The Piano | Critical Review by John Simon

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of The Piano.
This section contains 986 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by John Simon

SOURCE: "Praise Jack, Shoot 'The Piano,'" in National Review, Vol. 45, No. 25, December 27, 1993, pp. 65-7.

Simon is a Yugoslavian-born American film and theater critic. In the following excerpt, he argues that The Piano contains numerous logical inconsistencies that detract from its quality.

At a New York Film Festival press conference, Jane Campion said she had originally intended to have the Cannes grand-prize-winning The Piano end with the drowning of the heroine. Instead, she has her going off to live happily ever after with her lover. I wonder about a writer-director who ends up making the opposite of what she set out to do.

The film starts with Ada, a Scottish mail-order bride, arriving on a desolate New Zealand coast with her small daughter, Flora. It's sometime in the nineteenth century, and there is no dock; the sailors unceremoniously dump people and their belongings on a deserted beach. Next day, Stewart, the husband, arrives with some Maori carriers. As the return trek leads through muddy jungles, Stewart decrees that Ada's most precious possession, her piano, be temporarily left behind, exposed to the mercy of the waves and weather. Ada, by the way, is mute, and communicates with her daughter in a home-made sign language; with others, via a notebook she wears around her neck, on whose pages she furiously scribbles the notes she hands out. Early sequences of the film have voiceover narration in Ada's voice at age six, when she voluntarily stopped speaking. Don't inner voices mature?

We never find out anything about Ada's background, her first husband, and how Stewart acquired her in marriage. Or why she gave up speaking. Later, Flora will offer a wildly fanciful explanation that we, clearly, are not meant to believe. When mother and daughter spend that first cold night on the beach, they sleep under Ada's hoopskirt; who would have thought a crinoline could provide shelter for two? Why would a welcoming husband abandon his bride's beloved piano, her chief mode of self-expression, when there are enough porters to carry it; and why not at least move it out of the reach of the waves? Later, it is Stewart's less affluent partner, Baines—an Englishman gone native, who sports Maori tattoos on his face—who buys the piano from Stewart, and seems to have no problem hauling it to his homestead. That the piano should play perfectly after what it's been through is one of the film's most resounding lies.

Ada refuses to sleep with her husband, which he meekly accepts; he'll wait. Baines tells Ada he'll let her have the piano back in exchange for lessons. She goes to his house to give them, each session earning her a black key or, if she is particularly complaisant, more than one; the white keys, evidently, have no market value. Baines watches her from odd angles, including from below, often playing with her various extremities—with anything but the keyboard. Eventually, he presents himself to her naked and panting with desire; session by session, he has already removed quite a bit of her clothing. She succumbs, and they make wild, un-Victorian love. After that, things become rather more implausible.

Jane Campion prides herself on leaving much unexplained. She has every right to be proud: at leaving things unexplained, Miss Campion is a champion. We do not even get a sense of topography, of the distances between places, of what kind of settlement this is, of the reasons for the comings and goings of certain other white persons. As for the Maoris, they are lazy, giggling children, given to making rude jokes about the whites, which are sometimes, not always, translated by subtitles. Flora's actions consistently make no sense, but she at least has the excuse of being a child. What the adults do would make sense only as the wet dream of an inane woman, which The Piano, apparently, is not meant to be.

A final example. When Ada, who now plays teasing sexual games with her embarrassed husband (who had watched her through a window make love to Baines, and said nothing, only to keep her later under household arrest), decides to send a love message to Baines, she writes it on a key she rips from her piano—as if there were no paper, and as if Baines, who is illiterate, could read it. She entrusts the missive to Flora, who, perversely, walks miles to deliver it to Stewart instead, even though she bears him no particular allegiance. The consequences are dire, of course, but in an utterly loony way. Miss Campion claims kinship with Emily Brontë; but Wuthering Heights, another over-heated spinsterish fantasy, makes a lot more sense, and has a little thing called genius going for it.

Even the music is absurd. Except for one piece of mauled Chopin, the score is by Michael Nyman, one of the most self-important, overrated, and, to my ears, worthless composers around; for this period piece, he has written his usual New Age claptrap. Yet, in other ways, Miss Campion is a stickler for accuracy, especially when such accuracy looks or sounds ridiculous to us, e.g., people wearing London street clothes and shoes to slosh through jungle mud.

Holly Hunter looks dismal and ghostly most of the time, her two white ears protruding through an oily, slicked-down carapace of black hair like a pair of stale shrimps. She plays piano and bizarre equally well. Harvey Keitel manages to act supremely randy in a childlike way, and wears his blue Morse-code-like tattoo with a straight face, which is an accomplishment. Sam Neill struggles with a role as unappetizing as it is thankless, and Anna Pacquin is an adorably precocious brat ripe for strangling. What possessed the Cannes judges to divide the Golden Palm between this and Farewell My Concubine, which is at least indisputably a film? The only similarity between the two lies in each having a main character one of whose fingers gets lustily chopped off.

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This section contains 986 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by John Simon
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