The Piano, Jane Campion

Jane Campion’s ‘The Piano’ Is a Product of the 1990s, Not the 1890s

The Piano is a ’90s-era postmodern stew of sensuality and death, realism and fantasy, stories within stories, feminism and psychology, and postcolonial imagery.

The Piano
Jane Campion
Buena Vista
15 May 1993 (Cannes)

Over Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day, even Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Jane Campion‘s The Piano was the most acclaimed film in 1993. Like each of those films, The Piano is a period piece set in the 1800s. Holly Hunter, who won the Oscar for Best Actress in her role in The Piano, yet is perhaps most famous today for her distinctive Elastigirl voice in Brad Bird’s animated The Incredibles, stars as Ada McGrath, a woman who does not speak a single word of dialogue for the entire film. (The film makes an exception for voiceover.) Ada is shipped with her parcels to New Zealand, a place she has never seen, from Scotland, for an arranged marriage to pioneer/colonizer Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill, who had a good year between this film and Jurassic Park), a man she has never met.

With Ada is her daughter, Flora, played by Anna Paquin, who won Best Supporting Actress, almost unprecedented for an 11-year-old. (Ten-year-old Tatum O’Neal won it in 1973.) Flora is preternaturally precocious but not, unlike the roles Paquin would later inhabit, supernaturally powered, and her accent is Scottish, not Southern, unlike her Rogue in Bryan Singer’s X-Men and Sookie Stackhouse in Alan Ball’s HBO series True Blood.

With them, conspicuously, is Ada’s piano. Alisdair’s Māori workers whisk away Ada and Flora but leave behind the impractical piano, even as it is Ada’s only means of sonic expression—or perhaps because it is. The film’s letterbox image of that piano abandoned on the shore, surreal, silent, as out of place as anything in the world could ever be, evokes Ada herself.

The Piano is a costume drama released in the middle of a golden age of period pieces: the films mentioned above, as well as James Ivory’s Howard’s End (1992), John Madden’s Ethan Frome (1993), Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women (1994), the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (1995), and the genre’s apotheosis, James Cameron’s Titanic (1996). Aside from Titanic, only The Piano is not an adaptation. Campion won Best Screenplay; Best Director, for which she was nominated, eluded her.

Like most of those films, The Piano is a kind of love story. And yet, it was always clear that the film pushed back against the typical love story’s conventions. Visually, the harsh conditions of New Zealand quickly ruined the lush clothes themselves. There are no stately manors. Neither is it a comedy of manners, although there is plenty of pride and far more overt prejudice than one would find in Jane Austen’s novels.

Despite the setting, this is no Georgian or Victorian romance. Ada does not love Alisdair, who is controlling and petty, who sees Ada as bought and paid for, and eventually turns violent. Yet as Ada’s husband, Alisdair becomes part of a bizarre love triangle (aren’t they all?) between Ada and George Baines (a big, brooding Harvey Keitel), Alisdair’s fellow frontiersman, who has tattooed his face in the style of the Māori and learned their customs and language. At Ada’s behest and with the Māoris’ help, Baines rescues Ada’s piano from the sea.

Baines, however, then barters the piano to Ada key by key in exchange for what he tells Alisdair are piano lessons, but quickly turn into escalating sensual and sexual acts. Neither Alisdair nor Baines is a Darcy, who wooed the affronted Elizabeth, as opposed to, say, asking her to remove articles of clothing. (At this point, The Piano becomes a no-costume drama.) And yet, once Baines realizes they both are suffering, he relinquishes her piano and herself: “I have given the piano back to you. I’ve had enough. The arrangement is making you a whore, and me wretched. I want you to care for me. But you can’t. It’s yours, leave.” In 2023 terms, he has an epiphany that his patriarchal power over her not just degrades her but degrades him as well. Once freed, Ada realizes that she does not, in fact, want to leave at all.     

More than the other films’ costumed façade of period realism, The Piano becomes a pastiche of expressionism, fairy tales, and the Gothic tradition. Jane Campion has cited Wuthering Heights (adapted yet again in 1992 by Peter Kosminsky for what would not be the last time) as an influence. And Wuthering Heights arguably draws upon the conventions of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s 1740 story, Beauty and the Beast, the story of a monster who takes a woman prisoner, learns his lesson, and frees her, only to have her voluntary love make him human again. And Beauty and the Beast is itself a permutation of Charles Perrault’s more violent Bluebeard, a 1697 fairy tale about a husband who murders wife after wife—which itself is performed as a play in The Piano. What kind of brute, then, is Alisdair? Is Baines?

With so many competing elements, The Piano is a less straightforward BBC romance than a postmodern Möbius strip of references. The effect is to transport the viewer not to another time period but another realm, not a whitewashed dream of dresses, teacups, and chivalry, but a psychological landscape of sexuality, silence, and stories themselves. When Alisdair punishes Ada for her transgressions with Baines, he cuts off her finger with an axe, a terrifying act of fairy-tale violence. In doing so, he takes away Ada’s ability to play the piano and, therefore, communicate while symbolically castrating Ada, Freud’s phallic mother, as revenge for having taken his precarious masculinity through her affair. It’s a hot postmodern stew: sensuality and death, realism and the fantastic, stories within stories, feminist and psychological, and postcolonial imagery. 

The Piano also anticipates the 1990s’ other golden age—not the costume drama, but its shadow, the trippy movies that took postmodernism mainstream: Tony Scott’s True Romance (also 1993), Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), the Wachowski Brothers’The Matrix (1999), Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2001), and more. These are films, like The Piano, that traffic in stylized but discomforting imagery, where things are not as they seem. Yet the perspective and genres are coded masculine, and the point-of-view characters are, without exception, male.

Not so The Piano. Campion did not make it easy for Ada to gain agency. Ada begins the film swathed in layers of Victorian-feminine garb and literally without a voice. Laura Mulvey coined the term “the male gaze” in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in 1973, which online readers have now caught up with. “The male gaze,” Mulvey wrote, “projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly.” Put more bluntly, art historian John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing (1972) that in film, “men act and women appear.” Yet The Piano deftly shifts from Ada’s arrival—her appearance—as an object for the camera and viewer to being represented through her own point of view—what she sees, hears, feels, and experiences, and then, she acts. She chooses to love Baines.  

The Piano is not as simple as a reversed male or female gaze; a challenging work of art is not so easily reduced. Keitel’s utter and surprising nakedness renders him vulnerable to Ada, tender and mortal, going against the tough-guy type the actor was known for, even as his body looks huge next to the diminutive Hunter. (Sigourney Weaver was Campion’s first choice for Ada, which would have made a very different film.) The Piano presents the human messiness not just of love or even sex but of eroticism. As philosopher Georges Bataille wrote in Erotism: Death and Sensuality (1957), “Eroticism is assenting to life up until the point of death.” At the end of the film, Ada and Baines leave on a boat together, with Flora and the piano, the image bookending the opening, but Ada tells Baines to throw the piano overboard, which he does, and Ada, possibly at the point of death, deliberately tethers her foot to it and is pulled under the water.

It looks like the end will not be the marriage plot, but the equally common 19th-century convention that The Woman Commits Suicide At The End Because She Is Too Transgressive For This World: Madame Bovary (1857), Anna Karenina (1877), The Awakening (1899), possibly Daisy Miller (1878). But Ada relents and chooses to live. She, Flora, and Baines begin a new life together. Baines even fashions Ada a metal finger so she can play the piano again, although the piano, the one from the shore, the one that was taken apart key by key, remains at the bottom of the sea for Ada to contemplate, and, maybe, regret not joining. It is an equivocal ending, resigned. But Ada survives.

At least one contemporary viewer bemoans that The Piano has aged poorly, writing that the film is dated to the time it was made, 1993, “…in several important ways that have resulted in the picture aging poorly to the modern day…. The film’s sexual politics are perhaps the most glaringly outdated part of it. Ada is sexually assaulted, blackmailed and harassed by both men in various ways…. Rather than a powerful exploration of a woman’s sexuality, as the film was meant to be, the fact that George begins the sexual affair by blackmailing a woman for sexual favors in exchange for her only means of communication robs it of any romanticism.”

Yet Campion, I believe, knew and understood all this at the time. The Piano is not romantic by design. Instead, Campion plays with convention and taboo; as Bataille continued, “The taboo does not banish the transgression but, on the contrary, depends upon it.” So does The Piano. Its portrayal of men and women, marriage and relationships, is stark and dark. Its sex and nude scenes startle more today than they did in 1993 when they shared Blockbuster shelf space with male peers like Tarantino and Fincher.

In today’s films, dominated by CGI, safe franchises, and sculpted superheroes, “everyone is beautiful and no one is horny,” as the writer Raquel S. Benedict memorably puts it. The sex and nudity audiences are likely most familiar comes from shows like Benioff and Weiss’ Game of Thrones, with its infamous uses of sexposition, recurring rape scenes presented for shock value, and classic deployment of the camera as a proxy for the male gaze. In comparison, while The Piano is very much a product of 1993, it has aged remarkably well.

That’s because The Piano, in the end, is less about learning the plight of a woman in the past than about the sexual politics of women in its present. In America, 1992 was famously, maybe notoriously, declared The Year of the Woman, heralded as such because of the new women Senators elected in the wake of Clarence Thomas’ 1991 Supreme Court confirmation despite Anita Hill’s testimony that he had sexually harassed her. Campion’s film is a mythopoetic response, an imaginary garden with real toads, as Marianne Moore wrote of poetry itself, to a world still beholden to men like Alistair and, maybe, Baines as well.

The period that The Piano chronicles can’t comfortably be placed in the 1800s or even the 1990s. The period The Piano best suits is the present. Even though Campion did not get her Best Director award until 28 years later, in 2021, for The Power of the Dog.