The PianoJane Campion (N Zealand 1993)Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel Sam Neil
viewed:BFI South Bank 23 June 2018; ticket: £12.65
Into the woods
Had I written about Campion’s movie when it was released, there would have been significant differences in some areas of my focus.In particular the scripting of The Piano in relation to the nature of the female protagonist.Many of the films seen recently that feature pivotal roles for women, have posters displaying big close up’s of their female star staring out at the world with self satisfied looks on their face, their mouths set in a smug rictus. The face of the winner; the face of one who is justified.Movies such as Lady McBeth, Custody, the Beast have delivered exactly what is on the poster.However wrapped in its fairy-tale cocoon, Campion’s film does rather more justice to the complexity of human relations than the zero sum relational machinations of the scenarios signed off by contemporary film producers.
Jane Campion’s movie the Piano is a wondrous admix of fairy-tale form laid over her narrative.It’s a film that draws on traditional archetypes to probe the response of the female to the situation where the male is in apparent ascendancy.
I say apparent because in the archetypal world of myth/fairytale a situation of ascendancy is never what it appears to be.Ascendancy in this mythic psychosexual domain is never absolute there is always something missing which is why the fairy tale is always dynamic.The stories develop because there is always a deficiency or an imperfection in the opening circumstances.It is the nature of that which is incomplete and how completion is arrived at, which drives the telling of the plot.
Jane Campion in the Piano, creates a parallel world of mythic visual resonance characterised by: numinous objects, tokens, symbolic landscapes,an ally, archetypal characters – the good prince – the bad prince.She has laid a curse of mutism over her heroine Ada, marking her out by means of this affliction, of her being less than whole. She is scarred with what is a sacred wound.
Campion’s movie is played out against the settings of sea jungle and interiors.The sea is realised as a primal force.In the opening New Zealand sequence Ada, like a legendary Venus emerges out of the sea, the thrashing South Pacific Ocean.She moves off the beach but her piano is left to stand alone against the forces of nature, tide and wave.It survives:witness both to Ada’s endurance and to the power of the artefact as the representem of civilisation.Ada’s piano is a numinous entity, part of Ada, her voice her power, her golden bird from the tree of life, that heals, sustains her will and plays the key role in her development.
The forest is a thicket of dense sexual chaos.The interior settings like closet secrets, with their claustrophobic Hansel and Gretel point of view, where the camera’s perception is facilitated through cracks in the wood, knots and key holes, through joists columns and jambs.The interiors mediate Ada’s resistance to Alisdair, and are complicit in her compulsive physical attraction to George, in which she agrees to an archetypal exchange: her piano keys for her sexual favours.Piano climaxes with an act of betrayal by Ada’s closest ally and an act of cruelty, as in theJuniper Tree, where Alistair chops off Ada’s finger with his axe, a shocking act of mutilation that is the price for freedom, the hymenial sacrifice a blood pact to gains entry to a new changed world.
Campion’s heroine is played by Holly Hunter as a rite of self discipline.There is no relaxation of Ada’s outer mien of discipline and self control.From her exactly parted hair through to the geometrically contrived statement of her crinoline dress and her boots, all betoken her virtue:severity of character that will not compromise. Ada in short is fashioned not out of desires but out of a moral grounding.
In this Ada is remarkable for the fact that she draws on archetypal female virtues to occupy a place in the world on her own terms. Campion’s script does not demand of her that she adopt the stratagems traits and virtues of the male to resolve her situation. She does not become a man to take on the realm of men.Rather she digs deep into the feminine to resolve the contradictions and oppositions in her relations to men.Ada contests the male through her clarity of vision, she sees and pays attention, her knowledge and high estimation of her own value, her expression of unity of body and soul – the alignment of her outer garb with her inner purpose, a distain for compromise but an ability to see that though she can never be bought, she can sell on her own terms.
In an age of cinema where the recourse of most female protagonists is to pick up the gun and shoot everyone, Campion’s The Piano is a different take on the outcome for the female.After the female protagonists have shot all the bad guys, there is no place for them to go other than to become men.However complex the situation may be for Ada, she comes through the story as her own woman, true to herself and it is to her own virtues and abilities that she has exploited to become what she is.She is beholden to no man, she is her own woman.