Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Piano

"The Piano" (Jane Campion, 1993) This award-winning film by New Zealand's High Priestess of Ostracism is an off-putting drama that slowly seduces and mesmerizes.

We first meet Ada McGrath (
Holly Hunter in her Oscar-winning role) in a way that no one else does—in her own words. Purposefully mute since the age of six, she finds herself bought as a wife to a set-in-his-ways settler (Sam Neill) in a rain forest territory of Kiwi natives, a tribe of Māori. Think of it as a counter-clockwise Western of sorts, Down Under rather than Out West and Campion's themes start to come into focus. Ada and her child, Flora (Anna Paquin, in her Oscar-winning role) arrive by boat in widow's clothes and immediately stand out like...well, like a piano on a beach.

Just as she carries her grief in the past with her muteness, she also carries her most prized possession—a grand piano—along on her semi-circumnavigation to the Outback. Seemingly an albatross, the piano is ultimately her most effective means of expression and also her passage to letting go of that past. Dismissed as pointless by husband Alistair, the piano is rescued and settled in the home of Baines (Harvey Keitel), who has forsaken civilization and lives with the Māori people. Baines barters with Alistair, first for the piano, and then for lessons from Ada. Attracted to her, Baines then barters advances for keys of the piano—one key for a touch, two for a kiss. Thereby, Ada can buy back her piano, notes at a time, but there is more in the bargain.

What she's buying back is her soul. What she's buying back is her self. What she's buying back is her sexuality and everything that actually has been bought like a commodity in her arranged marriage to Alistair. But the piano only reinforces burgeoning ties to Baines, and compromises whatever shaky freedom she attains with it. Alistair and his marriage are a prison that holds her against her will, when she already is so self-contained, of her own accord. That Baines takes possession of it, then acquiesces by offering the freedom of it back is too much for Ada to resist. And so, to have her soul, she must give some of her freedom away. It's a bittersweet rebellion that doesn't take into account her oppressor. When Alistair hears of her infidelity, his revenge is to sever her connection to the piano in the most intimate way possible.

Campion is a lyrical film-maker who buries her messages as deep as a Kiwi rain-forest, but the films always ring true with a stark brutality that cuts through any mawkishness. In "The Piano," her metaphors are more obvious than her past films. When, at one point, Ada is nearly taken to the bottom of the ocean by the piano, one can't help but think of the implications of materialism.

But, one is ultimately led to the thought that a woman needs a piano, like a fish needs a bicycle. And if one so chooses and loses one, there are plenty in the sea.

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