it really does make a difference that it’s a woman’s dream.

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