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Indepth look at the motion picture The Piano.

Updated on January 7, 2008

The Piano

Imagine a gray and desolate coastline, a small section of which is covered with trunks and a large wooden crate containing a piano. Beside it sit a woman and her daughter who await the arrival of her new husband. This bleak scene begins the story of The Piano. Released in 1993, this critically acclaimed and award-winning film has caused debate over many things like the intended message to the viewers, the use of violence and sexuality, and even the cinematography. A story of strong will, unhindered passion, and a heart that would choose death over complete domination takes the viewer on a journey through the mind of one woman who never yields to the demands of others. Viewers are confronted with many issues and oppositions throughout the whole of the film, forcing them to analyze each detail for the smallest meaning. These, along with the excellent cinematography, create an intense and overwhelming piece of art that is, to this day, still being studied.

Ada (Holly Hunter), her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) and her piano, are sent from their 19th Century Scottish home to the New Zealand wilds for an arranged marriage with a farmer named Stewart (Sam Neill). Unable to speak, she uses her piano to express her feelings and her daughter to express her thoughts. Her new husband decides that the piano is to heavy to carry from the shore where they land and leaves it in the sand. She gives piano lessons to her primitive neighbor, Baines (Harvey Keitel), who rescues it from the shore, in order to gain it back from him. During this time, things develop into an illicit affair while her husband stands by helplessly. In the end, after being mutilated by her husband, Ada, Baines, and Flora are sent back to Scotland, where they at last are able to build their lives together. Only the piano does not survive, having been tossed overboard while on the journey home, almost taking Ada with it to its cold and watery grave.

There are many oppositions is this film. For example, the opposition between men and women is clearly present throughout. Stewart tries to control Ada from the beginning, not caring about her feelings in the least. This is shown when he refuses to carry her piano to his home. Also when he decides to trade it to Baines for land without first consulting Ada. Baines even shows some male supremacy, although he is portrayed as the hero of the story, when he forces Ada to bargain with him in order for her to regain possession of her piano.

Women in this film are shown to be weak and pleased by simple things like a community play or gossip. These elements are made obvious by the silent power Ada exudes. She does not become involved with the township nor is she able to gossip. She finds pleasure in her piano playing and nothing else. She has a strong passion for what she does and this overshadows the personification of how women are supposed to behave and feel. She does not care if she is betraying her husband with Baines because to her she is merely following her heart and doing what she feels is right by her standards. Even after Stewart cuts off her finger for this act of betrayal, she does not loose her resolve. She does not become his object. Her sheer force of will prevents him from ever consummating the marriage, even when this would have required rape, which he was fully prepared to do. There is a constant clash of wills between husband and wife and in the end it is Ada who wins.

Even more opposition is seen between Ada's passion and the strict Freudian-influenced rules regarding sex or anything remotely influencing sexual acts. Passion was almost forbidden in this time period. This is obvious by the way women dressed as well as the fact that the furniture legs were all covered with cloth. This was done with the idea that they might inspire sexual or indecent thoughts. The viewer can see the impact these ideas had on the society when they are placed directly next to the Maori tribe, who are native to New Zealand. They revere in their sexuality and openly speak of it, whereas the European community hides behind layers of clothing and tries to protect themselves from anything illicit. Passion is seen in this movie through the music, body language, the movement of Ada's hands on the keys, and the way Baines watches her play rather than just focusing on intercourse.

By reducing the character development of the men, a feminist response to the hatred of women present in the film is formed. Stewart and Baines are kept shallow, allowing Campion (director, writer, and producer) to do this. Campion forces us to consider the feminine desire in relation to Hollywood film. Unlike the sexual temptresses of normal movies, Ada is not a curvaceous, flesh-baring woman that captures the imagination.

Many critics have seen Campion's persistent concerns with gender politics and the disempowerment of women within the domestic sphere as evidence of a feminist sensibility. Feminist film critics have enthusiastically taken up her films for their depiction of strong female characters rebelling against the roles expected of them by patriarchal society. The disturbing nature of Campion's films comes from the physical and emotional violence that is inflicted upon women as with Ada and in The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman). Their husbands assault both women. The only difference is that Isabel is at last subdued by her passion while Ada's passion sets her free. Several of Campion's heroines are labeled as mad, crazy, or slow by virtue of their refusal to conform to what their society considers to be the feminine ideal.

White supremacy is also seen in the film. Stewart is shown from the start as pompous, emotionally stunted, insensitive and something of a cuckold. He is also the only white man in the film. Baines, although white, has symbolically transcended the typical definition because of the Maori tattoos on his face, which aligns him more with the Maoris than Stewart. During the whole movie you can see the way in which Stewart treats the tribal people. He has no respect for their culture and trades only small worthless items with them for their land.

A major part of this film is the cinematography. By his use of colors, Stuart Dryburgh controls the emotion of the film. While Ada and Flora are in New Zealand, Dryburgh uses muted grays and browns to show Ada's unhappiness. At the end, the sun is shining and all the colors are bright and vibrant, signifying her freedom from oppression. Several scenes in the end reflect on his strategy of shooting and printing, not in real time, but by filming at quarter-time and then printing each frame four times, so that the movement takes on a fated, dreamlike quality. This technique is called jump cutting. It personifies the quick moves from love, hate, indifference, and despair, all of which are important themes in the movie.

Another important element of the film is the sound. Michael Nyman uses his compositions to express Ada's emotions. When she is angry, she plays loud, quick melodies. When she is happy she plays a soft, haunting melody. Another element of sound that completes this movie is what is not heard. Ada is strong, willful, and needs desperately someone who sees her for who she is and not what she is incapable of saying. Because she does not speak, the viewer is not distracted by words and is able to read more deeply into her soul. The viewer is allowed to see fully the power she holds in just a glance.

For myself, this movie inspired feelings of helplessness and sadness as well as feelings of anger and resentment. The depth of the film allows the person to be transported into Ada's mind and to feel the same things she feels. When Ada lost her means of expression, which was her ability to play the piano, I felt as if I had lost something as well. I was given strength by her calm acceptance of Stewart's rage and I was so joyful when she was allowed to find her place with Baines. I feel that this movie speaks not only to the soul, but also the heart of men and women everywhere. It reminded me that the things we try to look for are not always obvious; it is what is unseen and unspoken that convey the true feelings of others.


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    • SammySammo profile image

      SammySammo 6 years ago from Boston, MA

      Also interesting is to compare this movie to the theme of Bluebeard and obedience. This is another movie I liked but would probably never see again.

    • StuartJ profile image

      StuartJ 9 years ago from Christchurch, New Zealand

      Very interesting review! Thanks.

    • profile image

      Sukwe 9 years ago


    • profile image

      Sukwe 9 years ago