The Piano | Critical Essay by Stella Bruzzi

This literature criticism consists of approximately 13 pages of analysis & critique of The Piano.
This section contains 3,743 words
(approx. 13 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Stella Bruzzi

Critical Essay by Stella Bruzzi

SOURCE: "Bodyscape," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 3, No. 10, October, 1993, pp. 6-10.

In the following essay, Bruzzi compares The Piano to other dramatic works dealing with sexuality in the Victorian Age and argues that The Piano is a "cryptic and evocative exploration of how women's sexuality, clothes and lives interconnect."

At the beginning of The Piano, Ada (Holly Hunter), a mute Scottish woman, arrives in New Zealand with her nine-year-old daughter Flora. They disembark on a remote beach, where they are left by the sailors who accompanied them to await Ada's new husband Stewart (Sam Neill), a rich local landowner. Their strung-out possessions are silhouetted in a flimsy line against the evening sun. Another silhouetted, skeletal structure comes into shot: a tent, made from Ada's hoops and underskirts, beneath which they shelter for the night.

The Piano ends with a parallel scene as Ada, having left Stewart, returns to the beach and boards a boat with Flora, her lover Baines (Harvey Keitel) and the possessions she arrived with. To preserve the equilibrium of the boat she orders her prized piano to be discarded. As it is tipped overboard her foot is caught in the unravelling rope and she is dragged under. Her upturned hoops and skirts billow out against the luminous water. At this point, as at others through the film, Ada appears to be trapped and defeated by her clothes. At the last moment, however, she disentangles herself and swims to the surface, leaving her shoe behind; she has, as her voiceover says, "chosen life". Her clothes, as elsewhere, work for her.

The Piano is not a simple women's film about a woman's past, but rather a cryptic and evocative exploration of how women's sexuality, clothes and lives interconnect. It is set in New Zealand in the mid-1800s, and though the exact dates of events are never specified, the age which the costumes, morality and gender relations evoke is central to the way the film tackles its theme. Why has Jane Campion chosen to frame the story of Ada's sexual and emotional awakening in terms of the last century? The Victorian age is seen today as synonymous with the oppression of female sexuality; everything from the voluminous clothes to the many laws which deprived wives of financial autonomy legitimised a patriarchy which kept women in check. In order to express themselves, women were constrained to invent male pseudonyms, to 'ghost' music and art for husbands and brothers, to create elaborate metaphors for their experiences. Their voices were often heard only indirectly: they fabricated unruly, angry alter egos, such as Charlotte Brontë's "mad woman in the attic" or the monstrous creation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or codified their anger against male brutality as did Artemesia Gentileschi in her violent depiction of Judith Beheading Holofernes.

In such a male-dominated history, the experiences of women have been almost entirely obscured, and women since have invaded the past to liberate the female imagination and sexuality, as well as to help them to make sense of the present. Since the 70s women have been unearthing forgotten literary works, creating an alternative cultural canon, reinterpreting male texts, and forefronting experiences deemed peripheral. The desire to articulate this forgotten past is perhaps the common impulse behind such diverse works as Jean Rhys' prequel to Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, A. S. Byatt's Possession, Sally Potter's film version of Orlando—and Jane Campion's The Piano which empowers Ada with a 1990s strength and self-knowledge that enables her to transcend the limitations of such disempowered nineteenth-century heroines as Emily Brontë's Catherine.

The two most pervasive models of reclamation of the past used by women film-makers could be termed the 'liberal' and the 'sexual'. The liberal method concentrates on finding a political and ideological affinity between the struggles of women in the present and figures from the past. Campion's film about New Zealand writer Janet Frame, An Angel At My Table, Margarethe von Trotta's film biography Rosa Luxemburg, and the repeated feminist revivals of Ibsen's plays stem from a liberal impulse to utilise the juxtaposition between past and present to illuminate both. The 'sexual' model, by contrast, foregrounds the personal, more hidden aspects of past women's lives—their dormant passions, sexual frustrations and the process of denial which governed their relationships with (primarily) men. Although both types of looking back involve costume, in liberal films these are merely signifiers to carry information about country, class and period. Films interested in the emotive aspects of the past imbue the clothes themselves with sensuality, so they become essential components of the sexual dialogue.

The pioneering Australasian women's film of the 70s was Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career (1979), a feminist reworking of the traditionally male genre of the big liberal history movie—Stanley Kramer's Inherit the Wind, Fred Zinnemann's A Man for All Seasons and so on. My Brilliant Career, a quintessential feminist fairy tale, is based on Miles Franklin's semi-biographical novel about Sybylla Melvyn, a teenage girl from the Bush who chooses a career over a husband. The headstrong Sybylla embodies the struggle for independence and emancipation which was taking place in Australia during the 1890s, but she is equally a construct of the late 1970s—a case of the second women's movement making sense of the first. My Brilliant Career was an important feel-good movie for women of my generation, who in 1979 were much the same age as Sybylla was in the late 1890s. Women were still uncertain about what they wanted, but were sure that it was not what was on offer. As Sybylla puts it: being "a wife out in the bush, having a baby every year."

More crucial to liberal movies than the superficial authenticity of meticulously costumed films such as Christine Edzard's Little Dorritt or The Fool is a broad awareness of contemporary events, which form a discrete backdrop to the narrative. My Brilliant Career spans five years; Sybylla's voiceover states that the film begins in "Possum Gully, Australia 1897", and at the end we are told that My Brilliant Career was published in "Edinburgh, 1901". Australia (far in advance of Britain, which did not grant women the vote until after the First World War) was then in the midst of a successful movement for universal suffrage; two states, South and Western Australia, had already changed the electoral system, while Sybylla's native New South Wales was on the verge of doing so. Sybylla epitomises the exhilaration of this era—her twitching anticipation as she stares into the dawn horizon after posting her manuscript is almost tangible.

The liberal film discerns patterns or draws out meanings which at the time may have been obscured. Sybylla is both historical and contemporary, her struggle (with herself, her family and men) both parochial and perennial. My Brilliant Career thus operates as a metaphor for a universal female dilemma. Sybylla remains such a positive role model for women (and paradoxically attractive to all the men in the film) because she pursues her own goals rather than those society would impose. Though she is repeatedly warned that "loneliness is a terrible price to pay for independence", she ultimately refuses all proposals of marriage and puts her own aspirations first. The straightforwardness of Sybylla's choice might in a modern context—such as the much untidier world of Armstrong's latest film The Last Days of Chez Nous—appear woefully naive. Placed within a historical context, however, the dilemma and decision gain strength from their very simplicity. The liberal analogy film functions best when the metaphor is less complex than the issues it raises about present-day society. Thus Sybylla's "wildness of spirit" and pursuit of a "career"—which at the start could be almost anything that got her out of the Bush—were points of identification for 1970s women with more specific concerns.

The Piano offers a more elliptical way of examining the past—one based on complex, hard-to-define emotions and attractions rather than concrete events. This is not to say that The Piano is apolitical, but that unlike My Brilliant Career, which carries its political commentary through its plot, The Piano does so through clothes and sexuality. Films which use sexuality to explore women's unspoken pasts are more personal, more challenging, more dangerous than their liberal counterparts. It is difficult to envisage women objecting to an uncomplicated liberal film like My Brilliant Career, but a sexual film such as Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter (1974), which examines Nazism through the sado-masochistic relationship between Max, an ex-camp officer, and Lucia, a survivor, frequently repels its audiences. Cavani confronts us with an ambiguous and unpalatable sexual history in which a woman chooses to reenter a violent relationship that eventually leads to her death. Perhaps the film says the unsayable: that Lucia is not Max's victim, but his equal; that brutal sexuality is not simply a male construct.

Campion's innovation in The Piano is to discover a language which articulates a radical opposition to the restrictions imposed on nineteenth-century women through the very means by which those restrictions are usually manifested—clothes. Throughout the film clothes function as agents to liberate rather than to constrain. Visually this is suggested by recurrent images that demonstrate how clothes are constructed, drawing a distinction between the harsh frames—Ada's hoops and the wired angel wings of Flora's Bluebeard costume—and the softness and fluidity of the fabrics stretched over them. Both Ada and Flora are seen adjusting to their clothes, exploring and adapting them and finally learning to feel comfortable in them. To return briefly to the mad woman in the attic and Frankenstein's monster: both Charlotte Brontë and Mary Shelley were impelled to create metaphors which externalised the internal 'demons' of their anger; Campion in The Piano finds a way for Ada to express herself through (rather than despite of) her Victorian persona.

Campion's reclamation of women's sexual pasts is exhilarating, but Ada's eventual liberation is presented as an arduous struggle against the systematic denial of the existence of female desire. As wife to Stewart and lover to Baines, she represents conflicting aspects of Victorian womanhood. On the one hand she is the trapped, unwilling wife—a New Zealand Madame Bovary with apparently as much chance of escape or fulfilment from her stifling bourgeois marriage. She is also, in her refusal to speak, representative of what the medical profession branded a 'hysterical' woman; catatonia, anorexia, chronic fatigue and other forms of self-imposed sensory deprivation were commonplace among dissatisfied and desperate Victorian wives, the majority of whom were regarded as dysfunctional rather than as unhappy. Through the elaborate clothes-language she formulates with Baines, however, Ada engineers her escape from Stewart, drudgery and sexual repression—a modern and radical reassessment of the options available to women in the 1850s.

Clothes traditionally signify restraint and conformity; they have covered our nakedness and hidden our shame. Joe Orton's black farce What the Butler Saw, for example, concludes with Rance's weary nod in the direction of respectability: "Let us put on our clothes and face the world." The Victorians were obsessed with hiding anything that could be deemed suggestive of sex or nakedness, daubing fig leaves on Adams and Eves and covering the bare legs of tables. The sexuality of Victorian women was repressed or presumed not to exist at all: Queen Victoria herself was so convinced that female sexuality was a dutiful response to men's demands that she denied the possibility of lesbianism.

Victorian women's clothes, as much as the way they were treated, made them inactive and vulnerable. At the start of Caryl Churchill's 1979 play Cloud Nine, set in a "British colony in Africa in Victorian times", the colonial's wife, Betty, complains to her husband because her servant has refused to get the book she requested, having snapped: "Fetch it yourself. You've got legs under that dress." Cloud Nine is an elaborate dissection of the sexual underworld of Victorian society. Largely through the use of cross-dressing, Churchill challenges and ridicules the accepted notions of Victorian morality and behaviour by inverting the assumption that what people look like and wear are straightforward indicators of who they are or what they are feeling. So Betty, the embodiment of what "a wife should be", is played by a bearded man, her son by a woman. Throughout Act I characters are rarely permitted to have sex with either the individual or the gender they desire, and the action culminates in the face-saving marriage between the lesbian governess and the intrepid gay explorer. Queen Victoria's model household is a fantasy, a flimsy front for confused morals and anarchic sexuality. Churchill's solution is to liberate the characters by transporting them into the permissive 1970s, because only now, Cloud Nine intimates, can clothes be truly compatible with gender and sexuality. In this instance, as in the final sequences of Potter's Orlando, the analogy between present and past is made explicit through direct juxtaposition.

The Piano enters into a much more complex dialogue with women's sexual histories, since the present-day consciousness remains embedded exclusively within the nineteenth-century narrative. The sexual experiences of the three protagonists—Ada, Baines and Stewart—are markedly different; Stewart, the stiff, bourgeois gentleman, represents respectability and ignorance, while Ada and Baines epitomise radicalism and liberation. Stewart, like head of household Clive in Cloud Nine, is frustrated by how far he is from unlocking the 'mystery' of sexuality and remains unable to break free of his social and gender stereotype. He is left stranded, yearning but unable to deal with the reality of closeness. We do not feel for Clive as his servant cocks his rifle and aims at him, but Stewart's isolation is painful. By the end, he realises that with Baines Ada has discovered an intimacy he, frozen in his social role, will always be excluded from. At this point, the only option he can see is violence: he hurls Ada against the wall and hacks off her finger when she refuses to deny her love for Baines.

Stewart's first appearance in the film—at the head of the welcoming party to greet his new wife—is in his muddied formal dark suit and top hat. He is embarrassed and puzzled to discover Ada and Flora sheltering under the hoops and underskirt, and awkwardly commences his rehearsed greeting. Images of a furtive, frustrated gentleman at a peep show spring to mind as Campion distances him from the female sexuality he can never understand or get close to through a series of classic male voyeur images: squinting through a camera eyepiece at Ada posing unhappily in her wedding dress, or sneaking a glance at her making love to Baines through the cracks in the walls or between the floorboards.

Stewart is clearly identified as a rigid masculine figure marooned in what becomes a feminine world. For much of the time he inhabits a different film from Ada. Stewart's sensibility and world view is closer to that of another Autralasian Victorian costume drama, Peter Weir's Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975), in which three schoolgirls mysteriously disappear while on a Valentine's Day picnic. Here female sexuality is also consistently symbolised through clothes, but the film is built on the mystery rather than the attainment of female sexuality. Unable to articulate their desire, the men in the film become deviant voyeurs, transferring their sexual desire from the girls to their virginal dresses. Thus the dirty scrap of lace which the youthful Michael discovers during the search is invested with sexually charged significance, as is the fact that one girl is subsequently found "intact" minus her corset. Picnic At Hanging Rock is the crystallisation of the Victorian man's perception of intimacy as unobtainable, bewildering, and fascinating.

In The Piano Stewart's predicament is more ambiguous. Denied intimacy, he ultimately unleashes his pent-up sexuality by attempting to rape Ada in the woods. Ada struggles, falls over her skirts and is pulled to the ground. She seems defeated, but is eventually saved by her cumbersome, all-enveloping clothes. Stewart's aggression is deflected by the symbol of Victorian femininity—the hooped skirt—and she escapes. In one of the few scenes when he is alone with his wife, Ada awakens Stewart's desire by skimming his chest with the back of her hand, but when he asks to touch her she recoils. The following night, as Ada strokes his back and buttocks, it is Stewart who wants to stop. What sets Stewart apart from the men in Picnic At Hanging Rock is that he reaches the painful point of realising that there is more to sexual contact than sneaking glimpses, frustrated brutality and being touched.

Much of The Piano depicts a life which conforms to Stewart's masculine perception. New Zealand may have been the first country to grant women the vote, but little of this liberalism is manifested in the first part of the film. Often Ada is as quintessentially the Victorian woman as Stewart is the Victorian man; on the beach in the first scene, for example, she looks like a doll beneath the exaggerated hugeness of her travelling outfit and lampshade bonnet. Women's clothes are presented as constricting, ugly, absurd; the multiple skirts which trip Ada and Flora as they trudge through the mud, and which make it ludicrously difficult for Aunt Morag to relieve herself when "caught short" in the woods. Clothes seem liberating only when they come off, as when Flora dances and cartwheels across the beach in her petticoat. That is, until Ada starts to fall in love with Baines.

In this relationship, the modernity of Campion's response to the past dominates, the potential for sexual expression is realised, and clothes are no longer socially determined. Physically Baines is Stewart's opposite: he never appears dressed as a colonial master and his face is pricked with Maoriesque markings. It is this unconventionality which frees Ada.

The relationship begins when Baines saves Ada's prized piano by intimating a desire to learn how to play. The instrument is brought to his hut, and Stewart tells Ada she is to instruct him. Baines' fascination is not with learning, but with watching Ada play, so a bizarre bargain is struck whereby Ada is allowed to play and win back her piano, while he is permitted to watch, to touch and gradually to unclothe her. As spectators it is clear that we are entering—or rather intruding on—an intensely private world. This intrusion begins one evening after the piano has arrived at Baines' hut: Baines gets up from his bed, removes his shirt and, naked, uses it indulgently to dust the piano, circling it, judging it, getting to know it. Baines considers himself alone, we really shouldn't be there, but we are intrigued by the ritual.

In this formal Victorian world, Harvey Keitel's proud nakedness is both shocking and liberating. Convention is inverted as the man is constructed as a sexual being before the woman. We the audience find ourselves privy to a private dialogue which imbues clothes with a potency beyond the bounds of fetishism and makes what follows an elaborate seduction rather than a cheap strip. This is partly due to the scenes' curious rhythm, a slow but relentless evolution as Ada reworks and refines repeated musical refrains while Baines tells her when to stop, what garment to remove or when he wants to kiss her or lie with her in response to a complex set of rules agreed beforehand. The rich obscurity of the clothes-language is counterbalanced by an incongruous matter-of-factness that puts the relationship on a different plane from anything else.

The language has to do with the sensuality of clothes: how they feel, smell and look, not just what they might signify, as in Picnic At Hanging Rock. Thus Baines' rapture can be contained within the minute act of smelling and burying his face in one of Ada's garments while she remains wrapped in her music. Campion's fascination with clothes is reminiscent of that described by the seventeenth-century poet and priest Robert Herrick, whose illicit passion for Julia is displaced on to her clothes—her lace is "erring", and beneath her "tempestuous petticoat" lurks "a careless shoestring in whose tie/I see a wild civility." Herrick creates a clothes-eroticism so enticing that Julia becomes insignificant by comparison.

In The Piano, the point is not that the clothes are substitutes for Ada, but that they are part of her and her body's sensuality. Perhaps the film's most erotically charged moment is when Baines, crouched under the piano, discovers a tiny hole in Ada's stocking and slowly caresses it, skin touching skin. Later, when Ada is sitting at the piano in just her bodice and skirt, Baines stands behind her naked to the waist and glides his hands across her bare shoulders. Again the camera acts in collusion with the characters, skirting around them as Baines circles Ada, picking up the charge between them. Ada and Baines are gradually becoming equals, as the traditional striptease relationship of one person clothed watching another undress is supplanted. When they finally have sex, they undress together.

Why is this secret language not ludicrous like the adolescent heavings of Picnic At Hanging Rock or the misguided gay advances of Cloud Nine? The strength of the affair in the The Piano lies in Ada's responsiveness; she is no longer the passive Victorian woman, acted upon rather than acting. At first she remains wary and resentful of Baines' bargain, yet she gradually discovers that the relationship can offer her the freedom she, with her mute defiance, had been holding out for. Yet this is not an easy realisation: when Ada returns to Baines' hut having already acknowledged that she loves him, she slaps his cheek and pummels his chest before they kiss, as if she needs to repel him as she repelled Stewart. Then they have sex.

The relationship with Baines is the catalyst to Ada's sensual awakening. When she arrived in New Zealand her piano was her only liberation; she had not spoken since she was six and she had been married off to a stranger. Through The Piano Ada discovers the means to articulate what she wants—firstly through constructing an intimacy around clothes, through choosing Baines over Stewart, choosing not to be drowned by her sinking piano, and finally choosing to learn to speak when she and Baines have started a new life together in Nelson. The closing image is of a woman attached to the piano by a taut rope like a graceful helium balloon; beautiful in death but silent. But however momentarily enticing this ocean death may be, Ada chooses to reject it and to live. The Piano is primarily but not exclusively Ada's liberation; it is also the reclamation of women's desires, the sexual personae which the past silenced.

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