I love movies. I have loved movies all my life. I grew up on them. When I was eight years old, I managed to convince myself I would make movies when I grew up. Now I am in the process of getting a degree in Film Studies. I write about film more than ever before, partly because I have to for my classes, mostly because I enjoy it, because I have something to write about. Sometimes it helps me understand the film better; sometimes it helps me understand myself better.
I created this blog as a place to showcase my work, and also as an incentive to keep writing reviews, analyses, and essays over breaks, when there’s no one here to grade me.
I have tried many times, and failed, to explain in a coherent manner why it is that I love films. Here is my best—and most coherent—guess.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Piano (1993)

Jane Campion’s The Piano, released in 1993, is a haunting, strange, strikingly beautiful and bold film unlike any other I have ever seen. It plunges headlong into the cold, desolate New Zealand beaches and the enchanting, intimate, and claustrophobic bush made up of brilliant blues and greens so vibrant it looks unearthly. The surreal quality and otherworldly nature captured in the underwater scene, which is not quite in slow motion, but not shot in real time either, invests the entire film. The movie might seem minimalistic and even sparse, but the universe it creates is one fervid with feeling and images of a dreamlike, unreal, mysterious lyricism.

The petite, black and white clad Ada (Holly Hunter in an Academy Award wining performance), with her pale skin, large dark eyes and hair parted severely in the middle and constrained twofold by a bun and a bonnet, is as out of place and incongruous in this environment as her English Broadwood piano is on the grey beach in the wind and rain. But just as Ada seems reserved, restrained, and remote, the film, too, is only deceptively small and quiet; like its main character, The Piano hides, under a discreet exterior, surprising strength and sexual passion. Nothing is quite what it appears in Jane Campion’s romantic, unique movie.

***This essay contains only mild spoilers, probably not much more than any review of the film.

Form the first scenes of the film we enter a world that is unknown to us, new and enigmatic. Ada, a Scottish mail order bride, has the sort of plain, steely beauty of a woman who’s wandered out of the pages of a Louisa May Alcott novel into the harsh, muddy, and damp New Zealand wilderness. Accompanied by her daughter Flora, with their possessions strewn around them in crates on the cold, grey coast, Ada looks like a beached remembrance of a genteel civilization.

The confusion of emotions the film will explore is seamlessly echoed in the confusion of communication and miscommunication of these opening scenes: English, Maori, sign language (decoded through subtitles), written messages, music, and, of course, stunted, fiercely proud silence clash, collide, and combine in an atmosphere of chaos. Even in the chaos of the bush, however, where people like Ada’s husband Stewart (Sam Neill) live messily in the mud and rain, they struggle in vain to maintain control through the appearance of the European society they’ve left behind. But for all the propriety and primness, the Victorian sensibility that infused that society has no place in the enchanting, fairytale-colored primeval forest of lush, rain-soaked vegetation and giant, imposing trees that are both threatening and charming. One juxtaposition of images in particular captures this perfect dichotomy in visual terms: from an overhead long shot of the beach, the sea’s waves crashing passionately against the sand, Campion places her camera directly above a teacup, staring into the elegant swirl of a silver spoon atop delicate flower-patterned porcelain.

This setting will provide the main female character, perhaps all the characters, with a rite of passage. In the beginning, Ada will not speak, and Stewart will not listen, leaving her piano, her voice, to the mercy of the elements on the beach and then trading it for a piece of land, but throughout the story she will be changed, her curiosity and sexuality awoken and released out of the hoopskirt cage they’ve been confined to. Ada is not a victim, but a woman who instinctively understands the situation and turns it in her favor. In the beginning of the film she is trapped—an idea suggested by several shots where we see her through foregrounded windowpanes—in a loveless, artificial marriage; even their wedding photo is fake, taken without a ceremony, Ada dressed in an unfinished-looking makeshift dress, against a picture background in the pouring rain. But while Stewart is supposed to represents this synthetic, insincere world of appearances, he masks a capacity for brutality and cruelty unmatched by any other character. Stewart lives in fear, sadness, and confusion; he has less of an idea of what intimacy should be than Ada, a Victorian woman, does, and wants control, not sex or love. The shocking scene where he follows Ada into the bush, and she gets caught in the bramble and falls as he tries to overpower her, as well as the later scene where he “clip[s] [her] wing” shows his true nature.

In contrast, the roughhewn, crudely mannered, illiterate Baines (Harvey Keitel) demonstrates unexpected depths of tenderness and feeling. The agreement they make for her to earn her piano back one black key at a time could have easily given way to lewdness and exploitation, but Ada is always in control, bargaining over the number of keys it would cost for her to take her jacket off, lift her skirt, or lie in bed with him, and communicating through her music when he can continue, and when he should stop.

Their romance is almost childlike in its innocence and straightforwardness; it’s like they’re playing a game. But certain isolated moments of tenderness betray Baines’ true feelings. In one scene, he crawls under the piano looking up at her legs, an act that could have given way to awkwardness and unintentional hilarity, but the earnestness of his emotions make it endearing. With one rough, dirty finger, he displays the sensitivity and gentleness that seem so unlikely for his appearance. Baines caresses a tiny hole in her stockings, demonstrating how observant he is, how open and affectionate, how he loves and wants to touch every inch of her body. Baines never asks her to do anything to him, always trying to please and caress her, to make sure she enjoys it. Nearly driven mad with longing, he undresses and presents himself to her, displaying the naked need of a man who asks for love. When he becomes convinced she cannot love him, he breaks off their agreement and gives her piano back. “The arrangement is making you a whore and me wretched,” he says; “I want you to care for me, but you can’t.” In depicting Baines and Ada’s relationship, Campion captures the slow, restrained eroticism from a uniquely female perspective, employing the elements of Gothic literature and the Victorian sensibility which mixes romance with exoticism and mystery. The sex scene is frank and forceful, but never glorified or gratuitous.

No comments:

Post a Comment