Like other sublime cinematic explications of the femininity under duress from the ’90s – The Double Life of Veronique, All About My Mother, and Farewell My Concubine chief among them – The Piano treks into uncharted waters of the cinematic variety as well as the social. In the New Zealand landscape – prefiguring and riposting the picturesque post-card hollowness of The Lord of the Rings – Jane Campion siphons off a visual limbo that boldly provokes us to consider space internally and externally. Campion’s expressive romanticism evokes the lushness of Jane Austen as well as the contradictions in internal, mental states suggested by the Victorian literature that has become so entwined with Western conceptions of both feminine oppression and internal selfhood rupturing against the dying of the light. The non-natural, hyperbolically romantic vistas become counterpoints to the frail, trapped humans who must withhold their emotions from the predation of these landscapes. And, in typical romantic form, the film’s incontrovertible splendor also serves as a visual lexicon for dreams and desires that always fight to waft and permeate out of their fleshy prisons.
Where Campion strikes fertile ground is in her fable of the mind, casting the human body as a hotbox of lustful inner-feeling and clamped-down, dictatorial self-policing, where social convention both constructs and limits the essence of human knowledge and reasoning. Following Scottish mute Ada (Holly Hunter, whose non-speaking role not only belies but defines her internal hurricane of a performance) on a venture to New Zealand to marry a wealthy widower played by Sam Neill, Campion’s resplendently crestfallen style is sumptuous but inveterate in its loneliness. Pitched like an adult fairy tale more than a narrative proper, the simple transcendence of the baroque visuals both critique the rococo beauty of the era and pay homage to their transportative power. Not a trip to a far off land or the moon, as so much cinema proposes, but into a serene and severe bewildering portal of mental transfiguration and wood-crafted isolation.
It must be stated that subtlety isn’t particularly in Campion’s wheelhouse, but that’s more a statement of her provincial right as a baroque artist – John Cage, she is not. Under her tutelage, however, the human mind becomes hallowed ground as the vistas extend beyond shields of beauty and into cascading rhythms of mental divergence and crescendos of human disobedience against the iron walls of dislocation and disagreement. Stuart Dryburgh’s enchanted cinematography pitches the color levels against one another as they flicker for control of the screen, Ada’s charcoal black dress (courtesy of costume designer Janet Patterson) serving as a statement of her refusal to submit to the equivocal brown and grey hues of her new husband.
Dryburgh casts the primeval forests and verdant flora of the location as orgiastic emotional respites from the damp failure of civilization pretending to control the lively Maori populace who exhibit the only semblance of community in the film, excepting Ada and her daughter/translator Flora (Anna Paquin, her name Flora presumably not inconsequential). Flora, herself, is a breathless rush of human connection, unnaturally knowing for her age and prematurely skilled at dousing the world with her external awareness, having grown up a veritable communicator by profession. Campion, despite her insistence on defining herself as a humanist rather than a feminist filmmaker, displays a warmth of compassion for Ada and Flora as the most naturally human relationship in the film, the only one that shifts Hunter’s wonderfully withdrawn, angular performance toward more robustly curved, inward motions toward other human flesh.
There’s a romantic tryst and a triangle of unnaturally fleshy courage at the heart of The Piano that flowers when a white man, Baines (Harvey Keitel), who has rescinded the imperialist advance of his fellow whites for a life among the Maori, purchases Ada’s prized possession, a piano, left to drown on the shore by Neill’s Alisdair. Baines’ efforts are a ruse to hear Ada play the piano for him – to feel the whispers of her only outlet for human expression breathe through the air around them – as a means to eventually attract her to him. He eventually does – rather like the unthinkingly oppressive masculinity of Alisdair – by agreeing to sell the piano back to her for full control of her body while she visits him to play it.
Thank god for Campion’s inimitable, nearly imperious, control of the frame as a filmmaker, for there is a grotesquely symbolic film lurking in the abstract of The Piano. Yet Campion’s visionary craft allows her to wade through the thickets of metaphor almost entirely unscathed, employing the space around the piano as well as the symbol of the piano itself as a question mark about Ada’s ability to control her own expression and sexuality in a land dominated by men. It’s plainly the case that Ada’s muteness is her own initiative, leaving her with music as both a solitary outlet for expression and a battleground of human control and impulse as Baines parlays her expression as currency. Alisdair, for his part, prefers to leave her identity, the piano, sitting on the beach, denying Ada any outlet for expression that isn’t defined purely via his own machinations.
Campion is too formal an aesthetic sensualist to play all this for mere conceptual fairy dust though, instead relying on her camera as a temporal sculpting tool for exploring the duality of the musical instrument that liberates Ada and ensnares her in the vise grip of others’ control. This distressed pressure between escape and tyranny, more an entangled web of interweaving identities than a dichotomy proper, is embodied in the tensions of a camera that feels at once endlessly mobile and trapped in the friction of the space around it. As a marker for Ada’s free will and her entrapment, the camera both glides around Ada when she plays, unchaining us from our worldly bodies via the materiality of the piano, and snares itself in various lacerating vertical and horizontal objects in the frame that seem to close in on the camera and squander its flight. In gaining independence, the camera only absconds to new perspectives of still omnipresent obstruction.
The confidential contortions in Ada’s selfhood are thus both enfranchised by the camera and coiled within the stolid sangfroid of her facial expressions intimating feeling whenever they can; because she doesn’t speak, and because her selfness is embattled at every moment, every personal gesture becomes a tempest before our eyes. Campion and co. concoct a vision of experience that is both intimately tied to her body and liberated from it, much the same duality Ada experiences in a world she feels torn away from even as she must contain her temperament within her fractured physicality. Most of all, Campion is aware of the tensile strength of Ada’s as well as the audience’s physical escape to the New Zealand landscape. This far away part of the world initially seems to accrue Ada new freedoms away from the strict tyranny of formal Scottish society. But, ultimately, it provides us an intuition that the wealth of land only affords a new, albeit less structured, playground for oppression.