The Piano rewatched – re-examining the erotic via sexually charged music lessons

Jane Campion became the first female director to win the Cannes’ prestigious Palme d’Or with her extraordinary brooding drama of a mute piano player

Films about mute piano players embroiled in erotic love triangles never did become a burgeoning genre. Perhaps that’s because it’s virtually impossible to imagine another equalling writer/director Jane Campion’s 1993 magnum opus: an extraordinarily brooding drama that occupies an irrepressible space in audiences’ minds and memories.

Like the early work of another New Zealand film-maker, Vincent Ward, who also directed a breathtaking Australia/NZ co-production, The Navigator, the film is its hermetically sealed own universe – an almost mystical type of time capsule. It plays with a gothic fog-through-the-trees moodiness that combines an incredible score with lush cinematography.

The Piano is kinky on its own terms and in its own unusual ways. Campion once told the critic Roger Ebert she “was trying to re-examine what erotic is”. The film contemplates a recurring theme in her work, exploring a woman on the fringes of social norms (arriving after 1989’s Sweetie and An Angel at My Table and before Holy Smoke and In the Cut).

Set in the early years of the European colonisation of New Zealand, 30-ish Scottish woman Ada (Holly Hunter) hasn’t spoken a word since she was six years old. “The voice you hear is not my speaking voice but my mind’s voice,” she tells us via voiceover. “The strange thing is, I don’t think myself silent. That is because of my piano.”

She is indeed rather fond of said piano, in a take-it-from-my-cold-dead-hands kind of way. Nevertheless Ada loses ownership of her prized possession after the husband she is shipped off to marry, Mr Stewart (Sam Neill), insists on leaving it on a beach – the first misstep in an increasingly rocky relationship.

The slightly more amiable George Baines (Harvey Keitel) obtains it and cuts Ada a deal. She can buy the piano back, key by key, in exchange for lessons.

These “lessons” become increasingly sexually charged. Baines transitions from gawking at her leg to running a hand across her shoulder. Before you know it, he’s proposed the old “let’s not do anything, just lie next to each other in bed” chestnut. Their relationship becomes more even-keeled as Ada’s sexual urges are awakened.

Hunter is mesmerising as a mysterious and in certain senses impenetrable character, headstrong but vulnerable. Anna Paquin (in her first major role) is also unforgettable as Ada’s young daughter, with whom she communicates via sign language.

Both actors received Academy awards for their performances. Paquin, who was 11 years old at the time, became the second youngest Oscar winner in history. Campion became the second woman to be nominated for best director (and won for best original screenplay). The film’s accolades go on and on, including winning Cannes’ prestigious Palme d’Or (Campion was the first woman to do so) and 11 AFI awards.

In the context of Australian cinema, The Piano is a reminder that long-term investment in talent pays dividends in both creative and commercial ways.

Campion’s first film, Sweetie, was not a hit at the box office; the kind of production the peanut gallery might suggest we produce less of on the grounds it may not be palatable for mass consumption. Two films down the track Campion made The Piano, which netted about $150m worldwide and became one of the most acclaimed films of the 90s. It is clear demonstration that cultural value accrues in multiple senses and arrives in multiple forms.

It is also a significant film in that it was produced by Jan Chapman, one of Australian cinema’s most distinguished behind-the-scenes talents (her incredible track record includes The Babadook, The Daughter, Lantana, Love Serenade and Somersault).

The Piano remains many things to many people: an enigmatic masterpiece from one of the finest living film-makers.

Contributor

Luke Buckmaster

The GuardianTramp

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