Piano-Forte


This article was commissioned by London Film School during our current edition of LFS Film Festival: Female Filmmakers. Subscribe to our YouTube channel and receive updates via our newsletter. Interested in writing for us? Contact Dan on d.kelly@lfs.org.uk with a portfolio of your work.


The emotional effects of most films wear off after a few hours of pleasurable escape. Occasionally, a powerfully artistic picture grips the imagination for several days, even weeks, months, years after. The satisfying connections between text and image seep gently through layers of intellect, saunter shamelessly through one’s consciousness, pop up to distract one from tedious quotidian tasks, steal into night-time dreamworlds: a resonant musical score, or terrifying symbolism reverberate across synapses like ripples from a pebble thrown into water. They, too, gradually fade.

Only one film has inhabited me completely for a full 27 years since viewing it. Its most potent images are as fresh as the day I first saw them. Mountainous waves crashing around a fragile piano abandoned on a beach; a mother and daughter in their own private universe, sheltering beneath a softly illuminated crinoline; a drowned woman suspended underwater; a severed finger.

Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin in The Piano (1993)

Apparently, I’m not alone. Many women who have watched Jane Campion’s The Piano have reported uncanny physical and psychological phenomena, such as inexplicably painful fingers and an obsession with drowning after seeing it. [Read pp.53–84 of Vivian Sobchack’s Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture.]

I saw The Piano as a young woman in 1993, its year of release. Like the reviewer for the usually lofty Screen journal (read in full here), “I was entranced, moved, dazed. I held my breath. I was reluctant to re-enter the everyday world.” At first, I couldn’t understand why I identified so closely with this tiny, black-clad Victorian-era Scotswoman, who at the age of six chose not to speak and who abandoned her motherly duties to fulfil her erotic desires with an illiterate backwoodsman.

It wasn’t until I was a bit older, having carried the sounds and images around like a talisman for several years, and beginning to learn about patriarchal power and Hollywood’s objectification of women that I finally understood. It was the first time I had seen female desire represented on screen by a woman director. It spoke to me as no film ever had before (and few have since) about the nature of female eroticism, and how social constructions of masculinity and femininity make it hard for women to speak and be heard.

It explained why the gentle touch of a finger on a piece of skin no larger than a penny, through a hole in a heavy worsted stocking, can send bolts of electricity up the spine.

Harvey Keitel and Holly Hunter in The Piano (1993)

Since The Piano first screened, women directors have come a long way, although no others have won the Cannes Palm d’Or. This September’s Venice Film Festival, for the first time, gets close to gender parity, with films by Chloe Zhao, Mona Fastvold and Jasmila Zbanic all in competition and Zhao’s Nomadland winning the Golden Lion. Ann Hui, LFS alumna was also honoured with a Golden Lion for career achievement alongside British actor, Tilda Swinton. There is, of course, everything positive about women’s improved representation, but it does mean that stunning shock of first-time recognition is increasingly rare.

For those who have not seen The Piano:

Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter), a single mother to young daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) and living in Scotland, is sent by her father to be married to Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neil), a colonial settler living in the forests of New Zealand. When she arrives on a wild coast, Stewart refuses to take her beloved piano back to his homestead, provoking Ada’s hostility from the beginning. Stewart’s neighbour, George Baines (Harvey Keitel) hears Ada playing the piano on the beach and understands its meaning for her. He enters into a bargain with Stewart: he buys the piano off Stewart (it has immediately become Stewart’s property on Ada’s marriage to him) in return for land that Stewart covets, and piano lessons from Ada. With Ada, the barter is more unusual: she may ‘buy’ the piano back off Baines, by playing it for him and letting him to touch her body as she plays. Eventually Ada falls in love with Baines, provoking intense jealousy in Stewart and Flora, who both seek their own revenge.

The Piano is not flawless. Its representation of Maori characters as comical naïfs is crudely stereotyped and some of the melodramatic symbolism is heavy-handed. Ada’s sexual bartering with Baines is also problematic, as it reduces her body to a commodity. However, the injustice of bargaining between unequal traders is a central theme in the film. Ada’s barter mirrors the negotiations between Stewart and the Maoris for their sacred land, which he offers to buy for blankets: a shameful trade-off in historical antipodean colonialisation underlining the powerlessness and lack of agency both in the Maoris and in Ada. In any case, Ada’s body was commoditised long before, by her father when he married her off to Stewart in the first place.

Sam Neill in The Piano (1993)

The Piano’s achievement, coming in that hiatus between second and third wave feminism, was its ceaseless questioning of assigned gender roles, the subversion of the woman-as-object tradition in film and the message that, in the end, the patriarch Stewart is also a victim of the patriarchy. He cannot make Ada love him. Despite his power, the limitations of his constructed masculinity mean he will never truly make a woman desire him, particularly one he obtained by mail-order.

Over all of this, the overpowering images of that wild coast and sea: roaring on the surface, silent below, the mirror image of mute Ada combine to make this film, even now, with thirty years of women’s progress in filmmaking after it, the most complete cinematic experience of my life so far.