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An essay on Jane Campion's film

by Carmel Bird





Freedom Of Speech first appeared in Columbus' Blindness and Other Essays, edited by Cassandra Pybus, published by University of Queensland Press, 1994; ISBN 0-7022-2745-5

The Piano Copyright © Carmel Bird 1996.
All rights reserved

One of my aunts was born with no fingers on her right hand. She used to play the piano. My mother and all my aunts and all their friends used to play the piano. Nobody was brilliant at it; but they all did it. Many (but not all) girls of my generation learned to play too. I was so possessive of our piano that I carved my name into the back of it. Teaching girls to play the piano is less common now, not such a matter of routine. Times have changed.
But then, with your hands and feet you gradually got control of this big apparatus, and when it did your will, you could make it sing. Then it would express your feelings. Playing my piano gave me not only some power, but some voice. Power and voice were hard for girls to come by, and so the piano was a most treasured thing. If you had a piano to play and a horse to ride, you were almost complete.
Pianos have always attracted and fascinated me, and I have come to associate them with women and diaries and emotion, with power and sexuality. The diary was the safe private place in which women of last century could express their feelings and thoughts in words; the piano was private and subversive, yet at the same time it was safely public. Your audience pays attention as you tease the tunes from the strings. The strings are struck by hammers which get their signal from the keys which are struck by you. The glorious power in the fingers! (And imagine that clever aunt who could do it without fingers, too.)
The piano is made from beautiful wood, carved, with brass or silver candlesticks; it might have red silk behind fretwork; it might have images of flowers or birds inlaid in the surface of the case. It is a sweet, romantic, beloved thing. Like a big smile, the keys (made, once upon a time, from the tusks of elephants) lie before you, silent, waiting for you to strike. The picture of a girl at her piano is a charming picture -- the girl is safe behind closed doors, attached to the furniture, making pretty sounds. She feels good because she has the power to make music; her guardians feel good because she seems, while charming them, to be still within their control. A girl who practises the piano is not out in the woods with boys.
But what if you disrupt this picture of closeted innocence and virginity. What if you begin to see the girl as a being in search of some power; and you see the piano as her very centre of expression. Detach her from her piano and look with her inner eyes at that piano. The smiling mouth of the keyboard might be vaginal, mightn't it? Is the girl seated before a huge carved piece of female genitalia?
Jane Campion recently made a film in which a mute Victorian woman, Ada, used her piano in a most dramatic way to speak for her, to give her some power to move beyond the confines of her closed and stifling world. One narrative of this film The Piano is an eerie and terrible dreamscape in which the piano is vaginal, and is also a separate piece of property to be transported and bartered; another narrative is that of the story of Ada's life. If you are pulled deep enough into the dream narrative, you are likely to overlook the oddities and inconsistencies in Ada's life; but if you can resist the power of the dream, you might be troubled by the things that appear to pass for story, but which don't add up. Of course the dream and the life overlap and interweave -- so that it is not always possible to tease the two apart.
The piano itself straddles both narratives, but in the early scenes on the beach, its reference is surreal, and so it is first located in the dream in the mind of the viewer. But I have to go back before I even entered the cinema, for such is the nature of modern film that the viewer carries first the images from the publicity. First of all I heard that Jane Campion, whose work I admire, had made a film called The Piano. A blunt noun of a title, summoning at once strong and deep emotion and meaning for me. (Abstract titles such as Indecent Proposal, Gross Misconduct, Basic Instinct blur in my mind and I can't remember them, but The Piano was charged and unforgettable from the beginning.) Next I saw a picture of a small flat piano with four heavy carved legs stranded on an empty beach. So strange, so compelling. I was hooked, enchanted. I don't know now whether this still ever appeared in the film, but it was my leading image. Then I saw one of the pictures of the faces of Ada and her 10 year-old daughter Flora in their severe black dresses and bonnets. The eyes gaze each at different angles, filled with knowledge, power, and filled, above all, with will. Something dark and terrible appears to be going on. I began to see pictures of the crated piano accompanied by a bandaged piano stool and a bandaged sewing table. Something has been wounded. Then pictures of Ada in full doll-like black Victorian regalia. She reminded me of the ghost of Miss Jessel in The Innocents. Something spooky here.
So I entered the dream before the film came to the cinema.
One of life's treats is to read essays by Helen Garner. The only piece I read about The Piano before I saw the film was written by Helen Garner for The Independent Monthly. She was crazy about The Piano. Many people were. Many other people were very critical indeed. I wondered why the reactions were so extreme.
I was gripped by the film and the phenomenon of the film. Hence this essay. What I saw was the disjunction between the fabulously powerful dreamscape and the lack of continuity, of credibility in the story of Ada's life. I want to examine this disjunction. I don't necessarily always want everything neatly explained, but in the case of The Piano I (willing to be drawn along by the surreal and seduced by the images and symbols) saw questions posed but never answered, and I found myself hampered by the gaps.
By the time of writing this, I have read and heard many responses to the film. I have also read the script which was published -- more of an artifact than a straight script -- six weeks after the film was released here.
The story is set in 1847, a date chosen by Jane Campion because that is when Wuthering Heights was published. There are resonances of the Bronte novel in the film. The mute Ada (single mother) is sold by her Scots father to Stewart in New Zealand. She takes with her her two means of communication -- her daughter and her piano. In the wilds of New Zealand she finds Stewart unfeeling ?he trades her piano with Baines for some land. She then buys back the piano by playing for Baines, and by removing her clothing bit by bit. Stewart loses Ada to Baines, and in his rage he attacks the piano with an axe and chops off Ada's index finger. Ada and Baines set off by boat to live elsewhere, and Ada orders the piano to be thrown overboard. It drowns and she nearly drowns with it, but frees herself in time and begins a new life with Baines. She starts to learn to talk, and she teaches music using a silver index finger and a new piano.
Ada stopped talking when she was six. I wonder why. She doesn't know, herself. The young actor, Anna Paquin, who plays Flora comments: 'Some of the time I think Ada's a bit weird. Like, what happened to her that she doesn't speak? She hasn't spoken since she was six years old!' I think the question of why Ada is mute is a critical one. I thought throughout the film that an answer was going to become apparent, but it never did. The question hung in my consciousness all the time, and it still does. After all, the whole business of the piano and its fantastic role in the lives of the characters depends on the fact that Ada stopped speaking when she was six. Did her mother die then? Did some other dreadful event take place? The story of the piano was set in motion when Ada went mute. Why, why, why did Ada do that? The film does not have the quality of a fairy tale in which strange things can be accepted without motive, rhyme or reason. In dream we accept; but the fact of the silence does not have the nature of a dream. It is such an odd and dramatic piece of behaviour, and I think a story-teller can't be allowed to shrug it off. I find it very telling that Anna Paquin chose to comment on it. One sentence of explanation could have laid the problem to rest. Why didn't Jane Campion give us that sentence?
I have moved pianos across the city. These pianos were wrapped in blankets like Spanish horses at a bullfight, and moved around by men whose job it is to shift pianos. But the pianos always ended up hideously out of tune and needed a lot of love and attention before they would sing again. Imagine Ada's piano in its crate on the high seas. Then it gets left on the beach and the waves wash round its legs. And the mist comes down. It makes for glorious images, this poor piano, but what are we to believe about it? Could it really survive all that? Hundreds of thousands of pianos were brought to Australia and New Zealand by sea last century, and many were no doubt spoiled. I wondered how Ada's could survive the treatment it received. (In an arresting publicity still -- a shot that I think is not in the film -- Flora is sitting on the piano as it stands on the beach. I doubt that Ada would allow her to sit on the piano. But it makes a dreamy image, the child in white lace petticoats posing on the piano on the wild and wonderful shoreline.) As part of the dream imagery this piano is superb -- as the centre of a story it is problematic.



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