Sunday, 1 September 2013

1993 Retrospective: The Piano (d. Jane Campion)

A/N: I think I’m making better progress at getting through 1993, I’m still lagging behind Walter who has had time to espouse shocking views on both the Best Supporting Actress category (HERE) and the Best Original Screenplay category (HERE). Walter’s thoughts on both categories are shocking and vaguely heretic for a number for of reasons, among them his lack of appreciation for The Piano. So, onwards to the winner of three Oscars – Jane Campion’s The Piano. And, naturally, I make multiple pit stops at 2009’s Bright Star, because I have a one-track mind (for Ben Whishaw, of course).

I feel I should say up front that my favourite Jane Campion film is NOT The Piano, but her most recent 2009 work on Bright Star. (Incidentally, it’s the Campion except for In the Cut, probably, that’s most likely to be hailed as minor Campion, but that’s neither here nor there, really.) There are a number of reasons I like Bright Star as much as I do but principal among them is the way that the subject of a romance through poetry just seems to fit so well with Jane Campion’s talents as a director. Her direction has always been symbolic, lyrical even and there’s that moment in Bright Star tells Fanny:

“A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to shore; it’s to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought.”

The three sentences are an expert riff on Keats on words on the idea of negative capability which he coined, but as good as a window to Keats as it is I’ve since always felt that line functions excellently as a window to Campion the director, too. And rewatching The Piano this time around it was the thrill of luxuriating in the waves of the film’s sensations and not trying to work it out that I felt to be most paramount.

(See, that Bright Star had a point.)

As far as difficult-to-review films of 1993 go The Piano is not as sprawling as Farewell My Concubine but what it has it lacks for in expansiveness it more than makes up for in density even though narratively it’s really very simple (naturally, deceptively so). Ada is a single mother living in Scotland who is mute. We don’t know why. She does not seem to either. She is married off, by her father, to a land owner in New Zealand and off she and her daughter, Flora, on an arduous journey by sea with her possessions – among them her most prized possession, a piano. On the shore, she and Flora wait for her betrothed to arrive. But the road from the trek to the home of her new husband, Alisdair, is too difficult and there are too few men. So, Alisdair has the piano left behind on the shore. It irritates Ada, and immediately puts their relationship on unsteady ground.

But this is not the end of the piano. It is appropriated by another Baines, Scot living nearby who offers Alisadir a generous plot of land in exchange for the abandoned piano and lessons to be taught by its former owner. Baines is no music lover, though, but hopes to use the piano lesson rendezvouses as way to spend time with Ada who he is attracted. Eventually a compromise is left. Baines will grant Ada possession of her piano back in exchange for lessons not of the musical nature but of the sexual. Eventually, of course, things come to a head as they must with Flora functioning as an, at times inadvertent and at other times deliberate, harbinger of disaster. So, as I said, as far as plot goes The Piano is simple, basic even. And even on that note I’m not too comfortable completely acceding to because even though it reads as romantically charged plot-wise, The Piano is primarily a story about identity. (There is romance, not in the artful postures of the way it is typically represented or perceived, but it is there but still not the crux of the drama). The eponymous piano is thoroughly Ada’s, and is tied to her in a way that makes its existence as a symbol all the more strident.

...more of me attempting to (and failing to) explain The Piano's excellence in the prose it deserves ...

And, of course, here comes the crux – as much I want to follow Keats by way of Campion’s words and just luxuriate in the sensations the poetic nature of the film in the way, for example, that’s it’s rife with symbolism has me luxuriating in sensations but simultaneously trying to figure out. As far ensuring that you feel as much as think The Piano gets it right immediately because, boy, is it a movie that knows a few things about setting mood. 1993 has more than a few films that are great at mastering the technical aspects of filmmaking and ensuring that they’re working in tandem with the film’s overall goal and The Piano is one of the best. To recall poetry again, the almost poetic fallacy of the way landscape and climate informs character and narrative is one of my favourite things about the film visually. And it’s all very attractive without being particularly pretty. Campion and her technical team can do pretty, and do it well but The Piano is not about prettiness, it’s not even about prettiness disguising sturdiness. Ada is complicated, and messy and oftentimes difficult to understand or sometimes truly empathise with in her stolid implacable. And the film is coloured with browns and greys and muted tones that at first make it seem not necessarily unlovable but not immediately eye-catching. As the film develops as the terrain appears more and more barren, Ada and those around reveal themselves to be more complex and buoyant than the visuals. For certainly she is as ruggedly resilient as Alisdair’s grimy ranch, but she is also richer than the not completely unattractive pale hues.

Critically, even though this is Ada’s story – thoroughly – Jane is willing to approach each of her characters with the same empathy she gives to Ada. That’s why in the film’s most excitable scene, of course occurring amidst a downpour making the terrain even muddier, when emotions are very high imprudent actions seem not necessarily villainous but achingly human and tragic. But even as we continue to, if not understand, care for the people around Ada we’re always achingly aware that The Piano is a movement through her quest for her identity. It’s through that understanding that something like a fateful moment near the film’s end begin to take on so much more importance. It sounds gauche to say, but (and here’s where I ignore my own advice and find myself trying to, ultimately, work The Piano out just a little bit) much about the film is about Ada’s search for her voice. Campion’s wisdom is that she never tells us why Ada stopped speaking, we just know she decided to and the physical piano as enabler or instrument seems paramount in considering its ultimate fate. I’ve pondered so much on it, one of my many ways of working it out wondering if it everything after the last time we see the piano in the real world is imagined.

It might seem to be something of a copout to say that the film benefits from its disinterest in explaining anything, much, to us like the whys of Ada and Baines attraction, or Flora’s unpredictability (beyond her being a precocious child who takes particular impish delight in wielding control) or Alisdair’s distinct loathing for The Piano but watching it, it’s impossible not to feel regardless of straight knowledge. And thusly, the tale of the woman and her piano enchants.

Grade: A


Brittani Burnham said...

Great write up! I love The Piano. The piece 'The Heart Asks Pleasure First' is one of my favorite piano pieces ever. I can play it very slowly and horribly. lol

Walter L. Hollmann said...

Oooh, you know, I do admire the handling of Sam Neill's character. It's a very human, heartbroken performance.

But man. This movie. I wish I liked it more than I do.