The Piano | Critical Essay by Mary Cantwell

This literature criticism consists of approximately 16 pages of analysis & critique of The Piano.
This section contains 4,525 words
(approx. 16 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Mary Cantwell

Critical Essay by Mary Cantwell

SOURCE: "Jane Campion's Lunatic Women," in New York Times Magazine, September 19, 1993, pp. 40-1, 44, 51.

Cantwell is an American editor, nonfiction writer, and critic. In the following essay, based on an interview with Campion, Cantwell surveys Campion's life and works, focusing on the female characters in Campion's films.

This October, a romantic epic titled The Piano, written and directed by a New Zealander named Jane Campion, will be the grand finale of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. In November it will open all over the country. The Piano, which is set in 19th-century New Zealand, has already made Campion the first woman to win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and the reviews so far—but for a cavil about its being too consciously an "art" film—have been ecstatic. Vincent Canby of The New York Times, for instance, described The Piano as "a triumph … so good, so tough, so moving and, especially, so original." Yet when I asked a friend, like me a great admirer of Campion's work, what she wanted to learn from my interview with the film maker, she replied, "First, I want to know if she's sane."

I had expected curiosity about why Australia, where Campion went to film school and lives, has produced what seems to be an inordinate number of world-class directors: Bruce Beresford and Peter Weir and George Miller among them. Or why, given the hen's tooth scarcity of prominent female directors anywhere in the world, three—Campion, Gillian Armstrong and Jocelyn Moorhouse—emerged from a country associated with a certain cheerful misogyny. But why be curious about Campion's sanity?

"Because," my friend answered, "she's obsessed with lunatic women."

In truth, only the eponymous protagonist of Campion's first feature film, the extraordinary Sweetie, is genuinely mad. The New Zealand novelist Janet Frame, whose autobiography, An Angel at My Table, became Campion's second film, was only thought to be mad. Diagnosed in her early 20's as a schizophrenic and institutionalized, she was within inches of a lobotomy when her doctors decided that a woman who had managed to write and publish distinguished fiction while in the bin was probably not in need of a brain correction. Ada in The Piano isn't mad either, but her mulishness approaches sublimity. That Ada doesn't speak, for instance, isn't because she can't but because she will not.

Lunatic women? Except for the simultaneously hilarious and tragic Sweetie, no. But powerful women, which in some minds may add up to the same thing? Yes. Sweetie has a tornado's destructiveness, Janet Frame stayed sane in the midst of madness and Ada's will is iron. What roles!

If artists looked like their creations, the progenitor of The Piano would resemble a Brontë sister or George Eliot. Instead, Campion looks like a commercial for Fun and Sun in Australia. Her hair is very fair, her eyes are very blue and her speech—typically antipodean in its narrow vowels and the upward curve of its sentences—is spattered with self-mockery and great bursts of laughter. "Mum" and "Dad" are a big part of her conversation; so are her friends, whom one half-expects her to call, as do most of the residents of her part of the world, "mates."

On a day in mid-June of this year, Campion was a month away from having won the Palme d'Or. She was two weeks away from giving birth to her first child, a son whose presence was already inescapable in the Sydney apartment she shares with her husband, Colin Englert, a television producer and director. The baby's crib was set up in Englert's small office, and Campion lifted her billowy white shirt once to stare at her swollen belly. "Is he kicking?" her visitor asked. "Mmmmm," she answered, lost for a moment in that curious bubble that encloses the pregnant.

Campion was, in brief, at the pinnacle of her particular world, at a place where the professional and the personal were about to meet in blessed convergence. And although she'd done her share of interviews, she wasn't yet weary of the same old questions because she hadn't yet heard them all. Chatty, spontaneous (once, she unexpectedly kissed my cheek), Campion in June of 1993 was, to an interviewer, equivalent to an unplowed field.

Campion was born 39 years ago, to parents whom she describes as having had "a strange life compared to most New Zealanders." They had a strange life compared with almost everybody's.

"My mother was an heiress, but an orphan at the same time, so she was brought up by different people and finally given her inheritance," she said. "She and my father met at university, then went to England to study at the Old Vic. When they came back, they started the first official touring company in New Zealand. It wasn't a financial success at all, and so they just started working in other established theaters. Mother retired when she had the three of us, but Dad's still doing a lot of things, like opera."

At Victoria University, where she majored in anthropology, Campion was interested in acting. "But I felt I had to distinguish myself from the family. You know? Besides, I thought acting quite frivolous. Now I'm grateful that I was raised in an atmosphere which had some sort of gaiety to it. But at the time, I thought that these people were … insincere.

"After that, the thing was to try and travel and take a look at where I came from, along with the rest of Europe. You know?"

Anyone who has ever run into Australians and New Zealanders on what they usually call "my trip" knows. The trip is their Wanderjahr, and analogous to the lazing-about-Europe-after-graduation done by countless young Americans in the days when a college degree was a guarantee of a job offer. To hear Campion talk about her trip is to be reminded of theirs: of the postcards detailing the wonders of Chartres, the mysteries of the bidet and a whole litany of missed trains and misunderstandings.

"My other aim was to go to art school. The first attempt was to go to one in Venice, but all sorts of complicated issues turned up. This boy I knew was arrested for cocaine trafficking. And I couldn't speak Italian very well. And I was going to the school, but I wasn't really enrolled because no one could work out who I was or what I was supposed to be doing there. And then it was winter, and they had the agua alta, the water that comes up over your gum boots. Then, of course, I was under suspicion, too, because I was a friend of his. He told me later that his mother had sent him some potato purée from Hungary and that it had been misinterpreted. But that sounds a little unlikely to me now, you know?"

Eventually Campion left Venice for London and a job assisting someone who made documentaries and commercials. Getting into an art school was still on her mind, but none were interested, mostly because her work was primitive, but partly, she suspects, because she may have looked like a ditz.

"I remember going to one of them, with a copy of Cosmopolitan magazine under my arm, and somebody coming to the door while I was still putting on lipstick. 'Uh, oh,' I thought. 'This isn't the right image.'

"I didn't like England. I couldn't take the look of the place or the style of friendship. I need more intimacy from people than is considered O.K. there, and I felt that my personality and my enthusiasms weren't understood. I had to put a big lid on myself. But I thought: 'You've just got to live with this. This is the rite of passage to being an adult—misery.'

"I have a complicated theory for why I was so depressed—that in the Southern Hemisphere you can use the weather to relate your moods with. If you did that in England, where it's continuously bleak, you'd just die.

"Also, there's a fury I have when I hear an English upper-class voice—that voice that speaks really loudly about its 'dahhhhggs.' Grrrr!"

There was nothing to do but go back: to the sun and the blue, blue skies and a society determined on classlessness. It doesn't quite succeed, but never mind. The accent, so contagious that even the most recent immigrant is speaking "Strine" seemingly within minutes of arrival, is a great leveler.

This time, Campion went to Australia, to Sydney rather than Melbourne, because in the first city she had one friend and in the second, none. There a life that had been hitherto purposeless, if pleasant, finally took on a point.

"The art school I went to had young tutors who were into minimalist and conceptual art. They made everybody rethink their thinking about everything, which sent some people into sort of schizophrenic binges. But it was a brilliantly exciting atmosphere. You could do anything—installations, performance, whatever.

"First I was a bit at sea. Then, suddenly, for the first time in my life I really tried to do something. I'd never had a commitment to my ability; I knew there were people cleverer than me. What I was looking to do was to just learn enough so that I could in some way be supportive of somebody who really was gifted.

"There was another thing. About that stage I had a couple of boyfriends, and they both kind of disappeared. Being alone was a shock to me, and a good shock. Because I said: 'O.K., you've got nobody now. You're by yourself. So maybe it's time you had a look at what you can do if you really try, to find out what your potential really is."

"I decided to try and make my artwork directly about the things that I'd rush home to ruminate about. Things like confusions about sex and intimacy, for instance.

"I was painting at the time, crude sexual paintings, I suppose, with some feminist imagery as well.

"There was a lot of performance stuff going on, too, so I used to put on little plays about women and sex—things like that. Pretty weird, really. Next, I decided that instead of being in a play I'd film it.

"So, in my last year, I made this little film called Tissues, probably the only one I ever made that I loved. It was a very funny, rather crazy film about a father who'd been arrested for child molestation. The family tried to deal with it, and in every scene a tissue was used. Dum da dum!

"After that, I was just trying to get into the film industry in any way I could, and going through the usual stuff where everybody tells you, 'Yeah, maybe you can write, but you've got no directing skills.' And I thought, 'How on earth am I going to start?'"

By now the possessor of a B.A. in structural anthropology and a diploma in fine arts, Campion started by going back. Once again, she went to school. Her father groaned.

Entering the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, however, is tantamount to becoming a part of the Australian film industry in that it's financed by the Government and gives its students—only 25 are chosen every year—a small stipend. For a prospective film maker, it is also a lot like going to heaven. "You could do any story you wanted to without having to argue for it. You had a chance to see how your ideas would turn out."

From the beginning, Campion's ideas were sui generis: the anthropologist sees coolly and dispassionately; the artist translates the spectacle into images unlike anyone else's.

In Peel, for instance, which she made in her second year and which eventually won an award at Cannes, a little boy is ordered by his father to pick up every piece of orange peel he's tossed from a car window. The boy looks like his father, his mother looks like her husband, the sun is merciless and the entire transaction is a ludicrous lesson in discipline. Like Sweetie, Peel is curiously mysterious in that Campion offers the viewer no clues as to what to think of it all. Herself averse to being told what to feel, she claims a corresponding reluctance to tell an audience what to feel.

The last of Campion's student films, A Girl's Own Story, is an intensely personal oddity about innocence, pubescence and childhood incest and, in a sense, a precursor to The Piano. In their frank acknowledgment of the awful power of sex, and, not incidentally, its awful messiness, both carry a disconcerting erotic charge. In A Girl's Own Story, a brother and sister embark on intercourse as casually as cats. In The Piano, in which petticoats and pantalets seem endless barriers to consummation, a mere half-inch of flesh is enough to tantalize.

After film school, Campion joined the Women's Film Unit, an Australian remedy for the imbalance between the number of men and women in Government-sponsored film programs (about even) and the number in the film industry (not even close). Her first assignment was a film on sexual harassment in the work place, which "I agree is a pain, but I'm so perverse I'm going the other way," she said. "I think everybody should be harassing each other a whole lot more. I'm averse to teaching messages—they're a load of rubbish."

The Women's Film Unit was also a bit of a pain. "Basically, the way film sets work is very undemocratic, whereas the idea behind the unit—the idealism—predisposed its members to expect a lot more say. On a normal set, the priority is the work; in a situation like the Women's Film Unit, the politics were the work.

"All the same, the unit did address a major inequality. Also, there was a radical feminist group, film makers and activists, who had a huge impact on the Australian Film Commission. They were astonishing in their ability to intimidate the bureaucracy into supporting more women. But I think it's quite clear in my work that my orientation isn't political or doesn't come out of modern politics."

There, of course, is the rub. Campion is, to a degree, the beneficiary of a group effort. But what makes her a remarkable director is a truly singular talent, which is why she squirms when asked about being the first woman to win the Palme d'Or. To mention her sex is, however inadvertently, to modify the accomplishment. But if art, as the singer K. D. Lang put it, "transcends the tools you carry," the fact remains that Campion's tools, especially when she is dealing with sexuality, are often splendidly, uniquely female.

It may also be her sex that allows Campion to confess that although she had received development money for The Piano from the Australian Film Commission, it was loneliness that drove her to accept the producer Jan Chapman's offer of work on Australian television.

The experience ballooned Campion's confidence to the point where she was bursting to speak with her own voice. But because she believed that neither her understanding nor her skills as a movie maker were yet up to The Piano, she chose instead to do "something wilder, a bit younger, a bit more obnoxious. Provocative, you know?" She did Sweetie.

Sweetie, which she cowrote with her then-boyfriend, Gerard Lee, is all those things. Sweetie is about a young woman whose burning desire to be in show business is predicated on her ability to ride a toppling chair until it (slowly) hits the ground. Sweetie was not supposed to be the star; her younger sister, a kind of walking recessive gene, was. But Sweetie, who is nuts, took over the film as surely as she took over her family.

An Angel at My Table came next. Originally, it was meant for New Zealand television. Had it not been, Laura Jones, who wrote the script, said she would have done it differently: "I might have thought of dealing with a smaller time frame. And one wouldn't normally have such discursive storytelling in a feature film. But it worked, which made me rethink what does work."

What works in Angel is Campion's eye. Every image is freighted with meaning. A teacher, an insignificant-looking young man bent on bonhomie, stretches himself along his desk. Janet Frame, shy, a virgin and irredeemably isolate, stares fixedly at his trousers' fly. There, under the buttons, is the means to connection. A student-teacher, Frame picks up the chalk. Suddenly, she doesn't know what it is, what it's for, "I write for Jane," Jones said, "in a way I couldn't write for any other director."

Finally, there is The Piano. Sweetie cost less than $1 million; Angel, very little more. The Piano, which had seed money from the Australian Film Commission and major money from its French producers, was big-budget and thus scary.

"I thought: 'I haven't got any excuses. I have enough money to do this film really well,'" Campion said. "But I soon realized the anxiety was stifling, that I had to throw it away and just be naughty.

"The Piano", like A Girl's Own Story, is my territory—things I know about, that nobody else could easily get access to. I'd become fascinated by early photographs of New Zealand, and especially by portraits of Europeans and married people, and I was dying to do my version of a period film. Also, I've always wanted to tell an erotic story, particularly from a woman's perspective."

The story is simple. Ada, a Scotswoman with an illegitimate child, is married by proxy to a New Zealand settler, Stewart, and shipped to the other side of the world. With her are her small daughter and her piano, which, together, are her voice. When Stewart refuses to transport the piano to his farm, another settler, Baines, buys it and makes a bargain. He will give the piano to Ada if she will give him piano lessons. In truth, he does not want to learn the piano. He wants to learn Ada.

Sam Neill plays Stewart, a more or less predictable piece of casting, since Neill, himself a New Zealander, specializes in projecting a certain innocent, albeit sexy, confusion. But Harvey Keitel, he of the terrier ferocity, is hardly the first person one would think of for a scarcely housebroken, illiterate English settler with a tattooed (Maori-style) nose. Nor does Holly Hunter, who won the best-actress award at Cannes, seem a natural for a 19th-century woman who's constrained not only by custom and corsets but also by her stubborn and seemingly intractable speechlessness. But Campion casts "according to whom I am attracted to, and some people can't understand at first glance why that would be. But if you can see the potential in that person's character, it's really more interesting that others cannot. Because they're going to learn through you."

Asked to describe working with Campion, Keitel said: "Jane Campion is a goddess, and it's difficult for a mere mortal to talk about a goddess. I fear being struck by lightning bolts." The next day he called to clarify, "What's unusual about her," he continued, "has to do with ethereal things. She is at play, like a warm breeze."

Fortunately for someone who prefers to build with concrete, there was Neill. "Jane works in an unusually intimate way with people," he said. "When you're an actor, you're always putting yourself in other people's hands anyway, and she repays the gesture many times over. Jane's interested in complexity, not reductiveness, and very sure of what she's doing. If you have an opinion contrary to hers, she listens with the greatest care and consideration, then does what she had in mind all along."

Genevieve Lemon, who played Sweetie and the silly, love-starved Nessie of The Piano, said of Campion: "She digs deep when she's working with an actor, and that can be pretty confronting. She's always saying, 'Strip, strip, give me less acting,' and you try to give her exactly what she wants because her instincts are so sound. Most of the time with a director you think, 'Stop! What's going on here? Where am I going?' But you trust Jane absolutely."

("Gen's method," Campion said, "is impenetrable by somebody else, but that's true of a lot of actors. How they do it is alarming for them. That's why you have to be very careful about interfering with their securities and their methods. I just contribute in however much room they leave for me to contribute.")

The Piano is intensely romantic on several counts. All three of its protagonists are sexual innocents (Stewart may even be a virgin), which is why their introduction to eroticism constitutes an inundation. Ada's music, which was composed by Michael Nyman and played by Hunter herself, is as somber and powerful as Ada is. And New Zealand's bush, albeit a very different landscape, seems as magical as the moors near Wuthering Heights.

Campion's movies don't resemble anyone else's, and neither do they resemble one another. The strange, skewed look of Sweetie, for example, was influenced by the work of certain American photographers, Diane Arbus in particular. The look of Angel, however, is simple, allusionless; it was Janet Frame's story, after all, and Campion "had to stay out of its way." But for Piano, Campion and the director of photography, Stuart Dryburgh, dove right in. Using as their starting point a mutual love of autochromes, an early color process based on potato dyes, they allowed some tints to completely drain scenes and turned the bush into a kind of underwater world.

"Only Stuart and I really liked what we liked," she said. "Everyone else was, 'Mmmmmmmmm.' It's scary, you know? But to get a look you have to stick your foot out. You can't play it safe.

"I had this spooky psychological thing about The Piano before it began, which was how everybody was going to go nuts on the set. Because a film tends to set up the way people are going to behave. But then I said to myself, 'O.K., it doesn't actually matter what people do so long as you go through it, as long as you don't pull back, as long as you take responsibility.' In the end, the making of The Piano was an enormous pleasure, and it encouraged me to take some risks romantically which paid off very well."

"Getting married, you mean?" her visitor asked.

"Oh, no," Campion said. "I wanted to get married. Colin and I had been best friends for six or seven years. The big emotional risk was in becoming lovers."

Jan Chapman, who produced The Piano, works out of two large, airy rooms above a fish restaurant. Campion's apartment, though in a chic part of Sydney, is modest and does not feature an art collection. Laura Jones, upon entering a rather grand hotel for morning coffee, said, "This isn't my usual kind of place," and when asked about Robert Altman's film The Player, in which writers "pitch" and producers murder, replied, "Well, with us there's more chatting than pitching."

In June, Jones, Campion and Chapman were chatting about The Portrait of a Lady, the Henry James novel for which Jones is writing the adaptation, Campion is directing and Chapman is the script consultant. (Nicole Kidman will play the heroine, Isabel Archer, for whom self-creation and, indeed, self-perfection, is life's purpose.) Unlike Campion's other films, this one is large American dollars all the way—which at this point may make no difference in the final product. But it might have made a difference once. "The Government support here," Chapman said, "has enabled producers and directors to pursue their own talents early on. As soon as you start having big systems trying to simplify ideas you lose that spark." And although she is as reluctant as Campion to discuss sexual politics, she added: "And because of this Government assistance, nothing stopped us. There wasn't a male-based system that, consciously or unconsciously, we had to adapt ourselves to."

Portrait, Campion said, is one of her favorite books, partly because she herself feels "so Isabel Archerish. I think that coming from Australia or New Zealand now makes one more like Americans going to Europe were then than Americans going to Europe are now. They're much more sophisticated, whereas we have more of a colonial attitude about ourselves, a more can-do, anything's-possible attitude. I felt so much like Isabel as a young woman, a sense of having extraordinary potential without knowing what the hell to do with it. Before Piano, I wouldn't have had the guts to take on a big classic thing. But now I don't feel frightened at all.

"I seem to have been able to make a career out of doing what I feel like doing, so why not keep doing it? What's corrupting is wanting to be more important. You want to be more arty—you get your identity from that. Or you get your identity out of making more money. I get my pleasure, which is far more important to me, out of trying to follow my instincts."

In tracking those instincts, her film editor Veronika Jenet said, "Jane always surrounds herself with people who are very supportive and give her free range." If sanity lies in knowing your strengths and how to capitalize on them, then Campion is clearly a monument thereto.

By the middle of June, the chatting with Laura Jones and Jan Chapman about Isabel, her aunt Mrs. Touchett, her friend Henrietta Stackpole, the sinuous Madame Merle ("Great parts for women! But, of course, the point about Henry James is that all the parts are good") and Isabel's quartet of swains had more or less ceased. Jane had high blood pressure, and nobody could tell her and Colin precisely what that might mean. Still, they consoled themselves with the thought that, after having had three miscarriages, Jane had only two weeks to go to term. Two weeks to go—it was like being in a marathon and knowing you had only another ten yards to run.

"I was getting a bit sick of myself toward the end of my 30's, thinking, 'Is this all there is to know?'" she said. "Having a baby has completely distracted me from that. Now I have a big stake in the future because his will be part of mine. At the same time, I'll be forced back, because I'll be part of being a child again through him. And as he grows up and has his problems, I'll be part of that, too."

A few days later, Jane Campion's son, Jasper, was delivered by emergency Caesarean section. His parents were told almost immediately that he could not live outside an incubator, and that he would die soon. When, in fact, was up to them. Twelve days after his birth, Jane and Colin took Jasper home, where he died the following dawn.

The day after Jasper's cremation, 35 of his parents' family and friends gathered at Neilson Park, on the cliffs overlooking Sydney Harbor, to honor his brief life. Rugs were spread for the guests to sit upon, food was served and Jane and Colin talked about their baby and what he had meant to them. There were other speakers, and some people read poems they had written.

To hear of that sad, brave ceremony was suddenly to remember Colette's harsh "Who said you should be happy? Do your work." It was also to hope that in special gifts lie special consolations.

(read more)

This section contains 4,525 words
(approx. 16 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Mary Cantwell
Follow Us on Facebook