Two from Jane Campion, in order from older to not-as-old. The Piano is one of those films that peppers syllabi throughout film studies courses, functioning as it does as a textbook case of numerous cinematic motifs and psychoanalytic themes. As a plus, it’s a somewhat “feminist” film, in the vein of a Mildred Pierce or something. At least some of Campion’s other efforts are also in this vein. The point isn’t so much to create a feminist world as to depict the plight of women in a decidedly non-feminist world and allow a woman to come up out of the water, as it were (and in The Piano, it were).
First viewing of this film was only a clip or two, in order to illustrate the notion of castration. Ada (Holly Hunter) is mute by voice but quite eloquent via her piano. Thus the removal of her instrument from her life constitutes the removal of what voice she has; perhaps not quite true, since she does have her daughter (note, not a son) to interpret her signs and vouch for her when she is being wronged, as she often is. The identification of woman with the o/Other, the foreign, the exotic, is confirmed by her romantic affair with Baines, a man who has adapted to the Maori ways completely. Ada’s staged marriage is bound to be unhappy; her husband does not respect her voice but rather instructs her to teach Baines how to play – as if a woman’s voice is good only for amplifying a man’s. Baines’ lack of interest in playing may seem sweet of him, and the film seems to want it to seem sweet, but the moves he makes on Ada makes her the instrument of his happiness. Unless he can fully “have” her, however, his happiness cannot thrive.
Ada’s husband Alistair (Sam Neill) understandably doesn’t like the backdoor shenanigans and decides to make the quintessentially castrating gesture: chop off Ada’s finger, thus rendering her handicapped to play. The role her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) has to play in the discovery of Ada’s guilt is highlighted by the somewhat excessive squirt of blood from Ada’s digital stub that lands on Flora. Ada’s silence even after this event is of course consistent with her additional loss of voice, but her emotional resilience in the face of violence and blood works as another instance of the woman’s reign over blood territory. This theme will be highlighted and explored much more fully in Campion’s later film In The Cut.
So many overt signs in this film distract the viewer from what is a pretty complex web of meaning below the surface. One gets the strong impression that Campion knows the tools with she is working very well, particularly since the project is, in many ways, Woman. The way filmmakers in recent years have created decidedly feminine portraits of women staged in eras of male dominance keeps the feminist presence bumping into the glass ceiling. It forces a level of restraint that a contemporary setting would not have to respect. This is fitting, since the contemporary world has plenty of active proponents doing the sorts of things Campion wants to happen; the main problem now isn’t so much “the now” as the history of suppression and voicelessness that have defined women for ages upon ages. Campion and others are retroactively giving a voice to the voiceless throughout history.
Voices aside, though, what The Piano reveals in its big picture is an intuitive fact the has certainly dominated history, no matter how white or male are the historians: events, from the greatest events (think Cleopatra) to the least significant, are what they are because of women, even if the women are given no acknowledgment in the history books. This isn’t to say that women “control” history, but it is to say that men certainly don’t, either. It is Ada’s presence in the filmic setting of The Piano that provides the drama. She is the catalyst for every male action, whether chauvinist or not. The film could have easily been shot from a different point of view, reducing Ada to the level of a pawn in a war between two men. Instead, the men become something like pawns of hers, and she is able to remove the socially-inflicted crutch of an object petit a (the piano), though it nearly drowns her, on her own without any male assistance. This is a structured and restructuring deconstruction of the heretofore prevailing idea that men are the power-holders. In the all too a priori world of psychoanalysis this may always be the case (with regard to the phallus), a film like The Piano shows men without any real power and woman as the one who has only to release herself from herself – not from man – in order to possess it.