The Piano (1993, Jane Campion)
One of the most oddly enchanting moments in The Piano comes when Anna Paquin, as the precocious daughter of a mute woman, extemporaneously spins a wild and improbable story involving singing, lightning and combustion about how her father died and her mother lost her ability to speak, and all this after announcing that fairies had attended their wedding. The film doesn’t quite expect us to believe anything so daft, but it does follow through on young Flora’s promise in the sense that it feels, itself, like a bit of a fairy story, reimagining a great love, a rescue and a curse as the backdrop for an adult story about oppression, infidelity, true love and real desire.
While The Piano captures its setting convincingly and without too much exotic adornment, its firm placement in real space and time feels scarcely relevant to its status as a masterful piece of storytelling, even if a good deal of the power in its central romance comes from the contrast (however racially naive and condescending in the vein of Renoir’s The River) of an enlighetened peace set against Sam Neill’s character’s frustrated, childish imperialism. The sights and sounds, above all the stirring solo piano music, stick more than the specific flavor of any distant world the film might convey. Writer-director Jane Campion’s stark color palette and sweeping cinematography increase its out-of-time, aching beauty. With nearly every shot painterly, seductive and slightly unreal, it attains along with its dreamlike pacing and robust characterization a feeling of pure cinema rare in “prestige pictures” of its time. It’s hard to name a romantic film more utterly beguiling from any period, especially one driven completely by emotional subtleties rather than dialogue.
Being set in New Zealand in the 19th century and encompassing members of a Māori tribe as well as two lead characters hailing from Scotland, it has nothing to do with traditional American mythology, yet it feels very strongly to me like a Washington Irving story or, to go even lower-brow, like an Appalachian folktale akin to the one Earl Hamner, Jr. dramatized on The Twilight Zone as “Jess-Belle.” There’s no genuine taste of the supernatural beyond perhaps a hunch of unseen forces at work, and only a bit of the jolting terror you feel upon running into the last person you want to see on a moonlit night, but there are the trinkets and oddly minute details of homespun tale-telling — a finger, a piano key, a locket — as well as stakes raised dramatically in private corners: here, a bargaining for affection that follows a bargain for something more literal — a piano.
The story itself feels like a fable from the moment Holly Hunter begins her witty, bemused opening voiceover, like she’s articulating something far older than all of us, and this sense of deep recognition continues despite the tale’s originality: a mute piano player, Ada (Hunter), sold into an arranged marriage to an uptight, bossy dullard (Neill) finds herself seduced by a sailor (Harvey Keitel) who’s taken up residence with a group of Māori people, on the pretext of needing piano lessons; brutality and jealousy on a grand scale ensue as she gives into first lust and then real passion, to the chagrin of her daughter whose loyalties quickly become confused as she learns what’s happening. All the while Ada’s identity, since she cannot speak, is identified nearly inexorably with her piano; more than once, the idea of its dismantling, maintenace or destruction is tied in with her own being. She may not talk, but when she plays she becomes whole in a way that defies any verbiage. All the while, Flora with her confused moral conscience seems to be our eyes and ears, and through her we explore the childlike sweep and sense of discovery of being plunged into a new life as the film moves toward its devilish but compassionate finale.
Hunter’s restrained performance, not to mention her piano playing, is a miracle. Though her introductory narration is delightful, her parting shot absolutely unforgettable, robbing this brilliant actress of speech only serves to make her performance even more mesmerizing. Every subtle change in her expression, every tantrum, every gesture, is worth more words than could fit on a page of script. Her work, never broad or pandering or overreaching to explore a character she defines with astounding elegance, recalls silent cinema, perhaps no single example so much as Lillian Gish in The Wind. The infallible Hunter doesn’t quite have eyes like Gish — no one does, frankly — but she resourcefully harnesses every contour of her face to create a performance, obviously difficult but incredibly free of visible strain, for which there are few analogues in cinema. More than once a tic of an eyebrow or movement of her lips that might be imperceptible in a film that allowed her to talk is the subject of laughter or a gasp from the viewer.
Yet Anna Paquin as Flora does just as much with an equally complicated role. You find yourself disappointed with her at several points before reminding yourself that she is a little girl; most films of this nature wouldn’t explore her misplaced morals and duplicity so well, and few actors could sell it like Paquin. Nearly everything she does fits right in with the film’s woozy romanticism and black humor alike; given what we hear of Ada’s personality, the fanciful and coy Flora is very much her mother’s daughter. The camera loves her: dancing, singing, proclaiming that her mom’s destiny is Hell, undermining and scheming and enterprising, constantly intense with the selfishness but budding humanity and compassion of a real child her age.
Keitel and Neill are brilliantly cast; a lesser director would almost certainly have reversed their parts so that Neill would be the illiterate but ruggedly charming people-person, Keitel the pensive aggressor. Instead Campion knocks down both their masculinity but especially Neill’s, because Neill represents the Hollywood ideal of a romantic leading man; Keitel’s a diminutive schlub but she sees the sensual power in the respect he affords his lover. In his cuckolded state after watching his wife’s freeflowing, intensely pleasurable sex with another man through wood paneling, despite momentary distractions from a dog’s tongue, he tries to co-opt his confused arousal into kink. Yet in the operative moment, when his delicate ass is laid out in front of Hunter, he only can flinch. Hunter and Keitel’s love scenes, on the other hand, attain a truth and grace in their eroticism that’s all but impossible for Hollywood pictures to convey, even rising out of the playful humor of using barter for a piano as a pretext for sex. (It’s telling, incidentally, that The Piano is so rife with ideas and dimension that it quickly moves on despite the potential richness and soapy intrigue of this notion.)
The Piano intrigues and fascinates on first exposure and becomes deeper, more mysterious and invigorating as one grows familiar with its nuances. Of course, this is also an example of a movie whose visual pyrotechnics are so striking it can overwhelm many other elements, especially in memory. The film’s oddness, humor and refreshingly believable sexuality make it so much more than just a collection of striking images, but oh, those images all the same… a woman tied to a piano at the bottom of the ocean! People in format dress sinking into mud! Paquin’s dance across the beach, the piano incongruously perched upon the shore! Hunter and Paquin steeling away through the blue-tinted night, across bridges, gliding across the unfamiliar. The final shot concretely defines the film as an evocation of a dream state, but its morbidity is challenged by Ada’s smiling self-assurance. Even the misfortune that’s befallen her is something she makes something out of: “I’m quite the town freak, which satisfies.”