I remember my first experience with The Piano. My Communist cousin (seriously, she had a picture of Stalin in her home) raved about The Piano. She thought it a simply brilliant film, quoting from it and not shutting up about it. She was so adamant about The Piano that she convinced my mother to see it after intense lobbying. Now, my mother is not someone who will see an art house film, let alone one that is still in first-run theaters. Nonetheless, in order to please her favorite...niece, she went to see The Piano. I was a young teen then, and figure I wasn't the target audience. Despite that, the most logical thing to my mother was to drag me along.
At the end of the film, my mother left in near-shaking fury. She was enraged at my cousin for recommending what she considered trash. She was also upset at me for not warning her about the film, despite me not knowing much if anything about it. Her anger towards The Piano has not lessened in the ensuing years, a loathed subject that she still brings up to trash my cousin's tastes. Bring up The Piano, and you'll see a scowl wrap around my mother's face, something to be reviled and never mentioned in good company.
I mention all this because I would not revisit The Piano unless I had to. My own views weren't as harsh as Mom's when I saw it, but I didn't like it. Now, due to a college course, I am required to rewatch The Piano. Has time softened my view of The Piano? Do I see it with new eyes and ears? The symbolism in The Piano is pretty overt and clear, and I can say I 'get it'. It doesn't mean I will ever be as enthusiastic for it as my Cousin Laura the Red Menace, but I can appreciate what there is in it.
Ada (Holly Hunter) has not spoken since she was six, the reasons for this lost even to her. Her father marries her off to a man she's never met, and off to exotic New Zealand she goes, accompanied by the two objects she loves the most: her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) and her piano, both of which serve as her 'voice'. Her new husband, Alisdair (Sam Neill) arrives one day late, which forced Ada and Flora to camp out upon the wild shore. Alisdair will not bring the piano with him, insisting it is too heavy to carry to their new home. Ada is furious at this, but there is nothing she can do about it, and she looks sadly upon the beach where her beloved piano is left.
Ada does her best to adjust, but cannot forget her piano. She and Flora go to the hut of Baines (Harvey Keitel), a white man who has adopted Maori ways (down to face tattoos), asking to have him rescue the piano for them when Alisdair is away. Baines at first refuses, but eventually goes, and seeing how Ada expresses herself through the piano he later negotiates with Alisdair to keep the piano for himself in exchange for some property. Ada is enraged when she hears her piano has been given to that savage, but again she can do nothing about it.
Baines then offers an indecent proposal: in exchange for the return of the piano, he can do more than listen: a 'lesson' for each key. Ada isn't keen on this idea, but agrees to this but the 'lessons' are to match the number of black keys rather than all keys. The various lessons don't have the intended effect for Baines, who now thinks the arrangement is not one of love but of interest. As a result, he insists on her taking the piano with their deal incomplete.
By this time though, Ada has developed feelings for Baines, less erotic and more passionate. She goes to Baines, and they do consummate their attraction by her own free will. Pity that Alisdair happens upon the scene (Flora having already witnessed it through a hole in the wall when Ada was pimping herself out). Alisdair is enraged, and literally boards Ada and Flora in the house, holding them prisoner. Shortly afterwards, he takes the boards down, but insists Ada not go to Baines ever again.
To get around this, Ada removes one key from the piano and writes a message on it: Dear George, you have my heart, Ada McGrath. She tells Flora to give it to Baines, but Flora, who disapproves of Baines and appears to favor the cold Alisdair, gives it to Alisdair instead. An enraged Alisdair goes and chops Ada's index finger (thus making piano-playing impossible) and orders Flora to give that to Baines, along with the message that if they contact each other again he'll cut off another finger. An understandably freaked-out Flora does as told, but appears really horrified by it all.
One night though, Alisdair 'hears' Ada's voice in his head, and she asks to be free to join Baines. Alisdair, moved by her 'plea', sends her, Flora, and the piano away to Baines. Baines decides to go to civilization and takes the piano with them, despite the protests of the Maori who think it is too heavy (like a coffin). Ada then asks Baines to throw it overboard, which he reluctantly agrees. Ada deliberately entangles her foot on the rope dragging the piano to its watery grave, which pulls her down too. However, at the last minute she makes a desperate bid for life and rises to the surface. We see them together, her attempting to speak and giving lessons (for real), with a metal finger to play.
Writer/director Jane Campion doesn't spare any attempt to hide the symbolism in The Piano. The piano is Ada's true voice and heart, how she communicates her deepest innermost feelings. It is a thing of eroticism. Baines at one point dusts the piano gently while completely nude, and the symbolism of his 'making love' to the piano (a substitute to the heart of this woman) is rather openly exposed (pun somewhat intended). The piano key upon which Ada inscribes her love note to Baines is also symbolic. This (piano) key to her heart is the most intimate thing she can give. She doesn't just give 'her heart' in words or even music, she gives her total soul and intimacy physical, emotional, and spiritual to Baines. When the Maori attempt to play the lone key, removed from the piano, when an enraged Alisdair rushes off to punish his unfaithful wife, they comment that the key is now silent. It makes no noise. We see again the symbolism: removed from its source, the sound of love is gone.
The fact that Alisdair is about to cut Ada off is foreshadowed here.
It is also foreshadowed by the presentation of the Tale of Bluebeard in the community, where a man is about to cut the hand off of an unfaithful wife who has entered the secret chamber where the heads of his past wives are in.
As a side note, this sequence did bother me a bit in that it presented the Maori as almost stupid people, incapable of differentiating between fact and fantasy. The Maori in attendance see the performance and think a man really is about to chop up a woman. As a result they storm the stage and begin attacking the players. It takes their leader (dressed in mostly Western clothes) a lot of interference to get them to calm down. I cannot shake the idea that Campion, product of the West, has some holdover ideas about how Maori (the savage) are not intelligent enough to understand 'culture'. This of course may be wildly wrong, but still I wonder what the point of this action by the Maori was.
The Piano has many positives, starting with the performances. Hunter has to act only with her face and body (in more ways than one), expressing so much emotion without benefit of her speaking voice (though in fairness, Hunter's distinct Southern accent would have made her playing a Scottish woman problematic at best). Still, she gives an excellent performance of a woman who speaks only through her piano. She makes the idea of a woman who speaks without words.
Paquin became the second-youngest Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner at age eleven for her performance as Flora (interestingly beating out Hunter for The Firm, Hunter being nominated in both Lead and Supporting Actress the same year), and I think it was well-deserved. In turns precocious and monstrous, Paquin was wild and uncontrolled as this figure of innocence lost. Keitel served excellently as Baines, a man caught between the civilized world and the 'native instinct'. Neill's weak Alisdair was not without some sympathy, even in his most shocking act. Unjustified, but understandable in a way.
The Piano has some beautiful cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh, with the dominance of grays to evoke the bleak twilight world of the silent Ada, and also bringing out bright light on the beach when she plays her beloved 'voice'.
Perhaps the greatest contribution to the success of the film technically has to be Michael Nyman's score. It's luxurious and beautiful, haunting and memorable, evocative of Ada's emotions and the wildness of the world she finds herself in. The failure of the Academy to not nominate Nyman for Best Original Score is perhaps one of the greatest scandals in Oscar history (up there with Eddie Redmayne's idiot win for Best Actor...any chance to bash Redmayne). While it might not have won (Schindler's List proving a juggernaut that year), The Piano still has one of the most extraordinary scores written for film. Truth be told, I think Nyman's score for The Piano is better than John William's score for Schindler's List. The main theme of The Piano, (The Heart Asks Pleasure First), is for me, one of the most beautiful pieces of music written for film.
Now we get to the negatives, and for me there are a few. I've already mentioned my uncomfortableness with the portrayal of the Maori as virtually dimwitted. The other one is the extent of the nudity. At some points, The Piano does veer close to pornography in its nudity and sexual content. The sight of Harvey Keitel going full frontal nude is shocking, as is when they get into bed naked. I think this is what troubled my mother the most, and after seeing it again it does trouble me a bit. Having been so subtle with her storytelling (despite the symbolism that is clear if you want to see it), I question why she felt we needed to see all and didn't opt for a more nuanced take on the intercourse. Could The Piano have worked if we had seen Ada's reaction to Baines' penis rather than seeing Baines' penis flopping about before us?
As much as I, not a prudish man, tried, the extent of the nudity and sexual explicitness of The Piano was a detriment. Yes, it had a purpose, but in this case, I think Campion could have pulled back a bit rather than indulge herself in showing us all about the pleasures of the flesh.
One last thing involves the symbolism. Again, for my tastes at times it was laid on a touch too thick. It wasn't overblown (Campion is too skilled a writer/director to not make it work) but for me, a little too much.
Still, The Piano is intelligent in its use of symbolism, along with some strong acting, beautiful cinematography and its simply haunting (and shamefully ignored) score makes it a much better film than the one I remember from all those years ago. My mother will never see it again that's for sure. For my part, I appreciated its craftsmanship, and I own the soundtrack. However, it is still something I won't rush to anytime soon.