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 announcement of what the film is “about,” this statement is remarkably bland and equivocal, but it does in an odd way capture the spirit of The Piano. The key word is not “romantic,” but “impulse.” The focus, quite accurately, is on “us,” the rapt audience, whose breath Campion intends to quicken.
What we get in the movie is less a story than a situation, which is set up in the first few minutes, then turned loose. Ada, a mute Scottish woman, is promised in a match arranged by her father to Stewart, an English settler in New Zealand. She sails there to marry and live with him, bringing along her impish ten-year-old daughter, Flora (who the father was, we don’t know), with whom she communicates in sign language, and her piano, which we are meant to understand as her surrogate voice. (She has played since she was five or six, around the time she stopped talking.)
From the beginning, Ada is a perverse heroine, indifferent to her stiff husband’s shy request that she be more “affectionate,” and, quite beyond her muteness (which, it is hinted, is willful), emotionally remote. When she plays the piano her eyes dilate, her cheeks twitch, and she looks disturbingly off, like a proud cat that has bathed and forgotten to stick its tongue back in. Any warmth she has is for her daughter, whose company at all times, including night-time, she prefers to that of Stewart. (There appears to be no incest here, but, as in her first film, Sweetie, Campion fixes on petting and power games between parents and children—on the thin line separating doting from coercion. The relationship of Ada and Flora is the most complicated one in the film.)
Stewart, recognizing the piano as a rival, trades it, against Ada’s wishes, for a piece of land to another settler, a crude, illiterate Welshman named Baines. As part of the deal, she is to teach Baines how to play. A number of clichés get teased in The Piano, beginning with this throwing together of two unlikely people, a standard prelude to movie intimacy. Using his ownership of the piano as leverage, Baines arranges a deal with Ada, and the “lessons” in his cabin quickly turn into strange intimate sessions in which she lets him “do things” to her.
Whether it is love or power or jungle fever that motivates Baines is unclear. He politely notifies her in advance of what he is about to do each time he nuzzles her neck or peeks up her skirt (right in line with the Antioch rules), but there is an ugliness to their time together, because it is bought. His desire seems primitive. Alone, in between lessons, he lies in bed looking undone by lust; he gets up and in a slow, solo nude scene strips off his nightshirt and uses it to wipe down the piano. Harvey Keitel, bringing some Actor’s Studio introspection to this scene (and, bravely, a squat body that makes him resemble a twisted balloon animal), keeps us in further suspense whether Baines is a feminist dreamboat or simply Tarzan beating on his chest.
Of course, this is exactly the question that Campion designed her film to provoke, and then, it seems, to duck. She presents Stewart as a “character” with a set of attributes (lonely, wants a family, something of a bore), and the actor, Sam Neill, plays him that way. But Ada and Baines are kept opaque in the way that real people we hardly know are opaque. Their histories are murky, and their motives, despite the surface emotionality, are unfathomable. Even Ada’s muteness seems conceived as a disorienting device. The less readable her behavior, the more thrillingly her affair with Baines unfolds, before our eyes, free of distraction.
The same goes for her music. Piano-playing is said to be Ada’s voice, but significantly, she plays mood rather than expressive music—not the truly romantic pieces she might have been expected to know, with a melody, a dramatic arc, a real voice. (The dreary score, like an étude in which the student works to make each new note sound as much as possible like the last, is by Michael Nyman, the composer for Peter Greenaway’s baroque, impersonal films.) Music may be too articulate a form of expression for Campion’s purposes. She does better with a baser stimulus, like touch: early on, Baines’s thumb brushing the nickelsized patch of Ada’s thigh that shows through her stocking, and later, the consummation, which,
STEWART watches, stepping down to peer lower as BAINES buries into ADA’s skirt. He does not seem to notice the dog licking his hand. Suddenly he pulls his hand away and looks at it, wet with dog saliva; he wipes it on the boards and continues watching as if mesmerized.
The sex scenes are uncannily immediate, more purely sensual than any I have seen. This is sex in a different century, under a different set of rules—sex without a script, without particular characters. And Campion makes us into witnesses.
But twice in the second half of The Piano, we are jolted in a contradictory way. These moments are not plot twists in the conventional sense: no character is revealed, no confusion cleared up. Each one comes out of the blue, and neither seems to have real consequences. The first occurs when Stewart, after keeping her locked up for days, decides to trust Ada not to repeat the tryst with Baines and leaves the house to resume surveying his land. In his absence Ada attempts to send Baines a piano key as a love token. But instead of delivering the key to Baines as her mother ordered, Flora hands it to Stewart. Stewart returns in a rage, grabs Ada and throws her around, throws his axe at the piano, and drags her to a tree stump outside and hacks off her index finger. He then goes to see Baines, holds a gun to Baines’s throat, and confesses his torment.
Here arrives the other jolt, which is twofold. Presumably Baines calms Stewart down, because in the next scene he and Ada and Flora are departing in a boat. Ada impulsively orders the beloved piano thrown overboard:
As the piano splashes into the sea, the loose ropes speed their way after it. ADA watches them snake past her feet and then, out of a fatal curiosity, odd and undisciplined, she steps into a loop.
The rope tightens and grips her foot so that she is snatched into the sea, and pulled by the piano down through the cold water.
INT. SEA NEAR BEACH. DAY.
Bubbles tumble from her mouth. Down she falls, on and on, her eyes are open, her clothes twisting about her. The MAORIS diving after her cannot reach her in these depths. ADA begins to struggle. She kicks at the rope, but it holds tight around her boot. She kicks hard again and then, with her other foot, levers herself free from her shoe. The piano and her shoe continue their fall while ADA floats above, suspended in deep water, then suddenly her body awakes and fights, struggling upwards to the surface.
This harrowing sequence, done in slow-motion, captures the dumb desperation of trying to claw one’s way out of a trap but being unable to move that one experiences in dreams. But this nightmare, regrettably, is followed by an epilogue, a sunlit scene on the porch of their new house which looks imported from a film version of Pride and Prejudice. In the screenplay they’ve ended up in the pretty town of Nelson, New Zealand. Ada explains in a voice-over that Baines has built her a new metal finger. She gives piano lessons. There she is, learning how to talk again, her daughter cartwheeling past in the garden, her lover reeling her in for a kiss.
The scene is a negation of everything that preceded it. The reckless logic of the film has prepared us to reject Baines and Ada as a happy domesticated couple, just as the more stoic logic of Casablanca would be ruined if Ingrid Bergman’s getting on the plane with Paul Henreid to help him fight Nazis turned out to be a ruse. (Nobody really wanted to see her and Humphrey Bogart five years later, sitting down to breakfast in a tract home in New Rochelle.)
In fact, the logic of The Piano would make any ending seem pat. The film makes its point by showing how timebound and rhetoric-laden our expectations about sex are: how much we rate it, classify it as “casual” and “serious” and sometimes “rape,” look for signs of love or lack of love, for an expression, in miniature, of a character’s approach to life. We usually subordinate sex to a larger story, but the point of The Piano is the sex: there’s no larger story to tell.
Campion has solved the usual problem with historical films, which is that everything on screen feels too familiar: the waistlines, the hairdos, the shade of lipstick are all from this month’s magazines, and so, we suspect, is whatever dilemma the characters are grappling with. On the contrary, she has been unsparingly thorough. The blue-green, yellow, and amber tinges that at first seem mere mood heighteners actually mimic autochrome, a nineteenth-century stills process. Charred trees were placed just so to create a slashed-and-burned look around Stewart’s house. In the production notes, Campion makes it a point of honor that Holly Hunter’s hair was authentically greasy.
The vanished landscape was resurrected, however, not to be understood but as another field of tactile and visual opportunities to be mined. Campion makes a self-conscious point in the production notes of her determination to do a “Maori story.” The movie takes place in the 1850s, and there is some oblique business here about contested land; in one scene the Maori complain about the takeover of a burial ground. By 1860, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on New Zealand, the land gripes only hinted at here broke out into a fullfledged war that lasted ten years. Campion painstakingly avoids the usual traps; her Maori are neither especially savage nor excessively innocent. But sitting cross-legged in the forest, wearing their top hats, they come periously close to being backdrop, like the cliffs and the waves, contributors to the estrangement the audience is supposed to feel. Mostly, they serve the purpose of being hipper to sex than the whites are. They dispense salty putdowns (“Old dry balls is getting touchy,” one of them says about the uptight Stewart), and encourage young Flora, flustered from peeking in on one of Baines’s “lessons,” to make out with a tree.
Campion is a brilliant depicter of moods and reactions—a behaviorist, poking at her characters with a stick and showing us how they wriggle—and The Piano strings together a dozen or so memorable moments of great psychological truth. Its cumulative effect, though, is to induce a feverish pang, like lovesickness, in the audience.
In an essay on Bertolucci’s film 1900, Pauline Kael wrote about a point in mid-career when a great director experiences the almost missionary drive to express “what the artist thinks are the unconscious needs of the public.” Kael was talking about films from Intolerance to Apocalypse Now which, like certain huge, layered, didactic nineteenth-century novels, attempt to diagnose the way we live now, often with great bitterness. Though the story of The Piano is tiny and confined, Campion directs it with the grave authority of one of these films, so that we reflexively look for a sermon in the sensations she thrusts in front of us.
But The Piano is different in offering no message whatsoever. Certain men have found it to be anti-man, and certain feminists have accused Campion of hating women. These opposite reactions point to a hollowness at the film’s core. Its avoidance of judgment gives it an open-armed warmth, a slightly New Age quality that shows up at the end of the final credits, when Campion thanks everyone who tried out but didn’t make it to the screen. It has another more remote, asocial side, though. Its goal is a private sensory charge—or, as Campion puts it in the production notes, describing what she can do now that Emily Brontë couldn’t in her time, “the actual bodyscape of it…because the body has certain effects, like a drug almost.” While it dangles in front of us intense images (the piano, the cut-off finger) that look as if they should work the way symbols in great novels do, The Piano has a peculiarly contemporary, almost technological dimension. The story of Ada and Baines’s affair is, like the story of Spielberg’s T-Rex, secondary to its physical representation. Instead of a dramatic narrative, we get an immersion experience: a Virtual Romance. We leave the theater more intensely aware of how tight or loose our clothes are hanging, how close the next person is standing, how damp the air is outside.
Right now Campion is completing a screenplay adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady, which she plans to shoot next year. She has enough specialties in common with James (willful heroines, charged glances) to make this something to stand in line to see. Still, I wonder whether her brand of insight isn’t best suited to adapting not nineteenth-century novels, but biographies.
Real people rarely have been served well by the movies, which tend to camouflage physical and psychic flaws, and pound lives into the shape of a lesson. Campion’s previous film, An Angel at My Table, is a beautiful exception to the rule. It is based on the autobiography of the New Zealand novelist Janet Frame, who because of extreme shyness was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic while in her early twenties, and confined to an asylum, where, over a period of eight years, she was dealt close to two hundred rounds of electric shock.
Campion’s unsentimental grasp of period detail and shifting states of mind allow us to follow Janet from childhood tableaux through wrenching, particular adolescent hurdles and finally to an adult calm. There is an especially moving moment at the end, after Janet has left the asylum, done a European tour, established a small literary reputation, and returned to New Zealand, where she is staying with her one surviving sister, in a shed adjacent to the sister’s trailer. From up in the night sky, we look down on Janet alone in the yard on a break from work, and hear the dim sound of a pop song coming from inside the trailer. We see her stand listening. She does a brief distracted dance, then after a moment goes still, waits, turns, walks back inside the shed, and as the camera descends and closes in on the window, first slowly and then picking up speed as if hurrying to catch something terribly elusive, we see her begin to type.
There is no obvious prettiness here: just a middle-aged woman with a red afro and rotting teeth and terrible social skills, typing. Yet the mix of concreteness and mystery seems almost medieval, like the confirmation of a sacred calling. It means nothing, and teaches nothing, but it reaches us in some intense and direct way.