Dir. Jane Campion. Starring Holly Hunter, Sam Neill, Harvey Keitel
Someday, God forbid, Holly Hunter will die and everyone is going to rewatch her movies and wonder why she was not the most revered actress of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Her performances live somewhere between our retinas and our spinal columns, pulsing through our fluids and shuddering through our backs. In Broadcast News, her performance is quite possibly perfect; in Crash, she is one of the rare actors to turn the immense turn-on of a car crash into a tremendously kinetic experience the audience can recognize; in The Piano, every inch of her face expresses something, and every muscle in her arms and back seems to know how best to move us. She has a hilarious moment where her entire body – all like, four and a half feet of her – is ramrod straight, her eyes are wild with anger, and she flips out her right hand with a quick gesture that could not more perfectly express the idea, “What on earth are you talking about?” That slow smile that goes over her face as she plays her piano on the beach after having left it behind is stunning. It is the relief of sinking into a warm bath, the jump of seeing your lover come toward you in the airport, the pain of loss and neglect mitigated by cooing, soft attention. When her husband, Alisdair (Neill), places her right hand on the chopping block we’ve seen so often, screaming in the rain, hatchet in the hand, wild with jealousy and sexual repression, she wordlessly gazes ahead. Her hands fumble at his leg, but the look in her eye is pure resignation in contrast to the unshakable will she has evinced for nearly two hours. It’s one of those moments in a movie that you keep replaying every time you close your eyes. Hunter gives this performance without speaking, which is the equivalent of having the best dinner of your life in a starred restaurant and discovering that the chefs used kitchen tools made from aluminum foil and duct tape. Hunter’s distinctive voice is part of what makes her so wonderful; giving an essentially silent performance, using the piano itself as the most powerful vocal organ of the movie. It outshouts Harvey Keitel’s soft demands, Neill’s stern warnings, and Anna Paquin’s gaily accented lies; if Hunter’s Ada could speak, then no doubt her voice would have the power to do just about anything short of creating light from nothing.
There are studies out there which note how much men dominate conversations which include both men and women; three-quarters of the time in integrated conversations belongs to men, and no small part of that is stolen away, via interruptions, from women with the temerity to try to say their piece. Alisdair Stewart has managed to find himself a mute wife, and yet she still takes away too much airtime for him. She has adapted to her voicelessness in ways outside her thin lips and her exasperated dark eyes and the frequently distant piano. She has sign language and a shrill little translator in Flora, a notepad which is always around her neck, and the security of knowing that she can always throw something on the floor and make a bang (or at least a mess) that way. Yet all of these, including the piano, are too much for Stewart to bear. Sam Neill plays a part which requires him to be not merely repulsive in the way that most 19th Century chauvinists are repulsive, but to be just really, intolerably, and unrepentantly wicked. His bride has dragged a piano with her from Scotland. She makes it known to him that it is her most treasured possession. Stewart seems confused by a woman who cares more for a piano than for her kitchen tools or clothes, and tells her that he does not have the manpower to carry the piano back. It becomes clear, quickly, that he has no intention of bringing the piano with him; a reasonable man willing to merely make a good impression would have the piano moved away from the tides and promise to bring the men back to get the ungainly instrument. But he doesn’t. And in the future he still doesn’t listen to his wife or even pretend to. Her protestations, whether signed or written or smashed, are not enough to gain her attention. Her relationship with Baines fascinates him; he watches his wife’s affair, alternately feeling indignant and powerfully aroused. We learn viscerally, as he hides underneath Baines’ house to watch his wife have sex with another man, that sex is what he ordered Ada for, and her total dismissal of him is more than he can tolerate. His hatchet is his strongest weapon against her voice because it can be used on the piano. When it ends up in his house, thanks to Baines, he ultimately strikes it with the hatchet, and then, of course, chops off at least one of Ada’s fingers in what is a deliberate attempt to get her to shut up. Ada’s seeming telepathy (…it sounds weird, but it honestly makes sense in the movie) is “spoken” while Stewart, lit in an ugly red and green, tries to take advantage of her unconsciousness to have sex with her. Only that manages to get him to pay attention; it takes something nearly supernatural to convince him to change himself.
(No piece of the movie is more inexplicable than the events which lead to Ada’s roughly amputated finger. Ada removes a piano key, inscribes with a message of undying love, and, in a backward way to ensure that she stays in the house that Stewart has only recently converted from prison to home again, tells Flora to take it to Baines. Flora takes it to Stewart. The more I think about it, the more reasons I can see for Flora to exact this kind of punishment for her mother, who has been increasingly shutting her out. Flora has also adapted to life in New Zealand a little more readily than her mother has. But in the moment, it is too great a betrayal to understand reasonably. Eleven-year-olds are not known for their nuance or their foresight, but at the same time Flora acts baldly and decisively against the only person who has always been there for her in favor of a stranger who has shown her no warmth or kindness. The Piano is, in several areas, almost totally flawless. In this one place, the movie falls flat for me because the most obvious reason for Flora to hand Stewart the piano key has to do with moving the plot and not with an understandable motivation; unfortunately, this is also the key to the movie’s climax.)
The relationship between Baines and Ada is unique among the relationships I’ve seen in movies. It begins as a textbook example of sexual exploitation. You can earn your piano back from me, Baines says to her; he has bought the piano from Stewart and brought it into his small home. But you will do it one key at a time (which Ada negotiates down to black keys), and what you do will be explicitly sexual in nature. Raising her skirts up so that he can see the small hole in her stockings, stripping down to undergarments above the waist, lying naked in bed next to one another: Ada makes a choice to play his game so that she can have her release and her voice back, at least a little bit at a time. Eventually Baines gives the piano to Stewart, explaining to Ada, “It’s makin’ you a whore and makin’ me wretched,” which is the clearest expression of thought that any white man has in this entire movie. Eventually, as noted before, Ada does fall for him despite the untoward and inauspicious beginnings of their relationship, and while it feels strange and awkward, it doesn’t feel wrong. Baines is a white man who has fallen in with the Maori rather than the others who look like him. Ada is a mute sold by her father to a man across the planet who she’s never seen before and cannot love. With the rain always falling, with the mud always deepening, and with an unbelievable blueness tinting the earth and sky, it is no wonder that the two reach out for each other in their time of emptiness. Baines is kinder than any other man Ada knows in New Zealand and can communicate with. Ada is more beautiful and more of a human being than any woman that Baines knows in New Zealand. They fall into one another’s arms almost accidentally, and The Piano does not pretend that the two of them are soulmates or are somehow destined to be together. The Piano, insofar as it is a love story, is a love story of practicality. Neither Ada nor Baines seems to have much purpose if the other isn’t there to run their fingers across their body.