The Piano (1993)

I stopped (as I often do) to read comments on IMDb, which I realize is a waste of time, but occasionally a good point is buried in the garbage.

This time I was filled with annoyance and disgust on reading the comments, and so I stopped to come here and write this instead. I have nowhere else to work in my nausea at the post by someone about how they stopped speaking for a week and found silence “deafening,” so I’m putting it here, as all I can hope is that that person was in high school and later looks back and blushes at that insanely clumsy statement they probably wrote to be deep and profound.

The Piano is one of the handful of respected films by female directors (in this case Jane Campion, whose other films I’ve honestly never even heard of, except In the Cut) and follows Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) who is a non-biological mute with a daughter, Flora (a very young Anna Paquin), who has been married by arrangement to one Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill–whoops, now you know why I watched this one). She tells us at the beginning–in a voiceover that also explains that these few introductory lines are the voice in her head rather than her speaking voice, because she does not have one–that she does not consider herself mute, because she speaks through her piano (the titular one, of course). We first see the two of them arriving on the shores of New Zealand, centuries before now, where they are met by Stewart and a local guide, George Baines (Harvey Keitel), who acts as interpreter for the native Maori that Stewart employs as manual labor for the carrying of the McGrath’s things. Stewart neglects to bring Ada’s piano, and from there we have it bargained away to Baines by Stewart, leading him to exchange visits from Ada for its ownership–one key at a time.

It was said to me that it was hoped that I liked seeing Sam Neill as a jerk when I said I had this film waiting to watch. While he’s certainly not going to win “husband-of-the-year” for his personality or actions, including a reaction he eventually has to the relationship that develops between Ada and Baines, “villain” is hardly the word, in my mind. He is surprisingly patient for a “patriarchal, dominant, self-centered male” as I’m sure some would angrily term him, and respectful through the majority of the film. No, there are not defenses for some paths he chooses, nor should there be, but it’s not fair to ascribe anyone the role of “villain” in this piece.

What I hoped not to see throughout the IMDb boards was a clamour of joy at the “romance” of this film. Sorry, I didn’t see a single bit. It’s beautifully shot and crafted, with Campion taking time on simple images, often focusing tightly on symbolic objects or framing of scenes; the piano is seen in a tight, low sweep early on, the top of Stewart’s teacup is scene, showing an absolutely beautiful ornamentation in its design as it fills the entire frame, cloth wings for a play made for Flora are swept back and forth in a stream to clean them, blue filters fill many scenes, with warm yellows and reds contrasting for internal scenes and scenes of passion. But there’s no romance here, not in my mind. Baines asks Ada to trade herself, or her company at the least, for her own piano. Should Stewart have traded it to him? Certainly not; it was not his to trade, but I’ve had these discussions. Just because the last person to do it wasn’t right doesn’t mean the preceding or following actions should be ignored or are less bad. Many stupid arguments came up surrounding this issue, as people said, “No, Baines wasn’t bad, I mean, Stewart was abusive!”–so, what, it’s one or the other? There’s no other option? It’s not conveyed as “there must be one or the other,” there’s no suggestion that there is no other option, it seems that these are the options she decides she can choose from–many high-minded feminists would suggest that this lack of choice is chauvanistic in and of itself. Whether Ada is okay with trading whatever “things” Baines wants to “do” with her for her piano is irrelevant–though she clearly starts off not okay with it. Some suggest she returns because of deep-seated desires and secret feelings for him, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way. It feels as if she has decided this is an acceptable price for her piano. Now, on some level, I suppose this makes the arrangement an acceptable one, and not a violation, but that doesn’t change the fact that Baines is using it to manipulate her. Buying it and using it to try and get to her is not a respectable decision, objectively speaking. If he legitimately cared for her, he’d not have asked for those things in exchange–that is manipulation, pure and simple. If you don’t wish to see it that way, have fun, and enjoy it as a romance, but I find that disturbing.

Ada then proceeds to essentially ignore her daughter while she spends time with Baines, leaving her to wander around outside and play with Baines’ dog despite her protests. Some people found her annoying for then giving away what the two of them are doing, roughly, to Stewart (an expected action for the simplistic feelings of a film-child, especially a fairly precocious one)–but I hardly think that’s fair. Her own mother is ignoring her at this point, and she is lying to her husband–now, he’s her husband by a choice that was not hers, but that hardly justifies deceit and outright lies to him, or to anyone, simply for a reason like that. Honestly, he even catches them early on and says nothing about it, still patiently trying to let Ada find her own way with him. Naively? Perhaps. Selfishly? Perhaps. But not abusively.

Despite this, my argument is not that Ada is a bad person, or that anyone is innocent at all–I think any such interpretation is flat out wrong. It’s not as simple as that, these are people. People are never pure innocence or evil, there’s always something else to them, unless there’s full-on mental disturbance involved. Ada is trying to work through the will she has that tells her what she wants and what she should do, trying to find her place in a world that is obviously trying to choose for her–and so on that note I think neither man is any good, but I find that Stewart is just a stupid dullard in his approach to her and doesn’t listen, where Baines is outright manipulative, and consciously so–apologizing and realizing he is effectively ‘making [her] a whore’ after, what, five visits?

Now, all of this sounds like it’s leading me to a condemnation of the film, right? Hardly. I’m secretly somewhat ashamed of the fact that my list of favourite actors is slim when it comes to women, but Holly Hunter easily made her way on there after Levity, probably the strongest performer in that film, and here is no mediocre performance, but a deservedly Oscar-winning one, her hands emphasizing things she’s saying in a way that feels like it is the way she has always spoken, as if she truly were mute, and when she begins to throw a tantrum over her piano (the connotations of that word are unfair in that context, but it’s the best word)–she rips articles of clothing down one by one, pointedly pulling one and looking coldly at Stewart, then moving to the next, each movement seeming to be a language rather than a primal emotional reaction. She conveys emotions and feelings, resignment, anger and affection perfectly with her eyes and face, in reaction to all situations. Anna Paquin turned in one of the stronger child performances I’ve seen, especially in a role that demanded more than they often can. A shame, I must note, that a false story she tells at one point leads to a strange animated moment, but only a moment, that I was hoping for more of but found was alone in its presence.

Neill is good as always, managing to capture the intense and overwhelming jealousy, and the inexcusable actions occurring from it, in a man who is otherwise seemingly well-intentioned and good. Keitel is also “as always”–but I discovered yet again he suffers the same thing as a fellow skilled New York actor–he cannot drop his accent if he tries, and it’s a lot more jarring when its an accent specific almost even down to modern time periods to hear in a period context. The other is of course De Niro, found New York-ing his way through a Spanish Jesuit role in Roland Joffé’s The Mission. While both are quite good, and Harvey is a very good physical actor especially, it’s still difficult to weave one’s ears around that distinct accent.

So, in the end, it’s actually a very good film, absolutely beautiful photography and cinematography, wonderfully scored–and none of the piano pieces Ada plays ever bored me, as often is the case with some supposedly beautiful classical pieces, leaving me cold and uninterested, but here being fresh and new and interesting–and played by Hunter herself, no less.

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