Philip Concannon revisits the 1993 Palme D’Or Winner, now out on Blu-ray, in the year its director heads the Cannes jury.
The first image we see in The Piano is a close-up of Holly Hunter’s fingers as she holds her eyes in front of her face, allowing sunlight to filter through them. We hear her Scottish-accented voice on the soundtrack, but she tells us that “The voice you hear is not my speaking voice, but my mind’s voice,” and throughout the film these fingers will be her prime means of communication. Her character, Ada McGrath, has not spoken since she was six years old, having apparently taken it into her head to simply stop doing so. She speaks through sign language, translated by her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin), or by writing short notes on the pad she keeps hanging around her neck, but when Ada wishes to truly express what she is feeling, she does so through music. “The strange thing is, I don’t think myself silent because of my piano,” her voiceover tells us, “I shall miss it on the journey.”
The journey that Ada and Flora are embarking upon will take them to New Zealand, where she is to meet her new husband Mr Stewart (Sam Neill) for the very first time. They disembark in rough seas only to find that Stewart has been delayed, but Ada opts to stay on this cold and windswept beach rather than travel inland, camping overnight with Flora, her luggage and – of course – her beloved piano. Two men are subsequently introduced to Ada, and the manner in which they both react to her prized possession tells us a great deal about them. Her rather stiff and conservative husband Stewart can’t understand Ada’s attachment to this cumbersome instrument, and he insists on leaving it on the beach while they carry the rest of her belongings, causing the first schism in their nascent relationship. The other man is Baines (Harvey Keitel), an acquaintance of Stewart’s now living with the Maori, who is instantly intrigued by Ada and who sees the piano as the key to unlocking this enigmatic woman.
The Piano was Jane Campion’s third feature film, but it marked an audacious leap forward from the already impressive Sweetie and An Angel at My Table. Drawing inspiration from 19th century romantic literature and New Zealand’s history and culture, Campion fashioned one of those rare films in which every single element just falls into place. The casting brought together a group of actors at exactly the right moment in their respective careers; Michael Nyman (inexplicably not one of the film’s Oscar nominees) came up with an inspired score that became an integral part of the film’s structure; and Campion found locations that gave her film the scale of an epic while simultaneously serving the narrative symbolically.
For example, the marital home that Stewart takes Ada to is situated in the middle of a dark forest, plagued by incessant rain, and with every footstep the characters sink into the thick mud. It’s all shot in dismal grey tones by Stuart Dryburgh and the effect is suffocating, with Ada’s thoughts constantly drifting back to her piano, which still sits on the beach. When she finally persuades Baines to escort her back to the beach so she can play, the film immediately brightens. Against an expansive backdrop of calm seas and bathed in a golden light, Ada plays freely and beautifully with a blissful smile on her face; in fact, it’s the first time in the movie that we see her typically fierce and cautious mask melt away.
The effect that the piano has on Ada is not lost on Baines. He takes possession of it and begins negotiating with Ada – a sexual favour for each key until she has eventually earned it back. Their arrangement begins on a small scale, with Ada removing items of clothing while she plays and exposing her arms or shoulders, but one such seemingly insignificant accession to Baines requests sends a shockwave through the film. While she plays, Baines asks Ada to lift her skirt so he can admire her legs, and when he spots a small hole in her stocking he delicately runs a finger over this tiny glimpse of white. At the point of contact, Ada immediately lifts her head and her expression suggests surprise, curiosity, puzzlement and pleasure all at once. This erotic encounter – perhaps the first she has ever experienced – is the turning point in Ada’s story, the moment in which she begins to explore and take command of her own body and sexual desire, freeing herself from the restrictive role of docile wife that Stewart expects her to be and becoming a person of her own making.
Although The Piano builds inexorably to a dramatic act of violence, there are no villains in Campion’s story, just a group of complicated characters facing emotions and situations that they have no experience of and are ill-prepared for. The director is constantly attuned to the shifting power dynamic and the fluctuating emotional tenor of the film, so much of which is captured in small glances and gestures between the characters, and each of the characters can be prickly, stubborn and unlikeable at various points in the story while also being capable of eliciting our sympathy.
At the time of writing, Jane Campion is heading the jury at the Cannes Film Festival, and her presence is a constant reminder that the Palme d’Or she shared for The Piano in 1993 is the only one that has ever been awarded to a female director. The film went onto gross over $140 million worldwide and took home three of its eight Oscar nominations the following year, but looking back from where we are now it’s hard to imagine how this particular film managed such a feat. Can you imagine a sexually frank drama about female desire making such an impact with mainstream filmgoers today? Instead of opening the floodgates for female directors or encouraging viewers to embrace adult, artistically daring films about love and sex, Campion’s film looks increasingly with every passing year like a strange but precious anomaly. The Piano has always been a film that seemed to exist out of time, and in many ways it feels like we are still trying to catch up to it.
The Piano is out on Blu-ray today.