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Film

Exploring Jane Campion movie 'The Piano'

The 1993 period drama The Piano famously made Oscar history when its director Jane Campion became the first woman to ever be nominated for Best Director. Although she lost out to Steven Spielberg for Schindler’s List, Campion managed to take home the award for Best Original Screenplay. Furthermore, Anna Paquin became the second-youngest actress to win Best Supporting Actress at just 11 years old, and Holly Hunter was awarded the prize of Best Actress.

The film follows a Scotswoman named Ada who is forced to marry Alasdair, a frontiersman living in New Zealand. Ada travels across the globe with her daughter, Flora, and piano in tow. The piano allows Ada to convey emotion and speak without using her voice since she went unexplainably mute at six years old, yet Alasdair attempts to sever her attachment to the instrument since he doesn’t have the room for it in his house. This is devastating to Ada, who treats the piano as a living organism, and, when she gets to shore, she can be seen reaching through the wooden crate to press the piano keys, as if ensuring it is still alive.

The piano is taken into the custody of Harvey Keitel’s character George Baines, who sports face tattoos in custom with the Maori people that he surrounds himself with. An agreement is made that if Ada is to have her piano returned, she must give Baines lessons, which she quickly discovers is his ploy to be in her company. After a series of visits to earn back her piano, after the pair engage in sexual activity, Alasdair, shocked and angry, chops off Ada’s finger with an axe, wraps it in cloth, and gives it to Flora to take to Baines.

Eventually, Ada leaves with Baines and Flora to start a new life, however, while on the boat, she deliberately tries to drown herself along with her piano. Luckily, she changes her mind and survives a potentially horrifying death, and is thus shown living happily as a piano teacher, now equipped with a metal finger. Furthermore, Ada starts speech therapy in an attempt to learn how to talk again.

Yet Campion has been vocal in expressing her original ideas for the film’s ending. Instead of finding happiness, Campion wanted to have Ada drown alongside her piano, stating: “I thought some of it was really good, but I thought, ‘For freaking hell’s sake, she should have stayed under there.'”

Additionally, she explains: “It would be more real, wouldn’t it, it would be better? I didn’t have the nerve at the time. What if Ada just went down, she went down with her piano – that’s it”. This would have been a considerably bleaker ending, suggesting that for Ada true peace lies with her discarded piano, since if she can’t play it, there’s no reason for her to keep living, after all, it is the sole way she expresses herself.

Instead, the film suggests that her memories of the piano are now tied to her days with Alasdair and for the sake of starting over, she sees it best to let it sink underneath the waves. The ocean is an important symbol in the film since it represents creation and new beginnings. Amongst the waves, Ada realises that to die there would be to leave not only Flora and Baines, but also herself behind. Instead, motivated by the powerful presence of the ocean – also a symbol of stability – she realises that she can continue on, despite the trauma of living with Alasdair after being forced out of Scotland and into an unhappy marriage, devoid of desire for her husband.

The Piano is visually breathtaking, with lush landscapes of the beach and forestry that become the perfect backdrop for Ada’s search for happiness and agency. Alongside the beautiful cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh, the piano score performed by Michael Nyman is absolutely stunning and acts as a key element to the film since it substitutes Ada’s voice. Since its release, the score has been rated as one of the top one hundred soundtrack albums of all time.

Talking about the film, Melissa Silverstein, founder and president of Women and Hollywood said: “Nothing is said. It is all felt. The Piano arrived at a time when most films depicting female sexuality were directed by men. I’ve always considered Campion’s vision ground zero for the female gaze”. Many women can attest to viewing the film this way, as Campion’s choice to have a mute protagonist allows for everything to be said through feeling, emotion, and body language. Campion’s female gaze emphasises the emotions that Ada feels, often using close-up shots to bring attention to her facial expressions. The way that Hunter uses her eyes instead of her voice is mesmerising. Her pale face and the tightly bound hair upon her head frame her piercing stare that says more than a dramatic monologue ever could.

In one surprising scene, Ada finally gives in to her husband’s desires, which he has been harbouring for the entirety of the film. Instead of a joyous explosion of passionate lovemaking, Alasdair lays there awkwardly as she taunts him with the stroke of her finger on his bare behind. With Ada in charge of the situation, Alasdair cannot bear it, and Campion suggests that a dominant woman can turn social norms inside out and stir the most self-assured man with the lift of a finger.

The film breathes life into an era where women did not have a voice, with Ada’s selective mutism taking this idea literally. Campion brings us into Ada’s inner world with great skill; through a mixture of tender and defiant glances, Ada is one of the 1990s’ most memorable women. From the atypical yet empathetic depiction of motherhood to the sexual tension that mounts between Ada and Baines, Campion’s film is monumental, depicting womanhood and female sexuality in a completely new and refreshing way.

Ada is both strong and delicate, emotional yet determined. Campion stresses the multiplicity of women, which was largely absent from mainstream cinema in the early ’90s. Since the release of The Piano, Campion’s film has paved the way for a new generation of female filmmakers, and will forever be remembered as one of the most important examples of the ‘female gaze’ on screen.

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