Has there ever been a more transgressive director than Jane Campion? Whether you are talking about Sweetie, An Angel At My Table, Holy Smoke, In The Cut, or both seasons of her brilliant series Top of the Lake, no other filmmaker alive delivers such complex characters (particularly female characters) as does Campion. Everyone is flawed, motivations are never simple, and her characters are not there to be loved, but to be seen. Hell, even Bright Star is transgressive in that it is a Jane Campion film that is NOT all that transgressive (although still fantastic).
Such is the case with her greatest success to date (although The Power of the Dog may end up having a say), The Piano. There’s no way audiences back in 1993 could have realized how out of step the tale of a mute woman in the New Zealand bush who trades “favors” for the return of that piano with a “gone native” (in this case Māori) man might be. Having seen the film in a theater at that time, we didn’t think of such things.
What are those things?
Perhaps it’s useful to explain a bit of the plot. Ada (Holly Hunter) arrives on the rough kiwi shores of mid-19th century New Zealand from Scotland with her young daughter (Anna Paquin) as something akin to a mail-order bride, betrothed to a rather severe and bottled up man named Alisdair (Sam Neill) who trades Ada’s most prized possession (the piano) to Baines (Harvey Keitel) for a plot of land. Baines has so assimilated with the Māori that he has tattooed his face in the custom of their culture.
What follows is a bit of bargaining between Baines and Ada. Baines will return the piano to Ada one key (or depending on the favor, multiple keys) at a time if he allows him to touch her leg through a hole in her stocking, caress her bare shoulders while she plays, or, eventually, lie with him naked.
At first, the power dynamic seems to be completely in Baines’ favor, but Ada negotiates the favors to accelerate the return of her possession. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Ada takes the upper hand. All of that may not seem so surprising or unconventional, but what turns this tale on its head is that Ada and Baines reach a level of true romance despite the prurient nature of their arrangement.
The idea that Ada could fall for Baines may seem anti-feminist, but one must consider Ada’s circumstances. Her new husband is a rigid man (even his hair is overworked by his persistent combing) who gave away her piano on a whim, has seemingly no capacity for tenderness, and is sexually dysfunctional in the extreme (Ada’s one sensual attempt with Alisdair is met with a repressed terror). Yet Baines doesn’t see Ada as merely a sexual object. Sure, he is transfixed by her handsomeness, but he is also affected by her talent and her mystery (it’s revealed early in the film that Ada stopped speaking at the age of six for reasons unknown, even to her).
If Ada’s only options are between a man with no warmth and another who would end their arrangement and return the piano to her just because he wants her to care for him and doesn’t believe that she does, well, it’s not hard to imagine who she might pick. For all of his initial faults, Baines has genuine affection for Ada, whereas Alisdair wants only the most dutiful of wives.
It’s easy to wax poetic over Holly Hunter’s Oscar winning performance as Ada – lord knows she deserves it. Hunter gives an incredibly expressive performance despite not having one of the most distinctive tools any actor has at their disposal – her voice. Not to mention, that Ada is a bit of a stoic herself. Only when she plays her piano—as Ada states in voiceover, “I don’t think myself silent, because of my piano”—or with her daughter does she give off any sense of lightness or passion. That is, until she reaches out to Baines once the piano is given over to her, and no further favors are required to gain its possession.
I recall at the time of the film’s release that the most common complaint critics had with the film (even those that raved) was with the performance of Keitel as Baines. Watching The Piano nearly thirty years later, those barns seem not only misplaced, but foolhardy. For all the great work by Hunter, Neill, and the Oscar-winning Paquin (who gives a uniquely complex performance for a child), it is the work of Keitel that is key to the film’s success.
There is a sweetness, a kindness, that exists behind Baines’ seemingly (and perhaps actually) indecent bargain. Baines is no villain. In fact, he’s something of a hero in Campion’s masterful film. He is the man that saves a 19th century woman from a dull, passionless existence full of duty but absent of love. I don’t know how 140 million dollars worth of box office hearts did not break when Baines gave the piano back to Ada, declaring that their arrangement had made her “a whore, and me wretched.” That moment works only because of Campion’s exquisite filmmaking and Keitel’s beautifully bruised performance.
Let me be clear on one point: what I have described here is no conventional bodice-ripper or overwrought semi-Victorianesque film. One of the many great pleasures in The Piano is how cleverly amusing it is at times. There’s no better example of this than when Campion cuts between a dog licking Alisdair’s hand while Baines is licking Ada’s… you get the idea.
Eventually, Alisdair discovers Ada’s infidelity (in part through the betrayal of Ada by her own daughter), which leads to an act of violence followed by an enigmatic silence. The film closes with Ada again at sea with her piano—a once prized possession that has been tainted by her experience with Alisdair. Unexpectedly, she asks the small Māori crew to throw the piano overboard, and when they do, Ada is faced with a decision. Her life had been tied up in that piano, and when sent into the sea, so was she tied to it. It is at that moment that the disposal of an object becomes a life and death matter. What does Ada choose? The identity she once had, or the fragile beginnings of a future with a man who traded piano keys for her flesh?
How very transgressive indeed.