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Critical Review by Stuart Klawans
SOURCE: Review of The Piano, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 257, No. 19, December 6, 1993, pp. 704-06.
In the following mixed review, Klawans finds The Piano contrived and allegorized, but acknowledges that most viewers will admire the film's eroticism and formal inventiveness.
A skeptic's notes on the most believed-in movie of the year:
No one will deny that Jane Campion's The Piano is a genuinely erotic picture. That alone would have made it stand out in any era; it glows all the brighter today, when screen couplings resemble either the Clash of the Titans (Basic Instinct) or a perfume ad (Henry and June). What a stimulus, what a relief, to see Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel get naked in The Piano, in a scene with both heat and moisture; what delicious suspense later on, when Hunter explores the skittish body of Sam Neill. Poems will soon be written about the curves of the performers' buttocks as they're outlined in candlelight; about the atmosphere that surrounds the dropping away of each item of clothing; about the immediate tactile shock when flesh first touches flesh in the film, in closeup, as a fingertip covers a tiny hole in Hunter's stocking. Such moments are surely beyond even a skeptic's power to resist.
Nor could the most hardened skeptic doubt the beauty of The Piano. Campion has set the film in the wilds of New Zealand, where silver waves pound the beach beneath a misty, purplish horizon and lush greenery spouts from primordial muck. Yet Campion is such a formidable image-maker that the landscape, for her, is more of a surplus than a necessity. In an early scene, for example, Hunter and her movie daughter (Anna Paquin) must camp out for one night on the beach. Campion has them take shelter beneath a hoop skirt, which, lit from within, shines on the screen like an improbable Chinese lantern. That's how good Jane Campion is—she transforms everything she sees. A teacup in Sam Neill's hand, abruptly shown from straight above, turns into a placid little pool, where the character's desires have been contained. A set of fingers, held close to the lens, turns into an abstract pattern of red lights and fuzzy shadows—the curtain of mystery that must part for the film to reveal itself.
That shot through the fingers functions as more than just a moment's decoration. Though Campion has an eye for sensual pleasures, she also (as an honest skeptic will admit) has a mind for themes and motifs; and so she thickens her film with multiple peekaboo shots and a continual wagging of fingers. Characters in The Piano are forever spying on one another; digits are always talking. You will also notice that a good many of the characters are easily influenced—they tend to ape one another's words and gestures and show a weakness for theatrical illusion. The heroine's daughter, having been cast in a church pageant, wears her angel's wings ever after and tries to live up to them. A group of Maoris, alarmed at a pantomime in the same pageant, storms the stage; though later, when a similar crisis erupts in real life, the same Maoris don't budge. People who are malleable and credulous, the film seems to argue, are likely to be undependable to boot.
Since that is one of the morals to be drawn from The Piano, I will assume I have Jane Campion's permission for skepticism. Her film is astonishing, even ravishing, in many ways. But why are so many people swallowing it whole, and why (in my case) did it not go down?
Here is the story:
A nineteenth-century Scotswoman, Ada, is sent off with her daughter to New Zealand, there to marry a settler named Stewart, whom she has never met. For reasons that Ada herself does not understand, she gave up speaking at age 6. Now she communicates only through writing, sign language, occasional feats of mental telepathy and (above all) piano playing. Her music, composed for the film by Michael Nyman, is supposed to be original, impassioned and wild. Actually, it's just a lot of modal noodling, in a style that goes over well today on sound-tracks and in the tonier Los Angeles restaurants but that in the nineteenth century would have been considered not so much eccentric as brain-damaged. Ada, however, is not brain-damaged. She is just inexplicably mute and intensely piano-dependent and indomitably strong-willed, though not so much as to prevent her husband (the one she's never met before) from abandoning her indispensable piano on the beach. It's too heavy, he says, to carry to their far-off home. But geography turns out to be variable in this movie. When a tattooed, gone-native neighbor named Baines later takes an interest in Ada, he not only has the piano delivered straight to his house but even contracts for a tuner to visit him in the inaccessible, photogenic wilds.
Sexy stuff then happens between Baines and the strong-willed Ada, who doesn't like him at first but then does—just as her daughter abruptly stops despising Stewart and comes to adore him. (As Darryl Zanuck used to decree in his celebrated script conferences, "Her love turns to hate!") Eventually, Stewart gets wise and locks up his wife, who responds by playing finger exercises on his spine. Now remember, Stewart is a thoroughly rigid, shuttered man—the kind who would abandon a large piece of symbolic furniture on the beach. He's so thick, he tries to buy a Maori burial ground with a jar of buttons as his payment. Yet he has the exquisite sensitivity to wait for a mail-order wife to come to his bed. When she does, he also has the spiritual refinement to hear her unvoiced words. Naturally, an experience of such depth and tenderness leads him to violence (his love turns to hate), in the course of which, though a clumsy man, he performs a feat requiring near-miraculous fine-motor control. After that, three more reversals occur without benefit of motivation, whereupon the film reaches as satisfying a happy ending as Zanuck himself might have engineered, or even Louis B. Mayer.
In brief, this skeptic thinks The Piano is a work of imagination but also of the will—not Ada's will, unfortunately, but Jane Campion's. Compared with Sweetie, her extraordinary first film, The Piano seems to me contrived, allegorized, rhetorical and altogether too eager to tell people what they want to hear. It's not so much an outburst of wild talent as it is the performance of wildness before an audience; not so much a waking dream as a melodrama.
Or, as true believers would have it, a fairy tale. Many of the viewers who give themselves up to The Piano will surely excuse its inconsistencies by appealing to Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm; and yet the comparison doesn't work. The Piano is too bound up with specifics of time and place to be a fairy tale, though not enough so to be a historical drama. It's something in between—a reverie about the Victorian, colonial past—which means it's just close enough to realism to frustrate anybody who pauses to think about the plot. The same holds true for the characters. The makers of fairy tales are pretty shrewd about human behavior; Freud himself never wrote a case study more acute than "The Princess and the Pea." But in The Piano, Campion's whim is the only law. You can't learn anything about the characters beyond what she chooses to tell you at the moment, because they are mere artifices—like Michael Nyman's music, which is neither convincing as a nineteenth-century imposture nor substantial enough to withstand scrutiny as part of our own era.
To the great majority of viewers, none of this means a damn. They're swept away by the eroticism, the beauty, the formal inventiveness and (no doubt) the easy allegory of The Piano. I yield to their judgment, bearing in mind the motto of the great art historian Ernst Gombrich: "There are no wrong reasons for liking a work of art." In fact, of all types of art, films are the most likely to overwhelm the carpings of reason—which means you could argue that The Piano has the added virtue of expressing an inherent quality of its medium. And yet …
The difference between admiring The Piano with reservations and believing in it wholeheartedly comes down to one's willingness to identify with the heroine. That's a tricky business. In current film criticism, especially the hard-core stuff, identification has become a key concept, as if it were general to narrative filmmaking. But with whom would you identify in Citizen Kane? Pickpoket? Andrei Rublev? The Bank Dick? Though it's undeniable that many narrative films encourage you to identify with a given character, others don't. So, to address the crudest form of identification theory, the "chick's movie" slur: Yes, I am willing to adopt the point of view of female protagonists. Because of certain oddities in my upbringing, I'm even more willing to identify with piano players. (Somebody once asked for a list of my ten favorite films. I came up with Quai des Orfèvres, Shoot the Piano Player, Five Easy Pieces, Stroszek, Letter From an Unknown Woman, Hangover Square, A Song to Remember, George Kuchar's Pagan Rhapsody, The World of Henry Orient and El Dorado, for the scene where Robert Mitchum shotguns a piano.) So my failure to plunge into the being of the piano player in this new movie very likely reflects some shortcoming in the production—perhaps Jane Campion's insistence that I should, I must, I will identify with Holly Hunter.
A sharper critic than I, Stephen Dedalus, has remarked that two types of identification are at work in the classic theory of drama. Aristotle's "pity," says Dedalus, moves the viewer to identify with the suffering character; but "terror" simultaneously incites us to identify "with the secret cause." To this, I would add only that the intuition of a secret cause of our sufferings, our attempt to know that cause by joining with it imaginatively, is the act that brings reason into play. My objection to The Piano? The film gives reason nothing to do. It intuits no secret cause. It offers only the occasion to feel pity, and for a character you're right to pity.
I bet you'll love it.
This section contains 1,707 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)