Several reviewers of her latest film have called Jane Campion a fourth Brontë sister. Campion, too, has dropped hints that this is where she got her inspiration. Attached to the book version of her screenplay, there is an appendix entitled “The Making of The Piano” in which she is quoted comparing “the kind of romance that Emily Brontë portrayed” to the perverse love affair in her film. This statement sent me paging through an old paperback of Wuthering Heights, where I came across a preface by Charlotte Brontë, an eloquent defense of her sister’s novel written for the 1850 edition, two years after Emily’s death. In it, Charlotte concedes that the central characters of Catherine and especially Heathcliff were perhaps too “tragic and terrible,” and she finds the Yorkshire setting unrelievedly stark. But she counters that brightening the dialogue or adding a day trip to London would have subtracted from what was most true about the book. Emily’s nature had, after all, been a brooding one. Bleak heaths and gnarled firs were the everyday view outside her window. Besides, according to Charlotte, she had possessed the true creative gift, the kind that “wills and works for itself,” heedless of its owner’s conscious intent.
The preface clarified a misgiving I’d had about comparing that particular mid-nineteenth-century novelist to this particular late-twentieth-century director. It is hard enough to reconcile the romantic picture, preserved since high school, of the solitary artist, in a naive trance-like state in her rural “wild workshop,” with the multimillion-dollar, multinational, collaborative state of film making today. It is especially hard, though, to reconcile it with a film like The Piano, whose own trance-like quality seems not naive, but the result of cool, worldly calculation.
The appendix to the screenplay, part backstage visit with celebrities, part Cliff’s Notes (and, by the way, pretty much the same as the press kits publicists handed to reviewers at advance screenings, hoping to jog memories and suggest a good hook for their reviews), documents a lot of hard planning. Holly Hunter, the star, tells how she took her acting cue from the restrictive corsets and stiff-hooped petticoats women wore during the 1850s, when the film takes place. Andrew McAlpine, the production designer, explains that he finessed the mood of certain scenes by layering an extra web of supplejack—a sinister, creeping black plant—over the New Zealand bush, where the movie was made. As if to underline the fact that this was not the view outside anyone’s window, but a meticulously designed enterprise, the smallest eccentricities of which were deliberate, someone has supplied a glossary of terms like moko and kumera: Maori for facial tattoo and sweet potato.
The publisher has chosen this clinicalsounding quote from Campion as an epigraph: “I think that the romantic impulse is in all of us and that sometimes we live it for a short time,” she says, “but it’s not part of a sensible way of living.” As an …