Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) leaves me with an outburst of emotions every time I watch it. It flows poetically, with its vigorous but sentimental music, dark but dreamlike atmosphere and silent but extremely loud main character Ada (Holly Hunter). Ada’s muteness makes her all the louder, as the characters around her grow desperate to understand what she doesn’t say. Her tools to communicate with the world, her piano and her little daughter, both betray her as she tries to find her voice through exploring her desires, her pleasure and pain. The Piano is not a love story, it is a story about pleasure and punishment.
The piano itself can be read like a character in the story, and it is clearly an object of desire. This becomes most apparent when Alisdair (Sam Neill) watches the piano from behind a velvet curtain, a curious mist covering the instrument and flowing past it. Alisdair walks to the piano, naked, caressing the piano with the clothing he took off. The piano is not the object of only Alisdair’s desire, it is also the object of Ada’s desire. In fact, in the very beginning it is Ada who caresses the piano. While waiting at the beach with her daughter to be collected by George (Harvey Keitel) with their belongings, she opens a hole on the piano’s box and reaches her hand inside the box to gently place her fingers on the keys. The shot feels as if we are watching this sentimental act secretly through a hole, hinting at the voyeurism we see throughout the movie. The imagery portrays sexual tension as well as a sentimental undertone.
For Ada, her piano is not only an instrument for expressing her feelings. The piano symbolizes her feelings that exist apart from her body and within an object she cannot completely obtain. She constantly desires to reach and touch the piano, a part of her she cannot completely dominate. Alisdair also desires that part of her. They both desire what Ada’s piano stands for; and through the piano they communicate this desire to each other.
The piano is sexualized starting from the very beginning. When we are first introduced to the piano, it is hidden in a box safe from curious and lustful eyes. Its form is revealed to us slowly. We see it first through a hole, the sunlight illuminating only a few keys, Ada’s fingers caressing them. Then we see the elegant body as it is transported into Alisdair’s home and gets fixed. Later we see the piano’s curvy legs, standing parallel to Ada’s legs as she plays the piano. The piano is not a simple, plain piano, its body and legs are ornamented by engravings; it is as fancy as a gentlewoman of the 19th century. It moves from hand to hand throughout the movie, as it is carried, touched and analyzed by men. It keeps changing location and becomes the subject of transaction between George and Alisdair.
When Alisdair wants to buy the piano from George in exchange for land, George is unaware of what he is selling, therefore he is surprised to hear Alisdair give up land so easily. Unlike George, Alisdair is very much aware of what he is intending to buy; he is not buying a simple piece of furniture, he is not buying a mere musical instrument. He is in fact buying a very important part of Ada. Ada is also aware of this from the moment she hears George has sold her piano to Alisdair. When she goes to Alisdair’s house, she is already aware of what Alisdair’s ownership of the piano implies.
Alisdair is a white man who has chosen to adapt to the native way of living. He says he can’t read, but he speaks the language of the people around him. As soon as he hears Ada play her piano, he understands Ada’s language as well. Even before he hears her play, he understands her much better than George does. George asks Alisdair what he thinks about Ada’s appearance when they go to the beach to collect Ada. He answers ‘she looks tired’. Whereas George sees Ada as a bought object, Alisdair sees her as a human being. Ada is anything but sympathetic towards Alisdair in the beginning.
When she learns George has sold the piano to Alisdair, she tells him through her daughter that Alisdair is an ignorant man who can’t read; therefore, he won’t understand music. Thus, when she goes to Alisdair’s house to play the piano for the first time, she and her daughter are surprised to find the piano in tune. Alisdair is not ignorant, he knows enough to think that the piano’s tune should be fixed, and he is sensitive enough to have it done before Ada arrives.
When the native women tell him he needs a wife, he tells them that he has a wife who is living her own life back in England. The natives seem eager to find him a wife among themselves, but he seems indifferent. He is already interested in earning Ada’s affection. He chooses to be with Ada over being with a native woman, although it is a forbidden affair. In spite of his capability to act like a member of the Maori people, it seems that deep down he desires to be with a woman who reminds him of his own land. Maori people have no problem with nudity, in contrast to Ada’s layers of clothing and her discomfort when she sits naked next to Alisdair for the first time. Perhaps it is this secretiveness, the mystery surrounding her, what makes her so desired. Everything she can’t and won’t say, everything she doesn’t reveal, becomes her power. She is powerful through her silence.
The film is set in 1850s New Zealand, ten years after New Zealand was officially colonized by the British. The land is the homeland of Maori people, and at the time the Europeans are still newcomers to the land. George Baines (Keitel), the lonely colonialist, has a timid strangeness towards the people around him, most of all towards his own wife. He ‘orders’ Ada from her father, who in return sends her on a boat with her daughter, her piano and the rest of her belongings. George is a white man with enough wealth to live in ease, he is in a position of power and he certainly is not mute; yet he cannot communicate.
To begin with, he cannot communicate with the Maori people whom he should dominate; he doesn’t know their language and he isn’t keen on learning it. Without Alisdair who translates, George wouldn’t even be able to give his orders to those he pays for their labor. George can’t communicate with Ada either, because he refuses to listen to her starting from when he refuses to take her piano into the house. The only person he can communicate is the religious housemaid, who is a shallow woman with no intellect nor empathy to understand Ada. She keeps feeding George with unintelligent explanations about why Ada acts the way she does; and asking George whether Ada got any more affectionate.
George is unable to make anyone love him, and this is his greatest weakness. He tries to be the cold, insensitive colonialist his position requires him to be, but he seems ridiculous at being the authority figure. He ‘meant to love’ Ada as he puts it; but treating her as if he owns her has nothing to do with love. He acts, but he can’t express himself. He keeps talking, but no one listens to him. He is voiceless. Not only is George unable to be heard, he is unable to hear. Only after he learns Ada is deeply in love with Alisdair that George hears her. Standing in contrast with him, Ada has a loud character and has influence over people’s lives.
George has a desire to rule over people’s lives. However, to dominate people he first needs to understand them. He lacks the empathy and sincerity; he says lines and performs actions as if there is a prewritten script; he is trying to play his role successfully. Even his craziest action, cutting Ada’s finger off, is an imitation of the aggressive husband in the play the household staged out. He has no idea who he should be, or how he can be the person he thinks he should be. He fails to fulfil the part he thinks he has to fulfil. Whereas Ada’s and Alisdair’s actions come from their inner motivations, George’s actions come from social prejudices about how he ought to act. Thus, he has no voice, and he has no power over other’s lives, even his own.
Throughout the story, Ada proves to be a strong and loud individual; and she seeks to experience pleasure rather than to give it. When Alisdair offers her the bargain, Ada’s only desire is towards the piano. Thus, Alisdair is no less guilty than George for dictating Ada what to do; he forces her into obeying him as he does what he pleases. He touches her, first small parts of her body, and then her naked body. As the bargain continues, Ada seems to be playing her part only to reach her goal of earning her piano back. After Alisdair breaks the deal, saying that it makes him wretched and Ada a whore, Ada’s attitude changes.
No one could have Ada’s heart by imprisoning her body. Once the chains are broken, Ada longs for the touch she had been accustomed to. Ada has her piano back, but now she longs for more; her desire has taken a new form. She tries to replace Alisdair with George, trying to feed her senses by touching him, still she doesn’t let him touch her. Unable to move and touch, George trembles under Ada’s touch as Ada explores the curves of his body. Ada’s senses now exceed what she can show through her piano, and she is no longer the little girl she once was. She is completely on her own now, apart from her piano and her daughter (Flora, played by Anna Paquin).
The ending is bittersweet. It looks like a happy ending, yet something feels wrong. Is it her lost finger? Is it her lost piano? Is it her lost silence? Will Ada and Alisdair’s love and desire survive their new location? Will the two outcasts be able to survive there? Ada is practicing speaking now. She lost her piano, yet she is gaining her voice. Still one wonders whether she will be able to survive the loss of her silence, because many times silence was her real language.
She no longer has her piano, which was her voice apart from her silence. How long will her desires survive without the piano? The image of her floating figure at the bottom of the ocean hovers over her new life. Her hand that touched the surface of the water has seen the depths of the water. She survived, then why a part of her still dreams of being at the bottom of the ocean?