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Critical Review by Sara Halprin
SOURCE: "A Key to The Piano," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. XI, Nos. 10-11, July, 1994, pp. 35-6.
In the following review, Halprin discusses The Piano in relation to the published screenplay and comments on the film's literary influences.
I am frightened of my will, of what it might do, it is so strange and strong.
Jane Campion began writing the script for her acclaimed and controversial third feature film, The Piano, in 1984, nine years before it reached the screen. The published script, accompanied by production notes, monochrome stills and credits, is a literary oddity which owes its life and reason for being to the film. It serves as a study guide, clarifying and articulating the territory the film explores.
The Piano is marked by unusual visual perspective, strong acting and music-impelled narrative. Set in the 1850s, it tells the story of Ada McGrath, mute by her own decision from the age of six, and her illegitimate ten-year-old daughter Flora, who accompanies her from Scotland to the New Zealand bush to start a new home with Stewart, the mail-order husband procured by Ada's father. Flora shares a private sign language with her mother and serves as her voice in the world. Stewart, despite Flora's translation, is unable to understand Ada or her passion for her piano, her other voice. Awkward and earnest, he longs for her affection and fails to win it.
His more sensitive colleague, Baines, also longs for her, and is more successful. He trades land to Stewart for the piano, then uses the piano to barter for sensual favors from Ada. He stops, however, when he perceives that the deal is making her into "a whore." "I want you to care for me," he says to her, "but you can't." Stewart is too busy trying to wrest more land from the Maoris to notice what is happening. His inability to understand the Maoris' passion for their land is equalled only by his incomprehension of Ada. Meanwhile, Ada realizes that she does care for Baines and, with characteristic impetuosity, goes to him.
When Stewart discovers that Ada and Baines are lovers, he is beside himself. Kept from Baines, Ada turns her newly awakened sexuality toward Stewart but still refuses him her affection. She sends a love message written on a piano key to Baines through Flora, who delivers it instead to Stewart. Driven beyond the bounds of his limited reason, Stewart takes violent revenge. In front of Flora, in a shocking scene, Stewart chops off one of Ada's fingers. Eventually, however, through a convoluted sequence of scenes, he is persuaded to allow Ada and Flora to go off with Baines. Seated in the Maori canoe that is taking them to another part of New Zealand, Ada orders her piano shoved overboard and apparently allows herself to be dragged in with it, but then frees herself and survives. The film ends with her "mind's voice" (heard once before at the beginning) reading lines from a poem by the nineteenthcentury writer Thomas Hood, which appear on screen:
There is a silence where hath been no sound
There is a silence where no sound may be
In the cold grave, under the deep deep sea.
The Piano has been widely reviewed as a Victorian melodrama, influenced, depending on the interests of the critic, by the Brontës, Emily Dickinson, The French Lieutenant's Woman, the German filmmaker Lotte Reiniger, Victorian portrait photography, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence and Edward Lear. Insofar as the film depicts events that follow one another in time, it is a conventional narrative, but it does not explain why things happen or why characters behave the way they do, which has perplexed and infuriated some viewers. Critical responses to the film following the award of the Cannes Palme d'Or—the first time it has ever gone to a film by a woman—ranged from sublime to ridiculous to hostile, with feminist responses split down the middle.
Campion herself, in the production notes that follow the script, says:
I feel a kinship between the kind of romance that Emily Brontë portrayed in Wuthering Heights and this film. Hers is not the notion of romance that we've come to use, it's very harsh and extreme, a gothic exploration of the romantic impulse. I wanted to respond to those ideas in my own century.
The script articulates crucial moments in the film that for some viewers may have passed too quickly to stick in the memory, but which were meant to help explain a character's motivation. Some critics have questioned Flora's motivation for delivering the piano key to Stewart, which precipitates the action that leads to her mother's mutilation. Reading the script, we quickly realize that Flora is truly her mother's daughter, with a strange, even perverse will of her own. During one of Baines' early piano "lessons," she is described as "operating a merciless power game with [Baines'] dog, forcing it out of the verandah with a stick." In the next scene she "cradl[es] the poor confused dog, asking him what cruel miserable person sent him out into the cold and wet." When the betrayed Stewart barricades Ada and Flora in their hut, the child "joins in the spirit of the exercise, gaily pointing out any slats Stewart has missed." When her mother orders her to deliver the piano key to Baines, she "is shocked, stunned"; at the junction where the paths leading to Baines and to Stewart separate, she "looks back to see if her mother is watching; she's not"—and chooses her stepfather over her mother's lover.
The Piano is not a film for everyone; it is not for those committed to patriarchal concepts (see John Simon, for example, in the National Review, who called the film "the wet dream of an inane woman"), nor for every feminist. The violence against Ada, seen through the eyes of young Flora, is the focus of most feminist concern about the film; what is the function of this violence? The script is helpful here in articulating a sense of the inevitability of an explosion, one made so not only by Stewart's unimaginative insistence on his own pragmatic way, but also by Ada's remorseless use of the virginal Stewart as a sexual object.
The script also confirms that a performance of "Bluebeard" at the local mission center is meant to prefigure Stewart's attack on Ada. The silhouetted figure of Bluebeard brandishing an axe at his wife is echoed in the image of Stewart striding home with his ax; the script tells us that when Ada hands Flora the fateful piano key, "her black shadow behind the sheet recalls the macabre play." As used in this film, "Bluebeard" is the story of a man's attempt to subjugate a woman to his will by obliterating all traces of her own, even in his absence, and of her refusal to be subjugated.
The script makes clear Ada's role in creating the tension that culminates in Stewart's violence. Far from being a helpless, silent victim, Ada is depicted as a willful woman, at once courageous and foolhardy in pursuing her passion, whether for her piano or for Baines. The script explicitly compares these two: in one scene, Ada looks "down at Baines and his but, in the exact same manner that she once looked at her piano…." The production notes that follow the script explain Campion's view of Ada and Stewart's relationship:
Ada actually uses her husband Stewart as a sexual object—this is the outrageous morality of the film—which seems very innocent but in fact has its power to be very surprising. I think many women have had the experience of feeling like a sexual object, and that's exactly what happens to Stewart…. It becomes a relationship of power, the power of those that care and those that don't care.
The Piano explores sexuality, intimacy and power in the complex relationships not only between women and men, mother and daughter, but also between colonizer and colonized. The Maori subplot is intended to function not as a colorful, exotic background to the white European romance but as a parallel example of power, its misuse and the resulting violence. In fact, the greater violence in The Piano is that done to the land itself: the film shows Stewart's hut "bleakly set among smoking stumps."
The script and accompanying notes make it clear that Campion wished to represent Maori frustration that they and the land they hold sacred are treated as objects by the colonist Stewart. However, this is an area that could have been strengthened in the film. Many of the scenes in the script that were deleted from the film have to do with the Maoris; they prefigure the war that was very soon to break out between the Maoris and the colonists.
Their deletion suggests that Campion may have had difficulty in realizing her intentions; ultimately, it will be Maori filmmakers who succeed with Maori perspectives on New Zeaiand. The lines by Thomas Hood can be seen to refer in part to the silence of those who survive systematic violence at great cost to their freedom of expression. I would have liked to learn the actual relationship of script to film—was this the actual working script? and were the deleted scenes shot and then dropped in editing, or were changes made before shooting took place?
Apart from Wuthering Heights, it is hard to say what the actual influences for The Piano were. Certainly it is possible to view the film and read the text and imagine all the influences critics have mentioned, and more: the work is grounded in a sophisticated sense of European and New Zealand culture and history. But a comparison comes immediately to my mind: the work of Marguerite Duras, who has done so much on women's silence, as a defense, as a weapon, as a language; and on issues of voice and perspective—in writing and in film. Duras was a pioneer in the field of multimedia; she understood that a story may have many lives, as a text, as a play, as a film. Her work—nonlinear and often shocking audiences used to more conventional narrative—explores global as well as intimate perspectives on power relations. And her use of her childhood in French colonial Indochina/ Vietnam is comparable to Campion's use of her own background, her "strange heritage … as a pakeha New Zealander." Campion's comments in the production notes show she realized how the look of the film—its portrayal of the bush, the authenticity of the Victorian costumes, the greasiness of Holly Hunter's hair—would both document and construct a composite portrait of an era and its human relationships.
To construct that portrait, Campion pulled together an extraordinary collection of talents, briefly described in the notes. One of these was the composer Michael Nyman, whose comments appear in the notes along with those of Campion, her producer Jan Chapman and the actors. Nyman describes how he used Scottish folk songs as a base, and created a score especially adapted to lead actor Holly Hunter's ability as a pianist. "It's as though I've been writing the music of another composer," he says, "who happened to live in Scotland, then New Zealand in the mid 1850s."
I am disappointed that the book is not fuller because I have gained so much from what is there. I also would have liked the book to take more care in introducing its own materials: it is difficult to get a sense of who wrote the various parts. It seems there was no actual author; someone simply assembled Campion's script, Miro Bilborough's production notes, some sepia-tinted stills and a list of credits. The book lacks the film's cohesiveness, and compares unfavorably to other documentations of films, such as the book about Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and the text and separately published production history of Marguerite Duras' India Song. (A novelization of the film by Jane Campion and Kate Pullinger has since been published, also by Hyperion.) The film itself is an instrument of great subtlety and power in depicting the scope and boundaries of a woman's will; the book provides a useful, if slight, accompaniment to the film's greater performance.
This section contains 2,015 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)