New Zealand, Australia, France, 1993
Directed by Jane Campion
With Holly Hunter (Ada), Anna Paquin (Flora), Harvey Keitel (Baines), Sam Neill (Steward)
The first vision the film delivers is actually a blurred image, caused by fingers spread over eyes. These eyes belong to a young girl playing inside the Scottish mansion that is her home but the voice-over readily played along belongs to her mother, who speaks of her muteness, a sudden and spontaneous trouble that occurred during her childhood. She is not deaf, however, and neither is she deprived of talent; in fact, she is a gifted pianist.
Finding out what exists in the world and how to express oneself: those human needs shape and anchor the astonishing romance at the core of the narrative. This is a straightforward tale: Ada, the pianist, and Flora, her child, travel to New Zealand to meet Steward, a settler who has married Ada through an ad, under the auspices of her family. This is the 1850s; New Zealand is a faraway land that officially became a colony just at the beginning of the decade. Ada is clearly displeased by her new situation and tries to keep her distance. Then Steward’s main collaborator, Baines, a Briton who went native, decides to take piano lessons and hires Ada as a teacher. But he soon has a crush on her and demands that she lets him see her body. She is angry at first but slowly falls in love with him. Steward discovers the affair and tries to thwart the lovers. Ada’s will again proves too strong, and after he mutilates her in a fit of rage he must let her go with Baines back in their native United Kingdom.
To get understood is a constant challenge. Ada communicates only through short notes scribbled on a pad or the sign language that only his daughter is familiar with, which makes it things harder for Steward, who is already floundering to get his Maori employees work since he does not know their language. He is not going to make an effort, like the few family relatives staying around him and the other settlers, who stick to their native tongue and their ingrained cultural viewpoints. Baines knows how to speak both languages but is illiterate and of course is ignorant of the sign language.
The music instrument that give the movie its title seems the only way for Ada to express her feelings but is another cause of estrangement with Steward and his milieu as he just can’t comprehend the import of the piano – this is only a cumbersome object from the other side of the world – while the music Ada plays sounds too peculiar, even unnatural, to the ears of the ladies of the settlement (and indeed it has nothing to do with their sense of entertainment as a Christmas vaudeville makes plain). But it becomes the unexpected receptacle of Baines’ passion for Ada.
He brings the instrument, which has been left abandoned on the beach, to his home, some days after he led Ada and Flora to the place and witnessed the sheer joy they felt with the music. He explains he wants to learn how to play music, another language skill he lacks, but he readily uses it to compel Ada to satisfy his desires. Ada’s vital need to play must clash with her self-respect and her disdain of a man’s urge. The long game they play during her visits – buying back the piano at the price of an exhibition of parts of her body – is a crude and ruthless form of bargaining, yet this bargaining proves to be the sole possibility to exchange feelings, even though Ada’s are understandably hostile while Baines is as clumsy as he is obstinate, which doesn’t however preclude an acute sense of tenderness.
The miracle, which nothing heralds and comes from Ada’s own volition, is that it leads to love and its ultimate expression, physical contacts and pleasure. This body language becomes a revelation, suddenly expanding Ada’s experience and freeing her. Now, touching the piano keys and moving her hands in specific signs are no longer the only possibilities to convey her feelings. They are overtaken by another sense of touch. After Steward finds out the truth and tries to end the affair, she gets angry at the seclusion he imposed but somehow relents and even chooses to be with him. But in fact that means to her playing with his body. Sensuality has clearly become part of her personality. That does not help her marriage as Steward is sadly aware he is not the focus of her desire – but it also seems that he just can’t stand her intimate gestures, in a stark and remarkable contrast to Baines’ attitude. To punish her of her ever-lasting passion for her lover he wounds her power of touch – the best way to hasten the end of their marriage, though it dooms her to give up piano and to drift.
Suicide is the obvious, and obviously romantic, answer to her situation. But she can’t bring herself to die, and in another surprise to her, finds life more seductive. The epilogue shows her trying to speak again with her voice, teaching piano for a living and loving as much as ever Baines. Looking like the unavoidable happy ending, it is the radiant and confident conclusion to a personal journey through languages and silence, amid a hostile natural and social environment. The New Zealand the movie depicts is a muddy place, whose lush forests are treacherous. The British men exploiting the land are uncouth and prejudiced while their female companions are in a straitjacket – literally with their bodies stifling under the barely practical and anti-erotic clothes their culture has designed, and metaphorically as they get entrenched in the social and intellectual conventions of the motherland. They have unsurprisingly nothing in common with the indigenous population, whose behaviors and reactions are carefree, spontaneous and candid.
The piano was first like the inner voice of Ada (who is played masterfully by a gracious and resolute Holly Hunter); it becomes, unexpectedly and in an astonishingly bold move, the tool that allows her discover anew her other, freer, more truly feminine, abilities to be herself and to interact with others, through a radical, upsetting but deeply moving experience. The camera of director Jane Campion skillfully scrutinizes the twists and turns of the transformation, chasing after the telling detail, often with a touch of humor, and paying a tactful and keen attention to her characters, through the use of beautiful inserts, cleverly simple compositions and outbursts of daring pictures, always made with the best cinematography. The play of touching and showing bodies, leading to her self-discovery and to a deep and respectful bond, is studied with an acute sense of the characters’ emotions. A rigorous montage shores up the subtle narration and the visual prowess of “The Piano”. Ada’s experience is thus conveyed with coherence and force; such a success quietly implies that cinema is the best-suited language to record the realities and limitations of other languages and simultaneously to meld them into a multifarious and distinct vision of the world.