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14th March 2022

Golden Oldies: The Piano and fighting the patriarchy

Michal Wasilewski revisits Jane Campion’s The Piano, analysing the classic film’s themes, cultural context, and relevance
Golden Oldies: The Piano and fighting the patriarchy
Photo: Kiama Library @ flickr

This article will discuss the film’s story, including spoilers about the ending.

Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog has been storming through this awards season, winning one ‘Best Film’ award after the other. Campion is no stranger to critical and awards success, however, and it is certainly a good time to revisit her other most acclaimed film, The Piano. 

Having premiered in Cannes in 1993, the film already made history upon its release. The Piano grabbed the festival’s main prize, the Palme d’Or, making Jane Campion the first woman to ever win this prestigious trophy.

After the Cannes triumph, the film became a success in the UK and the USA. It went on to receive 8 Oscar nominations, winning the awards for Best Lead Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Screenplay. The nominations included a nod for Jane Campion in the Best Director category, making her only the second woman in history to receive that nomination (after Lina Weltmüller for Seven Beauties almost 20 years prior).

The story, inspired by Jane Mander’s novel The Story of a New Zealand River, centres around Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter). She’s a single mother who is sold by her Scottish father into marriage on the other side of the world. Emigrating to New Zealand with her daughter, she also takes her piano on the journey. 

Ada is voluntarily mute and expresses her feelings and desires through the instrument and through sign language, which her daughter, Flora, can interpret. Ada herself says she doesn’t consider herself mute because of her ability to convey everything through music: “The strange thing is, I don’t think myself silent. That is because of my piano”.

When Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill), the man she has been arranged to marry, arrives with his friend George Baines (Harvey Keitel) and a Maori crew to meet Ada on the beach, it becomes clear that he is short of appreciation for Ada’s passion. He claims that there is no room for the piano in his house, and he decides to abandon the instrument on the beach.

It becomes clear that Stewart is not the only one to fancy Ada, as Baines becomes quickly enamoured by her nature. Upon Ada’s request, he agrees to take the piano into his house. Ada’s husband, unaware of Baines’ attraction to her, agrees for Baines to undertake piano lessons from her.

Ada’s piano skills are unmatched. The score composed for the film by Michael Nyman becomes the main character at times, his music resonating with every emotion felt by Ada. “She does not play the piano like we do. She is a strange creature. And her playing is strange, like a mood that passes into you” – says one of the village’s women, equating Ada’s music to sounds creeping inside the listeners.

Because of her muteness, Ada is unable to freely communicate with anyone in her surroundings. Therefore, The Piano turns to exploration not only of music, but also of touch and all its possible meanings, whether it be power, pleasure, love, or violence. In spite of anything happening on the screen, this gives the film the layer of subtlety that masculine cinema has always been short of.

The whole world of The Piano acquires the subtlety and sensuality that Ada carries within herself. The femininity of the film’s nature is undeniable, and it finds its roots in everything Ada brings to the patriarchal environment she had been sent to. This is the kind of film that could not have been directed by a man, and a story that would not have been expressed in a similar way had it been written by a man. Holly Hunter, whose portrayal of Ada brought her the Oscar, agrees that Campion “manifests the female point of view”.

“I was about 16 when I saw The Piano, and I’d never seen anything expressed in that way. To me, so much of filmmaking feels fundamentally masculine… but when we’re honest with ourselves and we’re working from our unconscious, I think the work looks like that.”

says Maggie Gyllenhaal, who released her directorial debut, The Lost Daughter, last year.

Ada’s tragic fate is being merely an object in the world dominated by men. Just like the ownership of the piano becomes a part of trade deals between men, so does she – first sold by her father to Stewart, and then being a subject of negotiations between Stewart and Baines. 

It comes to no surprise that Baines does not actually want to learn to play the piano. He orders Ada to play, while he, aroused by the music, pleasures himself. Throughout the next lessons, Baines promises Ada to give the piano back to her if she agrees to indulge in his sexual fantasies.

Baines does not conceal that he desires Ada on a level deeper than purely sexual, that she awakens the deepest feelings within him. She acknowledges it quickly and learns how to use the situation to her advantage.

Behind the mask of a primitive and sexually frustrated man, lies another layer to Baines. Unlike simple-minded and tyrannical Stewart, Baines might deep down be a sensitive empath, even if he cannot express it.

I would argue, therefore, that the figure of Baines is not that of an aggressor. And comparably to Phil Burbank, the character played by Benedict Cumberbatch in Jane Campion’s latest film, Baines is a victim of the patriarchal environment he lives in. It does not justify his obnoxious way of approaching Ada and communicating his attraction. It does, however, highlight how patriarchy and social environment replete with traditionalism can change people for the worse.

When Baines shows his naked body to his lover for the first time, there is a piercing sense of vulnerability and femininity. Therethrough, Campion manages to distinguish between Ada’s belligerent husband and her more soft-hearted lover. After all, Baines’ dream is for Ada to desire him. This becomes even clearer when instead of searching for pleasure for himself, he concentrates on giving pleasure to Ada – a sex scene of a rare kind in the male-dominated world of cinema.

The contrast between the male characters becomes clearer when Ada’s husband finds about the ongoing romance. Enraged, he cuts off one of Ada’s fingers so that she could never play the piano again. This outburst of toxic masculinity results in Stewart ordering Ada and Baines to leave. They depart from the beach together, the piano with them on the small boat.

Then, in what should be the film’s last scene, the main problem with the story arises. Certain that she will never be able to play the piano again, Ada tells Baines to throw the instrument overboard. With her foot deliberately tangled in the rope attached to the piano, she plunges into the ocean.

This would be by all means the perfect poetic ending to the story of the woman losing her passion, the thing that mattered to her above all else.  “For freaking hell’s sake, she should have stayed under there. It would be more real, wouldn’t it? It would be better. What if Ada just went down with her piano – that’s it” – said Jane Campion in an interview 20 years after the film’s release, mentioning that the ending she had chosen for the film still haunts her to this day.

This is not how the film ends, however. Campion admits that she “didn’t have the nerve at the time” to end the film there. When already under water, Ada changes her mind and frees herself from the rope, as her lover pulls her to safety.

The film then proceeds with a happy ending, an epilogue showing the new life Ada and her daughter lead with Baines. With a metal finger made by Baines, Ada is now giving piano lessons and learning how to speak. As noted by Campion, it is not a believable ending, and I would argue that it might undermine the whole feminist message of the film.

Had Ada drowned with her piano, it would have provided the story with a powerful and uncompromising message that no man can replace a woman’s true passion. That a man is not a cure-all, that he can’t fix everything. Choosing to live and ending up happy with Baines, the message of the film might be read as anti-feminist. After all, the happiness she had lost with losing the finger and her beloved instrument, becomes regained thanks to a man.

However, it poses an interesting question: how feminist could cinema be back in the day? “Things were pretty tough at that time for women”, says Jane Campion in the interview for Vanity Fair, although it is a sentence that could have been said by every aspiring woman filmmaker. 

Coming into an all-male world and fighting to find and express their own voice, women filmmakers had to compromise. It is safe to say that many mainstream audiences were not ready for feminist cinema. Maybe by giving the entire film a strong feminist and anti-patriarchal notion, but by making the ending sufferable for audiences by means of the happy epilogue, Campion achieved something greater.

After all, The Piano earned a staggering 140 million dollars in box office with a production budget of only 7 million. It made history with Campion’s nominations and wins, ultimately becoming a huge classic of cinema. 

The Piano is also a sign of its times. It is a reminder of how tradition and patriarchy influences art. Had it been made today, Ada’s story would have had a different ending. An ending that would put passion and feminine independence above the cure-all masculine embrace. However, this would not have been possible without the pioneering works of this kind of cinema which managed to break out into the mainstream. Amongst these pioneering works, The Piano will forever hold a place of honour.

The Piano is available to watch on Netflix.

Michal Wasilewski

Michal Wasilewski

Managing Editor of Culture for The Mancunion.

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