Jane Campion

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Robert Seidenberg (review date January 1990)

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SOURCE: "Sweetie: Jane Campion's Maverick Family," in American Film, Vol. XV, No. 4, January, 1990, pp. 59, 65.

[In the following review, Seidenberg examines Campion's treatment of family life in Sweetie.]

Dark, destructive forces simmer under the surface of everyday life, held at bay by repression and denial. Add a little pressure to the mix and those forces bubble over. In the offbeat comedy Sweetie, Jane Campion's feature debut, they erupt with volcanic force, bringing chaos to an Australian family.

"In families, like everything else, there's the good side and the sick side," explains Campion, a 35-year-old New Zealander living in Sydney. "In Sweetie, the family is in distress, and under stress things usually don't come out so well."

Fulfilling the prophecy of a fortune-teller, Kay (Karen Colston) falls for a man with "a question mark"—formed by a cowlick and mole—on his forehead. A year later, the road turns rocky. The brooding Kay turns frigid. Her romance dissolves. Even worse, she's visited by her manic sister, Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon).

Though she's an irresponsible, conniving adult, Sweetie still sees herself as daddy's little girl: a sweet, tap-dancing show-off with infinite potential. She'll stoop to anything to get attention, even barking and biting like an incensed hound. With her erratic behavior, she's detonated more than her fair share of family traumas.

"Sweetie has a powerful effect over the entire family," says Campion. "And her father doesn't help at all because he gives in to her. He loves the little girl she once was and is intimidated by the reality of her as she is now. He lives in a complete delusion about her."

Kay's equally deluded, but Sweetie's arrival inspires her to confront the truth. She examines her frigidity rather than rationalizing it away as "just a no-sex phase." She realizes that perhaps true love can't be found among gypsy-read tea leaves. And after a surprisingly bleak—yet hilarious—scene, she even begins to value her relationship with Sweetie.

Campion gracefully takes us on a private tour inside of Kay's mind—where it's evident that Kay herself is not well. Grainy black-and-white nightmares, haunting visions of strangulating tree roots, the disturbing memories and hallucinations that strike when eyes are closed—in these moments, captured in stunning compositions, Campion excels.

"I'm interested in the aspects of being human that aren't socialized—the undercurrent, the hidden agenda that we all live our lives by—because a lot of everyday life is like that," Campion explains.

In her quest to illuminate life beneath the surface, Campion's developing a distinctive style of her own. This first feature picks up where she left off in three shorts (Passionless Moments, A Girl's Own Story and Peel) that caused a stir at Cannes in 1986. The connection between these works, according to Campion, is their maverick approach. "It's obvious that I'm still working out how to put a film together," she half-jokes, "and that the normal way, the sort of seamless filmmaking that is basically American in origin, has totally eluded me. I'm obviously barking up some other completely separate tree.

"With Sweetie, we wanted to take a risk, but we also wanted people to have a relationship with the film somehow, to be touched and not just think, Hey, wow, this is weird."

Sheila Benson (review date 14 February 1990)

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SOURCE: "Move Over David Lynch, Here Comes Australia's 'Sweetie,'" in Los Angeles Times, February 14, 1990, pp. F2-F3.

[In the following review of Sweetie, Benson focuses on the relationship between Kay and her sister, Sweetie.]

We haven't had a movie as profoundly unsettling as Sweetie since Blue Velvet . David Lynch's dark metaphor created the...

(This entire section contains 905 words.)

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same reactions as Jane Campion's first feature; both of them have been called masterly and disgusting, by turns. But while Campion's vision is no less precise and no less bizarre than Lynch's and while both directors deal in manifestations of the unconscious, the comparisons stop there.

Writer-director Campion has her own powerful identity and a far less ominous affect. Sweetie is warm, intense and wickedly funny, with a faint edge of danger that's never quite absent, but it has none of Lynch's psycho-sexual torment. Made with a post-Modernist's eye and a brilliant satiric ear, Sweetie is the announcement of a singular, smashing talent.

Campion's subject is families, pressure-cookers with no safety valves. She seems to have total recall for details of jealousy and score-keeping, unquestioned love and resentment as she sketches the pulls between two sisters, Sweetie, "Dad's real girl," who's had lifelong, unquestioning love, and her sister Kay, who's never felt loved at all.

The story is set in one of the bleaker suburbs in Sydney, Australia, as a family is pulled off-center by its most demanding member, the outrageous Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon), a sometimes mental patient and decidedly free spirit.

Sad-faced and repressed, Kay (Karen Colston) is at the center of the story. In her late 20s and fleetingly pretty, she's Sweetie's slightly older sister. It's a relationship that has taken its toll. Any number of things unnerve Kay, especially trees, whose roots—like her family's—seem profoundly unstable.

Sex is another disquieting subject, but it doesn't keep Kay from moving in with lightning speed on Louis (Tom Lycos), who seems to fit a psychic's prediction of the man she's destined for. The fact that he's just become engaged is totally irrelevant. Bewildered, vaguely flattered, Louis succumbs and moves in, bag and baggage.

Actually, both sisters are irresistible forces when they set their minds on something. It's just that Sweetie's mind has been set so irrevocably, so mistakenly and for so long. She's been fueled from the cradle by her father's vision of her as a rare and God-given talent. We never quite know when Sweetie began to take this information onto another plane, when expectation became craziness, but the two are fused now.

Sweetie bursts back into Kay's life just as Kay and Louis's 13-month relationship has hit a particularly contemporary snag: they love each other, but at Kay's request they just don't make love. Kay's phobias have had a field day recently and the bombshell of Sweetie's midnight arrival doesn't soothe them.

Sweetie is roughly 60 pounds overweight, add an extra 10 pounds for makeup; the beautiful features of her Kewpie Doll face look as though they'd been inflated with a bicycle pump and her lace mitts probably cover sawed-up wrists. She arrives with Bob (Michael Lake), a drooling druggie she calls her producer and she has stopped her medication. However, success is only inches away. "Bob and I are gonna walk through some doors" she announces triumphantly. As soon as Bob stops nodding off mid-sentence.

What really perturbs Kay is the force of Sweetie's uninhibited sexuality, the other end of the spectrum from her own. It doesn't unclench Kay in the slightest.

Sweetie's fluctuating behavior has very nearly destroyed her parents' marriage. As we meet her mother, Flo (Dorothy Barry) she's calmly taken time off to get a breather from Sweetie and from her husband's sentimental uselessness about her.

Campion may not be sentimental but she's a nutsy romantic. The Outback sequence, where Flo has taken a job happily cooking for an outpost of Aussie cowboys, is pure, saturated longing. Kay, Louie and Gordon drive to this wilderness only to find the seven jackaroos, like something out of Agnes de Mille's Rodeo, spending yearning nights under the blue-purple skies, brushing up on their two-step. It's absolutely magical.

Deadpan funny as the script can be—to balance its horrific moments—its wit is matched by the director's visual style. Campion, with cinematographer Sally Bongers, uses an accumulation of images to build mood; a blizzard of them at first, slowing down as the film builds. Her character's claustrophobia and depressions are caught by subjective angles within rooms or landscapes, yet there's not an uninteresting image in the film.

The cast is breathtaking. Clearly, there would be no film without Genevieve Lemon's uncanny, unsparing Sweetie, touched with a sort of grandiosity of aberration; hers is an amazing creation. But in less flamboyant ways every actor, down to the maddening little boy next door (Andre Pataczek), is working with an equal measure of skill and delicacy.

Campion and Gerard Lee, her co-writer, regard Sweetie with a sort of detached amazement, refusing to sentimentalize her. She's the film's explosive humor, its sexuality, its pathos, and its reflective energy source. There's no question that she's deeply disturbing, yet it's clear that Campion regards this tyrant—who has held her entire family hostage emotionally for nearly 25 years—with equal love and clarity. And if there could be any question that Kay's love matches her fury at her mad sister, watch Kay's action in their closing scene together. It's the summation of their entire impossible relationship.

Stuart Klawans (review date 19 February 1990)

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SOURCE: A review of Sweetie, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 250, No. 7, February 19, 1990, p. 252.

[In the following review, Klawans praises the narrative structure and visual style of Sweetie.]

One of the first things you see in Sweetie is the muddy-hued, domestic equivalent of a Rorschach blot: the pattern in a carpet. The camera peers down on this floral invitation to daydreaming, which takes up most of the screen; to one side, a fragment of the narrator's body is visible. Kay (Karen Colston) begins to talk in voiceover about her fantasies, but you already know plenty about them from the image. Sweetie—the utterly distinctive and assured first feature by Jane Campion—will be about the meanings people read into whatever they choose to see as clues: tea leaves, a tossed coin, a stray curl of hair, a little girl's aptitude for clowning. And just as the opening shot is off-center, so too are the characters. Not only do they spend their lives interpreting auguries, but they invariably look at them askew.

Kay begins by deciding that her auguries lead straight to Lou (Tom Lycos). He is the sort of earnest, not-too-bright young man who, believing whatever he's told, spends a lot of his time trying to understand pure nonsense. Though engaged to one of Kay's friends at work—a commitment that has lasted "for fifty-five minutes," as he points out—he yields immediately when Kay declares, "I'm destined to be with you." Within seconds, the two are grappling on the grease-stained floor of the parking garage where Kay has made her revelation. "Lou said there are seven spiritual planes," she explains later on the soundtrack, "and the love we had was somewhere near the top."

The next time Kay reads an omen, though, it makes her heartsick. When Lou plants a tree in the backyard, Kay fears that the sapling portends doom. She has nightmares about germination—eruptions of fierce cytoplasmic tendrils, which roar like dinosaurs as their maws break open. Kay uproots the sapling, which means, quite naturally, that she also stops sleeping with Lou.

In a less original film, this would probably be the first fifteen minutes of a drama about pregnancy, or the lack of it. In Sweetie it leads instead to the arrival of the title character, a woman even more fantastical than Kay: her disorderly, willful, half-cracked sister (Genevieve Lemon). Whereas Kay is pretty in a pert, dark, conventional way (dampened by an expression of perpetual worry), Sweetie has a fat, puppyish face under a butchery of greasy hair. She considers herself a theatrical star, though she has never worked; she dresses in a style that might be called thrift-shope glamour, except that her clothes look more like the discards from the alley behind the shop. When first seen, just after she has invaded Kay's house, she is in bed with her current boyfriend and "producer," Bob (Michael Lake), regaling him, herself and anyone within earshot with the pleasure of her ample flesh.

Again, a more conventional film would probably set about contrasting the riotously life-affirming Sweetie with the dour, frightened Kay. But Sweetie continues to mutate. Very soon, Kay and Sweetie's parents enter the picture, and we begin to see how everyone here is atilt. Though Kay disavows any connection with Sweetie—"She was just born," she tells Lou, "I don't have anything to do with her"—the eccentric branchings of love have entangled her, too, along with the rest of the family. Kay sometimes fights Sweetie, sometimes humors her, sometimes conspires with the others against her, all in an effort to cope with someone who is either crazy or just an impossible burden, depending on your point of view.

With a narrative structure as skillfully off-center as its characters and visual style, Sweetie keeps the viewer in delighted suspense through a swift ninety minutes. There is no way to predict the next turn of events or camera angle, though once something has crossed the screen, it invariably feels just right. With the collaboration of Gerard Lee as co-screenwriter and with the help of a winning cast—especially Genevieve Lemon, in a self-sacrificing performance—Jane Campion has made a droll, witty, moving, understated triumph of a feature-film debut. It's set in Australia, by the way. Don't let that keep you from seeing it.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 26 February 1990)

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SOURCE: A review of Sweetie, in New Republic, Vol. 202, No. 3919, February 26, 1990, pp. 26-7.

[Kauffmann is an American playwright, actor, director, and critic. In the following excerpt, he contends that Campion is more interested in her film's visual impact than its narrative.]

Jane Campion is a newcomer, a New Zealander who works in Australia and is now loudly hailed in America. Sweetie is her first feature. She wrote it with Gerard Lee; but after the first five or six minutes, it's clear that her heart is not in the screenplay, it's in the pictures that she makes with her cinematographer Sally Bongers.

Still, there is a screenplay—about a young Australian factory worker named Kay, who believes in omens and hauntings. Tea leaves, for instance. A medium tells her that a question mark will figure in her life. She then meets Lou, a young man whose hair curls in a question mark on his forehead. Immediately she seduces him away from his fiancée. Then Sweetie arrives at the house that Kay shares with Lou. Sweetie is Kay's adipose, highly disturbed sister who thinks she's a pop singer and who brings along her drugged-out "producer." Sweetie immediately slovens up the house, in her neurotic way, and the parents can't help, because back in their house, Mom has just left Dad and has gone out west to become a cook on a ranch (as we'd call it).

A few questions. What did Lou's fiancée say or do to Kay after the latter stole her boyfriend? Why did Kay and Lou make love in an oil puddle on a garage floor? Why did Mom leave Dad? Why do Mom and Dad become reconciled? What do Kay and Lou and Dad think will happen, other than disaster, when they leave Sweetie alone in Kay's house and drive out west to see Mom?

Answers are not expected. The questions themselves are the answer—the fact that they, and others, exist. They only underscore that Campion is more keen about photo opportunities than about dramatic or narrative cogency. Her screenplay is to her what a libretto was to a lesser 19th-century opera composer: a series of pegs for visual arias.

Corners of rooms, low angles, high angles, shots past large objects in the foreground, heightened light or lowered light—all these get a good workout. When we go to a cemetery, the first shot is of a row of cypress trees, through which we manage to glimpse one grave. This shot, like so many others, is not meant to epitomize the moment but to draw our attention to Campion. And Bongers.

Campion has been compared to Jim Jarmusch. This seems absurd. Jarmusch's spare screenplays are carefully measured to the necessary minimum, like good minimal design of every kind. His camera operates in the same precise, equivalently minimal way. Campion wants to deal much more conventionally with her characters, with more psychological probing and emotional interaction than Jarmusch cares about. At the same time she wants to indulge her painterly eye. The result is a deadlock between these two elements, dramatic and pictorial.

If Campion can accept that we now know about her eye and can concentrate on an integrated story, she might make a good traditional filmmaker. If that road doesn't interest her, she could diminish the emotional turbulence in her scripts so that it doesn't clamor for attention, and become something like a (minor) cinematic Robert Wilson. But whatever she does later, Sweetie is only a workshop along the way.

Maitland McDonagh (review date 19 May 1991)

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SOURCE: "Jane Campion's 'Angel' Is Another Quirky Soul," in New York Times, May 19, 1991, p. 22.

[In the following review, McDonagh draws comparisons between An Angel at My Table and Campion's previous works, arguing that the director is kinder to her subject in the film under review.]

"Just show me an ordinary person," says the director Jane Campion, "and I'll show you a troubled soul." And she should know; troubled souls are her stock in trade. Her first feature, Sweetie, revolved around two warring sisters: the dour Kay, who has nightmares about trees with human powers, and Sweetie, who is exuberant, impulsive and destructively out of control. The heroine of Miss Campion's new film, An Angel at My Table—adapted from the autobiography of the renowned New Zealand poet and novelist Janet Frame—is a prickly introvert who spent eight years in a mental institution and much of the rest of her life repairing her fragile sense of self. But where Miss Campion was casually hard on Kay in Sweetie, she is gentle to the awkward, high-strung Miss Frame, kinder even than the author is to herself.

Like Miss Frame's autobiography [also titled An Angel at My Table], An Angel at My Table, opening today in New York City, is divided into three parts. Alexia Cox portrays Miss Frame as a little girl; Karen Fergusson plays her as a teen-ager, and Kerry Fox as an adult. From the beginning, Miss Campion wanted the length of a mini-series; Angel was made for Australian television. The director initially resisted theatrical release, but after seeing the film's reception at last year's Sydney Film Festival, she relented. Trimmed slightly, the movie runs just over two and a half hours.

Angel, which is packed with the minutiae of Miss Frame's life, at first in New Zealand, where she was born in 1924, and later in England and Spain, follows her from a childhood of rural poverty to middle age. It explores her family relationships, her extreme shyness—misdiagnosed as schizophrenia, with horrifying results—and her eventual success as a writer. Angel doesn't look like a television movie, except perhaps in the intimacy of its subject: the largely unremarkable but richly remembered life of a plain, intelligent woman with a startling head of frizzy ginger hair.

Forthright and sharp-witted, the 36-year-old Miss Campion is, like Miss Frame, a native New Zealander, and she has wanted to make An Angel at My Table for years. "I read her novel Owls Do Cry, when I was about 13," Miss Campion remembers. "It deals very poetically, lyrically, with the subject of madness in a young girl. I think it rang a note for me because at 13, you feel the potential for madness for the first time in your life." Curious about this woman who wrote so persuasively about insanity, Miss Campion inquired and first heard the party line about Miss Frame: she was reclusive, peculiar and "possibly quite mad."

Fifteen years later, while Miss Campion was at the Australian Film and Television School in Sydney, the first volume of Miss Frame's autobiography was published. "My mother sent it over to me, and I remember reading it in one night, just getting into bed and staying there until I finished it the next morning." Miss Campion said. She was enthralled by its directness and the intense detail of memory. "From that point I took on the idea that I would like to turn it into some kind of film."

A visit to the author was encouraging. "She didn't seem to be concerned about whether or not I'd done anything before, which was just as well, since I hadn't," Miss Campion said. She joined forces with the producer Bridget Ikin, and "finally, when the three books came out, we reapproached Janet with a proper deal idea, and she agreed to it."

Laura Jones, the script editor on Miss Campion's 1984 short film After Hours, was recruited to write the screenplay, and the process of transforming Miss Frame's life into An Angel at My Table began.

"I felt a little inhibited by the fact that Janet was still very much alive," Miss Campion observes. "No matter what, I knew Angel wasn't going to be Janet Frame's story anymore. It was going to be my interpretation. But Janet was very generous: Her idea was that we should take it and reinvent it, be bold about it, and I had this confidence that since I really loved the material, I wouldn't do anything too wrong."

Miss Campion has established a reputation for making slightly off-kilter films in which regular folks get glimpses of the darkness that lurks beneath the surfaces of their lives. In the short Passionless Moments, suburban neighbors obsess about song lyrics and paper products; in A Girl's Own Story, teen-agers try to tease out the truth about love and sex from a tangle of pop culture myths and miserable examples set at home. In Peel, which is subtitled An Exercise in Discipline, a drive in the country turns into a pitched battle of wills when a small boy defiantly tosses orange peel out the window. The "peel" in the title refers to rind, but it also suggests skin, layer after layer of personality and self-delusion, armor and exposed flesh.

Miss Campion's cinematic world is full of eccentrics because, she says, "I just don't know this elusive normal person, you know? I don't believe they exist.

"I feel acknowledging the dark side of yourself, or the dark side of life is important," she continues. "Anyway, I'm curious. Anything and everything interests me … especially what I'm told not to look at."

Family relationships have been a constant in Miss Campion's work, but she denies that her films are autobiographical. Nevertheless, she admits with a laugh, "I did borrow a dress once from my mother to use in A Girl's Own Story. Mum never noticed until my sister said 'Don't you see … we're all in that film.' Then she had another look and saw her dress. When she gets annoyed at me she often brings that one up.

"My mother writes," she says, "and anything we say is fair game. And my sister makes films, too. We're all after each other's skins, but we're also very close and loving."

American audiences, Miss Campion says, should have no trouble identifying with Miss Frame's struggles, despite the exotic settings. "We all sometimes feel very shy and apart from ourselves. I think everyone has had the feeling that he or she isn't acceptable. That's really what An Angel at My Table is all about."

And Miss Frame's hair, the unruly, carrot-colored mop she writes about with such despair: Is it really that alarming? "It's distinctive," Miss Campion admits. "I can't say that Janet's hair looks that odd to me, but then, nothing much looks odd to me."

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 3 June 1991)

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SOURCE: Review of An Angel at My Table, in New Republic, Vol. 204, No. 3985, June 3, 1991, pp. 28-9.

[In the following review, Kauffmann asserts that Campion "has moved forward healthily" with An Angel at My Table, eschewing the "precious camera work" of Sweetie to put "her (considerable) pictorial skill at the service of Janet Frame."]

Last year, reviewing Jane Campion's Sweetie, I said, "If Campion can accept that we now know about her [pictorial] eye and can concentrate on an integrated story, she might make a good traditional filmmaker." She hadn't waited for my advice: she was already almost finished with Angel at My Table, which is traditional in approach, which employs her eye to present a narrative, and which is good.

Angel at My Table is a two-and-a-half-hour distillation, by the screenwriter Laura Jones, of Janet Frame's three volumes of autobiography. (The books are now available in one paperbound volume from George Braziller.) The film calls itself a trilogy, with one section devoted to each volume. For those who haven't read the books, the story may be surprising. We know that Frame is an eminent writer, and we know that she will move from ordinary beginnings to recognition and success. But we are not prepared for much of the dark texture that intervenes or for the odd, almost cheery tone in which even the worst moments are couched.

Frame (b. 1924) is one of the five children of a New Zealand railway worker and his hearty wife. Her childhood included the usual momentous initiations into the world but also into a world beyond the visible and tangible, disclosed to her by imagination. Early on, she discovered that she liked to write and that she was shy. This shyness apparently had something to do with the fact that she was chunkily built, had a large mop of frizzy red hair, and had curious teeth.

When she was quite young, a sister drowned. (Ten years later, another sister drowned.) As a young teacher, she became stressed and depressed and made a feeble (aspirin) attempt at suicide. She was taken to a mental hospital, falsely diagnosed as schizophrenic, and was given electric shock therapy. In and out of hospitals, she was given 200 shock treatments in the next eight years—during which she also published a book of stories and won a prize.

With a travel grant, she went to London. She soon fell into a consciously arty set, who were somewhat nettled to find that this provincial had already published a book and had another forthcoming. She then went to Ibiza (along the way, her teeth were fixed), continued to write fiction and poetry, had her first sexual experience, returned to London where the diagnosis of schizophrenia was ruled false, then went home to New Zealand where she lives and writes. (To date, eleven novels, four story collections, a volume of poetry, and a children's book.)

The first part of the film is the fullest because childhood, though hardly simple, is simpler than what comes after. In the second and third parts, even those who don't know the books may sense synoptic touches. But Jones's screenplay, as treated by Campion, does the essential: it captures the straightforward, fresh tone.

For Frame's autobiography is suffused with appetite, with openness, even when she is beset by peculiar people, peculiar diagnoses, peculiar emotions. She is like an especially patient Candide, forging ahead with mixed purpose and acceptance, with ego (who could be a writer without ego?) but with wonder. The film understands all this.

Campion's prime and perfect move was in the casting of the three Janets: the child, Alexia Keogh, the adolescent, Karen Fergusson, and the young woman, Kerry Fox. Each of them has a third of the picture. That Campion was able to find three people with physical resemblances to one another and to Frame was possibly only good luck, though makeup and costuming doubtless helped. But, more important, what Campion achieved with her three Janets was a continuity of presence and person, of temperament: a manner of walking, of posture, of gesture, and, fundamentally, a continuity of inner self. The woman who has her first sexual experience in Ibiza is related to the child who, at the family dinner table, innocently uses a naughty word that a school chum taught her.

Everyone else in the cast helps substantially. The casting and behavior of the child's schoolteachers evoke time and place. K. J. Wilson is her sturdy father; Iris Churn is an Erda-like mother. David Letch dabs in a vivid sketch of Janet's Irish landlord in London, who is smitten with her. William Brandt is amusingly serious as her American lover in Ibiza. The score by Don McGlashan has a nice folk feeling, varied with a few uses of Schubert's "An die Musik," which enraptured Janet at first hearing.

Campion's previous film was burdened with precious camera work—high angles, low angles, weird vantage points. Not one bit of that is evident here. She was so concerned with her subject that she forgot about self-display and put her (considerable) pictorial skill at the service of Janet Frame. Oh, there are a couple of shots of a distant train chugging along past a sunset, but those are negligible if only because they are commonplace. Campion is so responsive to the currents of humanity in this story that she has found the exactly right general locus for her camera—close without close-ups. The camera is attentive, not intrusive.

The cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh adds something else, particularly in the first section—a homely grubbiness. At first it seems like inadequate color, a bit runny, or like slightly undefined focus; but soon it's apparent that Campion and Dryburgh want to suggest a social milieu, crowded, congenial, warmly though somewhat shabbily dressed. From the photography alone, we get some sense of what life is like for this segment of New Zealand society, getting the best out of what they had, in their pullovers and plain dresses, at close quarters.

Angel at My Table (it's the title of the second of Frame's three volumes) is not often exciting or deeply moving. It's simply interesting. Two qualities distinguish it. First, one female artist of a particular culture wanted to present the life of another female artist of that culture. I don't think it's wisdom after the event to say that certain bonds of sisterly sympathy are manifest throughout, certain avenues of understanding. (There's a cousinly relationship with My Brilliant Career, an Australian woman's film from an autobiographical novel by an Australian woman.) Second, the purpose here is to recount a life, rather than to create a drama. This was probably not a fresh film idea when Mark Donskoy made his Gorky trilogy (1938–40). Still, there is something full-souled about the venture, something respectful of the human enterprise as a whole and of art as its adjunct.

In any case, Campion has moved forward healthily. More, please.

Terrence Rafferty (review date 3 June 1991)

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SOURCE: "Outlaw Princesses," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXVII, No. 15, June 3, 1991, pp. 86-8.

[In the following excerpt, Rafferty describes An Angel at My Table as a "perverse exercise in biographical filmmaking," faulting Campion for keeping viewers disoriented and withholding from them a sense of Frame's "inner life."]

An Angel at My Table is based on the autobiography of the New Zealand novelist and poet Janet Frame. It covers the first forty years or so of the writer's life—she was born in 1924—and takes close to three hours to tell the story. When it's all over, you feel that you know far too little about Janet Frame and far too much about the film's director, Jane Campion. Frame's life doesn't seem to have been a particularly dramatic one. She grew up shy and literary, in a working-class family that moved around a lot, being shifted from town to town by the father's employer, the railroad. Her childhood and adolescence were, by her own account, spent in a kind of happy isolation from the world, within the safe confines of her affectionate family and her own imagination, which was fired by sentimental poetry and popular songs. Aside from the sudden death of her older sister, nothing much happened to Janet until she left home to go to teachers college in the city, where she found herself painfully ill-equipped to deal with the emotional demands of the outside world. In the autobiography she says, "Writing now, I am impatient with my student self that was so unformed, ungrownup, so cruelly innocent. Although I had no means of knowing if other students lived in such innocence, I have since learned that many, in timidity and shyness and ignorance, lived as bizarre a life as I…. Our lives were frail, full of agonies of embarrassment and regret, of misunderstood communication and strong with the intense feeling of wonder at the torrent of ideas released by books, music, art, other people; it was a time of finding shelter among the mightily capitalled abstractions of Love, Life, Time, Age, Youth, Imagination." Frame's struggle, as a writer and as a woman, was to find a way out of this tortured confinement in herself, and she took some giant steps backward before she was able to make any progress. While she was still a student, she suffered a breakdown, and was diagnosed (inaccurately) as schizophrenic; she spent years in mental institutions, where she received hundreds of shock treatments. The success of her writing helped her escape the institutions; eventually, she travelled to Europe, became more confident of her talent, and grew comfortable enough with people to be able to have a sexual relationship. (She was in her mid-thirties when she lost her virginity.)

The Janet Frame of Campion's film doesn't seem to have any inner life—not as a child, not as an adolescent, and not as an adult. And without that she has no life at all. The movie (which was made as a three-part miniseries for Australian television) is a succession of odd, mannered tableaux, more or less in the style of Campion's 1990 art-house hit Sweetie, which was a static, self-conscious black comedy about an inarticulate young woman and her grotesquely infantile sister. Campion's compositions emphasize the peculiarities of Janet's appearance, especially in her childhood and awkward adolescence: she has a stiff, frizzy mop of bright-orange hair, and her teeth are badly decayed. Janet is played by three actresses: as a child, by Alexia Keogh; as a young teen-ager, by Karen Fergusson; and as an adult by Kerry Fox. As Campion has directed them, they're all morose and affectless; none of the performances gives us much of a clue to what Janet is thinking or feeling. You'd hardly know, for example, that Janet consciously adopted "schizophrenic" traits after her diagnosis: when it suited her, she used her supposed madness as a form of self-protection. Her breakdown and her periods of hospitalization are the pivotal dramatic events in this story, yet the movie's treatment of them is so flat and elliptical that we're unable to respond.

Throughout the film, Campion's imagery has a skewed, alienating quality that can be very effective: there's a distinctive strangeness in the way she places people in their environments, a trompe-l'oeil sense of unease. Unfortunately, her narrative technique has a similar effect. Time after time, we find ourselves unable to orient ourselves in crucial scenes, because the director hasn't bothered to establish the characters or the setting; whole sequences go by in which we're not sure where we are or whom we're watching. You might suspect that this is the filmmaker's way of forcing us to share her heroine's sense of dissociation from the world. But Janet couldn't possibly be as dissociated as the audience is; at times, we can't even identify the members of her family with any certainty. Writers' lives are weird enough without being subjected to this sort of willful disruption of their emotional continuity. Campion's perverse exercise in biographical filmmaking deserves a new title: "My Incomprehensible Career."

Elizabeth Drucker (review date July 1991)

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SOURCE: "An Angel at My Table: Jane Campion Throws a Curve," in American Film, Vol. XVI, No. 7, July, 1991, pp. 52-3.

[In the following review, Drucker finds An Angel at My Table "as subtle and straightforward as Sweetie was startling and stylized."]

Director Jane Campion woke up the film world in 1989 with the bizarre, darkly comic vision of Sweetie. A tale about the rivalry between two sisters—one neurotic, the other psychotic—Campion's feature debut boasted eerie dream sequences, flamboyant characters and altogether odd behavior.

Just when critics thought they had Campion pegged (many referred to her as a female David Lynch), the 37-year-old filmmaker threw a curve. Campion's follow-up film, An Angel at My Table, is as subtle and straightforward as Sweetie was startling and stylized. The story of celebrated New Zealand author Janet Frame (played in turn by Alexia Keogh as the young Janet, Karen Fergusson as the teenager and, in an astonishingly controlled performance, Kerry Fox as the adult Janet), Angel is, in Campion's own words, a "gentler, more humanist piece."

Almost twice as long, slower-paced and less experimental than Sweetie, Angel does share one element with its predecessor: the theme of insanity. The title character of Sweetie, a gregarious madwoman, imagines herself a talented singer, and in Angel, Janet Frame, a shy but truly gifted writer, is mistakenly diagnosed as schizophrenic. Campion says that like Lynch, whom she admittedly hero-worships, she "is interested in the darker sides of the mind, those sorts of subconscious qualities that are happening to us."

Campion's desire to film Frame's story grew after she read the author's three-volume autobiography. "It was clear once I started reading that this was not the tale of a mad writer [but] of an ordinary person with a great gift for detail and frankness. It completely disarmed me."

The director felt so strongly about Frame's writing that she decided to give her own high-proñle style a back seat. "I wanted to keep it really simple," explains Campion. "I felt that anything too flash would overload her story, and I thought the power of it would be in its simplicity. Her story should be unfettered by any overly stylistic concerns."

Mirroring Frame's books, the film, which was originally intended as a television miniseries, is divided into three sections: Frame's Depression-era childhood on the South Island of New Zealand; her college years when she retreats further into herself, eventually being misdiagnosed and institutionalized; and finally, her travels to Europe on a literary fellowship after gaining her release.

Campion was not involved in the scriptwriting for Angel, as she had been with Sweetie, but feels that had its benefits. "I think when you're working on someone else's idea, you feel protective toward them and their story," says Campion. "I feel very strong in defending Janet's writing, whereas I don't about my own. It's more frightening and challenging working from your own ideas, because you're saying, This is what I believe. With the Janet story, I wasn't so out on a limb. Instead, I was really developing other parts of myself that I hadn't before. Things like trying to support an actress in a sustained performance. Softer things, really."

The filming of Angel marked Campion's return to her native New Zealand after several years in Australia. Her experience with the New Zealand crew made her realize both what her homeland had given her and why she had instinctively wanted to leave. "Modesty and a strong work ethic are very New Zealand qualities. The crews were incredibly hardworking. But also I think that there's a sense of not liking individualism. It comes from the egalitarian beginnings of New Zealand. It was colonized as a kind of ideal state where people of lower-middle class background could share equal wealth and possibility. Which is great, but the downside of that is that excelling in anything is seen as showing off. There's a sense of not being accepted if you're trying to explore your individual qualities."

Campion, like Frame, left New Zealand to pursue her ambitions, going off to art school in London and finishing up with film school in Australia. Campion's background explains her sharp eye for detail and composition, whether the film is subtle in style or outrageous. "I think having the kind of keenness that people look with when they're doing an art study goes all the way through. You just can't go back to a kind of ignorant way of looking."

Mary Cantwell (essay date 19 September 1993)

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SOURCE: "Jane Campion's Lunatic Women," in New York Times Magazine, September 19, 1993, pp. 40-1, 44, 51.

[Cantwell is an American editor, nonfiction writer, and critic. In the following essay, based on an interview with Campion, Cantwell surveys Campion's life and works, focusing on the female characters in Campion's films.]

This October, a romantic epic titled The Piano, written and directed by a New Zealander named Jane Campion, will be the grand finale of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. In November it will open all over the country. The Piano, which is set in 19th-century New Zealand, has already made Campion the first woman to win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and the reviews so far—but for a cavil about its being too consciously an "art" film—have been ecstatic. Vincent Canby of The New York Times, for instance, described The Piano as "a triumph … so good, so tough, so moving and, especially, so original." Yet when I asked a friend, like me a great admirer of Campion's work, what she wanted to learn from my interview with the film maker, she replied, "First, I want to know if she's sane."

I had expected curiosity about why Australia, where Campion went to film school and lives, has produced what seems to be an inordinate number of world-class directors: Bruce Beresford and Peter Weir and George Miller among them. Or why, given the hen's tooth scarcity of prominent female directors anywhere in the world, three—Campion, Gillian Armstrong and Jocelyn Moorhouse—emerged from a country associated with a certain cheerful misogyny. But why be curious about Campion's sanity?

"Because," my friend answered, "she's obsessed with lunatic women."

In truth, only the eponymous protagonist of Campion's first feature film, the extraordinary Sweetie, is genuinely mad. The New Zealand novelist Janet Frame, whose autobiography, An Angel at My Table, became Campion's second film, was only thought to be mad. Diagnosed in her early 20's as a schizophrenic and institutionalized, she was within inches of a lobotomy when her doctors decided that a woman who had managed to write and publish distinguished fiction while in the bin was probably not in need of a brain correction. Ada in The Piano isn't mad either, but her mulishness approaches sublimity. That Ada doesn't speak, for instance, isn't because she can't but because she will not.

Lunatic women? Except for the simultaneously hilarious and tragic Sweetie, no. But powerful women, which in some minds may add up to the same thing? Yes. Sweetie has a tornado's destructiveness, Janet Frame stayed sane in the midst of madness and Ada's will is iron. What roles!

If artists looked like their creations, the progenitor of The Piano would resemble a Brontë sister or George Eliot. Instead, Campion looks like a commercial for Fun and Sun in Australia. Her hair is very fair, her eyes are very blue and her speech—typically antipodean in its narrow vowels and the upward curve of its sentences—is spattered with self-mockery and great bursts of laughter. "Mum" and "Dad" are a big part of her conversation; so are her friends, whom one half-expects her to call, as do most of the residents of her part of the world, "mates."

On a day in mid-June of this year, Campion was a month away from having won the Palme d'Or. She was two weeks away from giving birth to her first child, a son whose presence was already inescapable in the Sydney apartment she shares with her husband, Colin Englert, a television producer and director. The baby's crib was set up in Englert's small office, and Campion lifted her billowy white shirt once to stare at her swollen belly. "Is he kicking?" her visitor asked. "Mmmmm," she answered, lost for a moment in that curious bubble that encloses the pregnant.

Campion was, in brief, at the pinnacle of her particular world, at a place where the professional and the personal were about to meet in blessed convergence. And although she'd done her share of interviews, she wasn't yet weary of the same old questions because she hadn't yet heard them all. Chatty, spontaneous (once, she unexpectedly kissed my cheek), Campion in June of 1993 was, to an interviewer, equivalent to an unplowed field.

Campion was born 39 years ago, to parents whom she describes as having had "a strange life compared to most New Zealanders." They had a strange life compared with almost everybody's.

"My mother was an heiress, but an orphan at the same time, so she was brought up by different people and finally given her inheritance," she said. "She and my father met at university, then went to England to study at the Old Vic. When they came back, they started the first official touring company in New Zealand. It wasn't a financial success at all, and so they just started working in other established theaters. Mother retired when she had the three of us, but Dad's still doing a lot of things, like opera."

At Victoria University, where she majored in anthropology, Campion was interested in acting. "But I felt I had to distinguish myself from the family. You know? Besides, I thought acting quite frivolous. Now I'm grateful that I was raised in an atmosphere which had some sort of gaiety to it. But at the time, I thought that these people were … insincere.

"After that, the thing was to try and travel and take a look at where I came from, along with the rest of Europe. You know?"

Anyone who has ever run into Australians and New Zealanders on what they usually call "my trip" knows. The trip is their Wanderjahr, and analogous to the lazing-about-Europe-after-graduation done by countless young Americans in the days when a college degree was a guarantee of a job offer. To hear Campion talk about her trip is to be reminded of theirs: of the postcards detailing the wonders of Chartres, the mysteries of the bidet and a whole litany of missed trains and misunderstandings.

"My other aim was to go to art school. The first attempt was to go to one in Venice, but all sorts of complicated issues turned up. This boy I knew was arrested for cocaine trafficking. And I couldn't speak Italian very well. And I was going to the school, but I wasn't really enrolled because no one could work out who I was or what I was supposed to be doing there. And then it was winter, and they had the agua alta, the water that comes up over your gum boots. Then, of course, I was under suspicion, too, because I was a friend of his. He told me later that his mother had sent him some potato purée from Hungary and that it had been misinterpreted. But that sounds a little unlikely to me now, you know?"

Eventually Campion left Venice for London and a job assisting someone who made documentaries and commercials. Getting into an art school was still on her mind, but none were interested, mostly because her work was primitive, but partly, she suspects, because she may have looked like a ditz.

"I remember going to one of them, with a copy of Cosmopolitan magazine under my arm, and somebody coming to the door while I was still putting on lipstick. 'Uh, oh,' I thought. 'This isn't the right image.'

"I didn't like England. I couldn't take the look of the place or the style of friendship. I need more intimacy from people than is considered O.K. there, and I felt that my personality and my enthusiasms weren't understood. I had to put a big lid on myself. But I thought: 'You've just got to live with this. This is the rite of passage to being an adult—misery.'

"I have a complicated theory for why I was so depressed—that in the Southern Hemisphere you can use the weather to relate your moods with. If you did that in England, where it's continuously bleak, you'd just die.

"Also, there's a fury I have when I hear an English upper-class voice—that voice that speaks really loudly about its 'dahhhhggs.' Grrrr!"

There was nothing to do but go back: to the sun and the blue, blue skies and a society determined on classlessness. It doesn't quite succeed, but never mind. The accent, so contagious that even the most recent immigrant is speaking "Strine" seemingly within minutes of arrival, is a great leveler.

This time, Campion went to Australia, to Sydney rather than Melbourne, because in the first city she had one friend and in the second, none. There a life that had been hitherto purposeless, if pleasant, finally took on a point.

"The art school I went to had young tutors who were into minimalist and conceptual art. They made everybody rethink their thinking about everything, which sent some people into sort of schizophrenic binges. But it was a brilliantly exciting atmosphere. You could do anything—installations, performance, whatever.

"First I was a bit at sea. Then, suddenly, for the first time in my life I really tried to do something. I'd never had a commitment to my ability; I knew there were people cleverer than me. What I was looking to do was to just learn enough so that I could in some way be supportive of somebody who really was gifted.

"There was another thing. About that stage I had a couple of boyfriends, and they both kind of disappeared. Being alone was a shock to me, and a good shock. Because I said: 'O.K., you've got nobody now. You're by yourself. So maybe it's time you had a look at what you can do if you really try, to find out what your potential really is."

"I decided to try and make my artwork directly about the things that I'd rush home to ruminate about. Things like confusions about sex and intimacy, for instance.

"I was painting at the time, crude sexual paintings, I suppose, with some feminist imagery as well.

"There was a lot of performance stuff going on, too, so I used to put on little plays about women and sex—things like that. Pretty weird, really. Next, I decided that instead of being in a play I'd film it.

"So, in my last year, I made this little film called Tissues, probably the only one I ever made that I loved. It was a very funny, rather crazy film about a father who'd been arrested for child molestation. The family tried to deal with it, and in every scene a tissue was used. Dum da dum!

"After that, I was just trying to get into the film industry in any way I could, and going through the usual stuff where everybody tells you, 'Yeah, maybe you can write, but you've got no directing skills.' And I thought, 'How on earth am I going to start?'"

By now the possessor of a B.A. in structural anthropology and a diploma in fine arts, Campion started by going back. Once again, she went to school. Her father groaned.

Entering the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, however, is tantamount to becoming a part of the Australian film industry in that it's financed by the Government and gives its students—only 25 are chosen every year—a small stipend. For a prospective film maker, it is also a lot like going to heaven. "You could do any story you wanted to without having to argue for it. You had a chance to see how your ideas would turn out."

From the beginning, Campion's ideas were sui generis: the anthropologist sees coolly and dispassionately; the artist translates the spectacle into images unlike anyone else's.

In Peel, for instance, which she made in her second year and which eventually won an award at Cannes, a little boy is ordered by his father to pick up every piece of orange peel he's tossed from a car window. The boy looks like his father, his mother looks like her husband, the sun is merciless and the entire transaction is a ludicrous lesson in discipline. Like Sweetie, Peel is curiously mysterious in that Campion offers the viewer no clues as to what to think of it all. Herself averse to being told what to feel, she claims a corresponding reluctance to tell an audience what to feel.

The last of Campion's student films, A Girl's Own Story, is an intensely personal oddity about innocence, pubescence and childhood incest and, in a sense, a precursor to The Piano. In their frank acknowledgment of the awful power of sex, and, not incidentally, its awful messiness, both carry a disconcerting erotic charge. In A Girl's Own Story, a brother and sister embark on intercourse as casually as cats. In The Piano, in which petticoats and pantalets seem endless barriers to consummation, a mere half-inch of flesh is enough to tantalize.

After film school, Campion joined the Women's Film Unit, an Australian remedy for the imbalance between the number of men and women in Government-sponsored film programs (about even) and the number in the film industry (not even close). Her first assignment was a film on sexual harassment in the work place, which "I agree is a pain, but I'm so perverse I'm going the other way," she said. "I think everybody should be harassing each other a whole lot more. I'm averse to teaching messages—they're a load of rubbish."

The Women's Film Unit was also a bit of a pain. "Basically, the way film sets work is very undemocratic, whereas the idea behind the unit—the idealism—predisposed its members to expect a lot more say. On a normal set, the priority is the work; in a situation like the Women's Film Unit, the politics were the work.

"All the same, the unit did address a major inequality. Also, there was a radical feminist group, film makers and activists, who had a huge impact on the Australian Film Commission. They were astonishing in their ability to intimidate the bureaucracy into supporting more women. But I think it's quite clear in my work that my orientation isn't political or doesn't come out of modern politics."

There, of course, is the rub. Campion is, to a degree, the beneficiary of a group effort. But what makes her a remarkable director is a truly singular talent, which is why she squirms when asked about being the first woman to win the Palme d'Or. To mention her sex is, however inadvertently, to modify the accomplishment. But if art, as the singer K. D. Lang put it, "transcends the tools you carry," the fact remains that Campion's tools, especially when she is dealing with sexuality, are often splendidly, uniquely female.

It may also be her sex that allows Campion to confess that although she had received development money for The Piano from the Australian Film Commission, it was loneliness that drove her to accept the producer Jan Chapman's offer of work on Australian television.

The experience ballooned Campion's confidence to the point where she was bursting to speak with her own voice. But because she believed that neither her understanding nor her skills as a movie maker were yet up to The Piano, she chose instead to do "something wilder, a bit younger, a bit more obnoxious. Provocative, you know?" She did Sweetie.

Sweetie, which she cowrote with her then-boyfriend, Gerard Lee, is all those things. Sweetie is about a young woman whose burning desire to be in show business is predicated on her ability to ride a toppling chair until it (slowly) hits the ground. Sweetie was not supposed to be the star; her younger sister, a kind of walking recessive gene, was. But Sweetie, who is nuts, took over the film as surely as she took over her family.

An Angel at My Table came next. Originally, it was meant for New Zealand television. Had it not been, Laura Jones, who wrote the script, said she would have done it differently: "I might have thought of dealing with a smaller time frame. And one wouldn't normally have such discursive storytelling in a feature film. But it worked, which made me rethink what does work."

What works in Angel is Campion's eye. Every image is freighted with meaning. A teacher, an insignificant-looking young man bent on bonhomie, stretches himself along his desk. Janet Frame, shy, a virgin and irredeemably isolate, stares fixedly at his trousers' fly. There, under the buttons, is the means to connection. A student-teacher, Frame picks up the chalk. Suddenly, she doesn't know what it is, what it's for, "I write for Jane," Jones said, "in a way I couldn't write for any other director."

Finally, there is The Piano. Sweetie cost less than $1 million; Angel, very little more. The Piano, which had seed money from the Australian Film Commission and major money from its French producers, was big-budget and thus scary.

"I thought: 'I haven't got any excuses. I have enough money to do this film really well,'" Campion said. "But I soon realized the anxiety was stifling, that I had to throw it away and just be naughty.

"The Piano", like A Girl's Own Story, is my territory—things I know about, that nobody else could easily get access to. I'd become fascinated by early photographs of New Zealand, and especially by portraits of Europeans and married people, and I was dying to do my version of a period film. Also, I've always wanted to tell an erotic story, particularly from a woman's perspective."

The story is simple. Ada, a Scotswoman with an illegitimate child, is married by proxy to a New Zealand settler, Stewart, and shipped to the other side of the world. With her are her small daughter and her piano, which, together, are her voice. When Stewart refuses to transport the piano to his farm, another settler, Baines, buys it and makes a bargain. He will give the piano to Ada if she will give him piano lessons. In truth, he does not want to learn the piano. He wants to learn Ada.

Sam Neill plays Stewart, a more or less predictable piece of casting, since Neill, himself a New Zealander, specializes in projecting a certain innocent, albeit sexy, confusion. But Harvey Keitel, he of the terrier ferocity, is hardly the first person one would think of for a scarcely housebroken, illiterate English settler with a tattooed (Maori-style) nose. Nor does Holly Hunter, who won the best-actress award at Cannes, seem a natural for a 19th-century woman who's constrained not only by custom and corsets but also by her stubborn and seemingly intractable speechlessness. But Campion casts "according to whom I am attracted to, and some people can't understand at first glance why that would be. But if you can see the potential in that person's character, it's really more interesting that others cannot. Because they're going to learn through you."

Asked to describe working with Campion, Keitel said: "Jane Campion is a goddess, and it's difficult for a mere mortal to talk about a goddess. I fear being struck by lightning bolts." The next day he called to clarify, "What's unusual about her," he continued, "has to do with ethereal things. She is at play, like a warm breeze."

Fortunately for someone who prefers to build with concrete, there was Neill. "Jane works in an unusually intimate way with people," he said. "When you're an actor, you're always putting yourself in other people's hands anyway, and she repays the gesture many times over. Jane's interested in complexity, not reductiveness, and very sure of what she's doing. If you have an opinion contrary to hers, she listens with the greatest care and consideration, then does what she had in mind all along."

Genevieve Lemon, who played Sweetie and the silly, love-starved Nessie of The Piano, said of Campion: "She digs deep when she's working with an actor, and that can be pretty confronting. She's always saying, 'Strip, strip, give me less acting,' and you try to give her exactly what she wants because her instincts are so sound. Most of the time with a director you think, 'Stop! What's going on here? Where am I going?' But you trust Jane absolutely."

("Gen's method," Campion said, "is impenetrable by somebody else, but that's true of a lot of actors. How they do it is alarming for them. That's why you have to be very careful about interfering with their securities and their methods. I just contribute in however much room they leave for me to contribute.")

The Piano is intensely romantic on several counts. All three of its protagonists are sexual innocents (Stewart may even be a virgin), which is why their introduction to eroticism constitutes an inundation. Ada's music, which was composed by Michael Nyman and played by Hunter herself, is as somber and powerful as Ada is. And New Zealand's bush, albeit a very different landscape, seems as magical as the moors near Wuthering Heights.

Campion's movies don't resemble anyone else's, and neither do they resemble one another. The strange, skewed look of Sweetie, for example, was influenced by the work of certain American photographers, Diane Arbus in particular. The look of Angel, however, is simple, allusionless; it was Janet Frame's story, after all, and Campion "had to stay out of its way." But for Piano, Campion and the director of photography, Stuart Dryburgh, dove right in. Using as their starting point a mutual love of autochromes, an early color process based on potato dyes, they allowed some tints to completely drain scenes and turned the bush into a kind of underwater world.

"Only Stuart and I really liked what we liked," she said. "Everyone else was, 'Mmmmmmmmm.' It's scary, you know? But to get a look you have to stick your foot out. You can't play it safe.

"I had this spooky psychological thing about The Piano before it began, which was how everybody was going to go nuts on the set. Because a film tends to set up the way people are going to behave. But then I said to myself, 'O.K., it doesn't actually matter what people do so long as you go through it, as long as you don't pull back, as long as you take responsibility.' In the end, the making of The Piano was an enormous pleasure, and it encouraged me to take some risks romantically which paid off very well."

"Getting married, you mean?" her visitor asked.

"Oh, no," Campion said. "I wanted to get married. Colin and I had been best friends for six or seven years. The big emotional risk was in becoming lovers."

Jan Chapman, who produced The Piano, works out of two large, airy rooms above a fish restaurant. Campion's apartment, though in a chic part of Sydney, is modest and does not feature an art collection. Laura Jones, upon entering a rather grand hotel for morning coffee, said, "This isn't my usual kind of place," and when asked about Robert Altman's film The Player, in which writers "pitch" and producers murder, replied, "Well, with us there's more chatting than pitching."

In June, Jones, Campion and Chapman were chatting about The Portrait of a Lady, the Henry James novel for which Jones is writing the adaptation, Campion is directing and Chapman is the script consultant. (Nicole Kidman will play the heroine, Isabel Archer, for whom self-creation and, indeed, self-perfection, is life's purpose.) Unlike Campion's other films, this one is large American dollars all the way—which at this point may make no difference in the final product. But it might have made a difference once. "The Government support here," Chapman said, "has enabled producers and directors to pursue their own talents early on. As soon as you start having big systems trying to simplify ideas you lose that spark." And although she is as reluctant as Campion to discuss sexual politics, she added: "And because of this Government assistance, nothing stopped us. There wasn't a male-based system that, consciously or unconsciously, we had to adapt ourselves to."

Portrait, Campion said, is one of her favorite books, partly because she herself feels "so Isabel Archerish. I think that coming from Australia or New Zealand now makes one more like Americans going to Europe were then than Americans going to Europe are now. They're much more sophisticated, whereas we have more of a colonial attitude about ourselves, a more can-do, anything's-possible attitude. I felt so much like Isabel as a young woman, a sense of having extraordinary potential without knowing what the hell to do with it. Before Piano, I wouldn't have had the guts to take on a big classic thing. But now I don't feel frightened at all.

"I seem to have been able to make a career out of doing what I feel like doing, so why not keep doing it? What's corrupting is wanting to be more important. You want to be more arty—you get your identity from that. Or you get your identity out of making more money. I get my pleasure, which is far more important to me, out of trying to follow my instincts."

In tracking those instincts, her film editor Veronika Jenet said, "Jane always surrounds herself with people who are very supportive and give her free range." If sanity lies in knowing your strengths and how to capitalize on them, then Campion is clearly a monument thereto.

By the middle of June, the chatting with Laura Jones and Jan Chapman about Isabel, her aunt Mrs. Touchett, her friend Henrietta Stackpole, the sinuous Madame Merle ("Great parts for women! But, of course, the point about Henry James is that all the parts are good") and Isabel's quartet of swains had more or less ceased. Jane had high blood pressure, and nobody could tell her and Colin precisely what that might mean. Still, they consoled themselves with the thought that, after having had three miscarriages, Jane had only two weeks to go to term. Two weeks to go—it was like being in a marathon and knowing you had only another ten yards to run.

"I was getting a bit sick of myself toward the end of my 30's, thinking, 'Is this all there is to know?'" she said. "Having a baby has completely distracted me from that. Now I have a big stake in the future because his will be part of mine. At the same time, I'll be forced back, because I'll be part of being a child again through him. And as he grows up and has his problems, I'll be part of that, too."

A few days later, Jane Campion's son, Jasper, was delivered by emergency Caesarean section. His parents were told almost immediately that he could not live outside an incubator, and that he would die soon. When, in fact, was up to them. Twelve days after his birth, Jane and Colin took Jasper home, where he died the following dawn.

The day after Jasper's cremation, 35 of his parents' family and friends gathered at Neilson Park, on the cliffs overlooking Sydney Harbor, to honor his brief life. Rugs were spread for the guests to sit upon, food was served and Jane and Colin talked about their baby and what he had meant to them. There were other speakers, and some people read poems they had written.

To hear of that sad, brave ceremony was suddenly to remember Colette's harsh "Who said you should be happy? Do your work." It was also to hope that in special gifts lie special consolations.

Stella Bruzzi (essay date October 1993)

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SOURCE: "Bodyscape," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 3, No. 10, October, 1993, pp. 6-10.

[In the following essay, Bruzzi compares The Piano to other dramatic works dealing with sexuality in the Victorian Age and argues that The Piano is a "cryptic and evocative exploration of how women's sexuality, clothes and lives interconnect."]

At the beginning of The Piano, Ada (Holly Hunter), a mute Scottish woman, arrives in New Zealand with her nine-year-old daughter Flora. They disembark on a remote beach, where they are left by the sailors who accompanied them to await Ada's new husband Stewart (Sam Neill), a rich local landowner. Their strung-out possessions are silhouetted in a flimsy line against the evening sun. Another silhouetted, skeletal structure comes into shot: a tent, made from Ada's hoops and underskirts, beneath which they shelter for the night.

The Piano ends with a parallel scene as Ada, having left Stewart, returns to the beach and boards a boat with Flora, her lover Baines (Harvey Keitel) and the possessions she arrived with. To preserve the equilibrium of the boat she orders her prized piano to be discarded. As it is tipped overboard her foot is caught in the unravelling rope and she is dragged under. Her upturned hoops and skirts billow out against the luminous water. At this point, as at others through the film, Ada appears to be trapped and defeated by her clothes. At the last moment, however, she disentangles herself and swims to the surface, leaving her shoe behind; she has, as her voiceover says, "chosen life". Her clothes, as elsewhere, work for her.

The Piano is not a simple women's film about a woman's past, but rather a cryptic and evocative exploration of how women's sexuality, clothes and lives interconnect. It is set in New Zealand in the mid-1800s, and though the exact dates of events are never specified, the age which the costumes, morality and gender relations evoke is central to the way the film tackles its theme. Why has Jane Campion chosen to frame the story of Ada's sexual and emotional awakening in terms of the last century? The Victorian age is seen today as synonymous with the oppression of female sexuality; everything from the voluminous clothes to the many laws which deprived wives of financial autonomy legitimised a patriarchy which kept women in check. In order to express themselves, women were constrained to invent male pseudonyms, to 'ghost' music and art for husbands and brothers, to create elaborate metaphors for their experiences. Their voices were often heard only indirectly: they fabricated unruly, angry alter egos, such as Charlotte Brontë's "mad woman in the attic" or the monstrous creation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or codified their anger against male brutality as did Artemesia Gentileschi in her violent depiction of Judith Beheading Holofernes.

In such a male-dominated history, the experiences of women have been almost entirely obscured, and women since have invaded the past to liberate the female imagination and sexuality, as well as to help them to make sense of the present. Since the 70s women have been unearthing forgotten literary works, creating an alternative cultural canon, reinterpreting male texts, and forefronting experiences deemed peripheral. The desire to articulate this forgotten past is perhaps the common impulse behind such diverse works as Jean Rhys' prequel to Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, A. S. Byatt's Possession, Sally Potter's film version of Orlando—and Jane Campion's The Piano which empowers Ada with a 1990s strength and self-knowledge that enables her to transcend the limitations of such disempowered nineteenth-century heroines as Emily Brontë's Catherine.

The two most pervasive models of reclamation of the past used by women film-makers could be termed the 'liberal' and the 'sexual'. The liberal method concentrates on finding a political and ideological affinity between the struggles of women in the present and figures from the past. Campion's film about New Zealand writer Janet Frame, An Angel At My Table, Margarethe von Trotta's film biography Rosa Luxemburg, and the repeated feminist revivals of Ibsen's plays stem from a liberal impulse to utilise the juxtaposition between past and present to illuminate both. The 'sexual' model, by contrast, foregrounds the personal, more hidden aspects of past women's lives—their dormant passions, sexual frustrations and the process of denial which governed their relationships with (primarily) men. Although both types of looking back involve costume, in liberal films these are merely signifiers to carry information about country, class and period. Films interested in the emotive aspects of the past imbue the clothes themselves with sensuality, so they become essential components of the sexual dialogue.

The pioneering Australasian women's film of the 70s was Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career (1979), a feminist reworking of the traditionally male genre of the big liberal history movie—Stanley Kramer's Inherit the Wind, Fred Zinnemann's A Man for All Seasons and so on. My Brilliant Career, a quintessential feminist fairy tale, is based on Miles Franklin's semi-biographical novel about Sybylla Melvyn, a teenage girl from the Bush who chooses a career over a husband. The headstrong Sybylla embodies the struggle for independence and emancipation which was taking place in Australia during the 1890s, but she is equally a construct of the late 1970s—a case of the second women's movement making sense of the first. My Brilliant Career was an important feel-good movie for women of my generation, who in 1979 were much the same age as Sybylla was in the late 1890s. Women were still uncertain about what they wanted, but were sure that it was not what was on offer. As Sybylla puts it: being "a wife out in the bush, having a baby every year."

More crucial to liberal movies than the superficial authenticity of meticulously costumed films such as Christine Edzard's Little Dorritt or The Fool is a broad awareness of contemporary events, which form a discrete backdrop to the narrative. My Brilliant Career spans five years; Sybylla's voiceover states that the film begins in "Possum Gully, Australia 1897", and at the end we are told that My Brilliant Career was published in "Edinburgh, 1901". Australia (far in advance of Britain, which did not grant women the vote until after the First World War) was then in the midst of a successful movement for universal suffrage; two states, South and Western Australia, had already changed the electoral system, while Sybylla's native New South Wales was on the verge of doing so. Sybylla epitomises the exhilaration of this era—her twitching anticipation as she stares into the dawn horizon after posting her manuscript is almost tangible.

The liberal film discerns patterns or draws out meanings which at the time may have been obscured. Sybylla is both historical and contemporary, her struggle (with herself, her family and men) both parochial and perennial. My Brilliant Career thus operates as a metaphor for a universal female dilemma. Sybylla remains such a positive role model for women (and paradoxically attractive to all the men in the film) because she pursues her own goals rather than those society would impose. Though she is repeatedly warned that "loneliness is a terrible price to pay for independence", she ultimately refuses all proposals of marriage and puts her own aspirations first. The straightforwardness of Sybylla's choice might in a modern context—such as the much untidier world of Armstrong's latest film The Last Days of Chez Nous—appear woefully naive. Placed within a historical context, however, the dilemma and decision gain strength from their very simplicity. The liberal analogy film functions best when the metaphor is less complex than the issues it raises about present-day society. Thus Sybylla's "wildness of spirit" and pursuit of a "career"—which at the start could be almost anything that got her out of the Bush—were points of identification for 1970s women with more specific concerns.

The Piano offers a more elliptical way of examining the past—one based on complex, hard-to-define emotions and attractions rather than concrete events. This is not to say that The Piano is apolitical, but that unlike My Brilliant Career, which carries its political commentary through its plot, The Piano does so through clothes and sexuality. Films which use sexuality to explore women's unspoken pasts are more personal, more challenging, more dangerous than their liberal counterparts. It is difficult to envisage women objecting to an uncomplicated liberal film like My Brilliant Career, but a sexual film such as Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter (1974), which examines Nazism through the sado-masochistic relationship between Max, an ex-camp officer, and Lucia, a survivor, frequently repels its audiences. Cavani confronts us with an ambiguous and unpalatable sexual history in which a woman chooses to reenter a violent relationship that eventually leads to her death. Perhaps the film says the unsayable: that Lucia is not Max's victim, but his equal; that brutal sexuality is not simply a male construct.

Campion's innovation in The Piano is to discover a language which articulates a radical opposition to the restrictions imposed on nineteenth-century women through the very means by which those restrictions are usually manifested—clothes. Throughout the film clothes function as agents to liberate rather than to constrain. Visually this is suggested by recurrent images that demonstrate how clothes are constructed, drawing a distinction between the harsh frames—Ada's hoops and the wired angel wings of Flora's Bluebeard costume—and the softness and fluidity of the fabrics stretched over them. Both Ada and Flora are seen adjusting to their clothes, exploring and adapting them and finally learning to feel comfortable in them. To return briefly to the mad woman in the attic and Frankenstein's monster: both Charlotte Brontë and Mary Shelley were impelled to create metaphors which externalised the internal 'demons' of their anger; Campion in The Piano finds a way for Ada to express herself through (rather than despite of) her Victorian persona.

Campion's reclamation of women's sexual pasts is exhilarating, but Ada's eventual liberation is presented as an arduous struggle against the systematic denial of the existence of female desire. As wife to Stewart and lover to Baines, she represents conflicting aspects of Victorian womanhood. On the one hand she is the trapped, unwilling wife—a New Zealand Madame Bovary with apparently as much chance of escape or fulfilment from her stifling bourgeois marriage. She is also, in her refusal to speak, representative of what the medical profession branded a 'hysterical' woman; catatonia, anorexia, chronic fatigue and other forms of self-imposed sensory deprivation were commonplace among dissatisfied and desperate Victorian wives, the majority of whom were regarded as dysfunctional rather than as unhappy. Through the elaborate clothes-language she formulates with Baines, however, Ada engineers her escape from Stewart, drudgery and sexual repression—a modern and radical reassessment of the options available to women in the 1850s.

Clothes traditionally signify restraint and conformity; they have covered our nakedness and hidden our shame. Joe Orton's black farce What the Butler Saw, for example, concludes with Rance's weary nod in the direction of respectability: "Let us put on our clothes and face the world." The Victorians were obsessed with hiding anything that could be deemed suggestive of sex or nakedness, daubing fig leaves on Adams and Eves and covering the bare legs of tables. The sexuality of Victorian women was repressed or presumed not to exist at all: Queen Victoria herself was so convinced that female sexuality was a dutiful response to men's demands that she denied the possibility of lesbianism.

Victorian women's clothes, as much as the way they were treated, made them inactive and vulnerable. At the start of Caryl Churchill's 1979 play Cloud Nine, set in a "British colony in Africa in Victorian times", the colonial's wife, Betty, complains to her husband because her servant has refused to get the book she requested, having snapped: "Fetch it yourself. You've got legs under that dress." Cloud Nine is an elaborate dissection of the sexual underworld of Victorian society. Largely through the use of cross-dressing, Churchill challenges and ridicules the accepted notions of Victorian morality and behaviour by inverting the assumption that what people look like and wear are straightforward indicators of who they are or what they are feeling. So Betty, the embodiment of what "a wife should be", is played by a bearded man, her son by a woman. Throughout Act I characters are rarely permitted to have sex with either the individual or the gender they desire, and the action culminates in the face-saving marriage between the lesbian governess and the intrepid gay explorer. Queen Victoria's model household is a fantasy, a flimsy front for confused morals and anarchic sexuality. Churchill's solution is to liberate the characters by transporting them into the permissive 1970s, because only now, Cloud Nine intimates, can clothes be truly compatible with gender and sexuality. In this instance, as in the final sequences of Potter's Orlando, the analogy between present and past is made explicit through direct juxtaposition.

The Piano enters into a much more complex dialogue with women's sexual histories, since the present-day consciousness remains embedded exclusively within the nineteenth-century narrative. The sexual experiences of the three protagonists—Ada, Baines and Stewart—are markedly different; Stewart, the stiff, bourgeois gentleman, represents respectability and ignorance, while Ada and Baines epitomise radicalism and liberation. Stewart, like head of household Clive in Cloud Nine, is frustrated by how far he is from unlocking the 'mystery' of sexuality and remains unable to break free of his social and gender stereotype. He is left stranded, yearning but unable to deal with the reality of closeness. We do not feel for Clive as his servant cocks his rifle and aims at him, but Stewart's isolation is painful. By the end, he realises that with Baines Ada has discovered an intimacy he, frozen in his social role, will always be excluded from. At this point, the only option he can see is violence: he hurls Ada against the wall and hacks off her finger when she refuses to deny her love for Baines.

Stewart's first appearance in the film—at the head of the welcoming party to greet his new wife—is in his muddied formal dark suit and top hat. He is embarrassed and puzzled to discover Ada and Flora sheltering under the hoops and underskirt, and awkwardly commences his rehearsed greeting. Images of a furtive, frustrated gentleman at a peep show spring to mind as Campion distances him from the female sexuality he can never understand or get close to through a series of classic male voyeur images: squinting through a camera eyepiece at Ada posing unhappily in her wedding dress, or sneaking a glance at her making love to Baines through the cracks in the walls or between the floorboards.

Stewart is clearly identified as a rigid masculine figure marooned in what becomes a feminine world. For much of the time he inhabits a different film from Ada. Stewart's sensibility and world view is closer to that of another Autralasian Victorian costume drama, Peter Weir's Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975), in which three schoolgirls mysteriously disappear while on a Valentine's Day picnic. Here female sexuality is also consistently symbolised through clothes, but the film is built on the mystery rather than the attainment of female sexuality. Unable to articulate their desire, the men in the film become deviant voyeurs, transferring their sexual desire from the girls to their virginal dresses. Thus the dirty scrap of lace which the youthful Michael discovers during the search is invested with sexually charged significance, as is the fact that one girl is subsequently found "intact" minus her corset. Picnic At Hanging Rock is the crystallisation of the Victorian man's perception of intimacy as unobtainable, bewildering, and fascinating.

In The Piano Stewart's predicament is more ambiguous. Denied intimacy, he ultimately unleashes his pent-up sexuality by attempting to rape Ada in the woods. Ada struggles, falls over her skirts and is pulled to the ground. She seems defeated, but is eventually saved by her cumbersome, all-enveloping clothes. Stewart's aggression is deflected by the symbol of Victorian femininity—the hooped skirt—and she escapes. In one of the few scenes when he is alone with his wife, Ada awakens Stewart's desire by skimming his chest with the back of her hand, but when he asks to touch her she recoils. The following night, as Ada strokes his back and buttocks, it is Stewart who wants to stop. What sets Stewart apart from the men in Picnic At Hanging Rock is that he reaches the painful point of realising that there is more to sexual contact than sneaking glimpses, frustrated brutality and being touched.

Much of The Piano depicts a life which conforms to Stewart's masculine perception. New Zealand may have been the first country to grant women the vote, but little of this liberalism is manifested in the first part of the film. Often Ada is as quintessentially the Victorian woman as Stewart is the Victorian man; on the beach in the first scene, for example, she looks like a doll beneath the exaggerated hugeness of her travelling outfit and lampshade bonnet. Women's clothes are presented as constricting, ugly, absurd; the multiple skirts which trip Ada and Flora as they trudge through the mud, and which make it ludicrously difficult for Aunt Morag to relieve herself when "caught short" in the woods. Clothes seem liberating only when they come off, as when Flora dances and cartwheels across the beach in her petticoat. That is, until Ada starts to fall in love with Baines.

In this relationship, the modernity of Campion's response to the past dominates, the potential for sexual expression is realised, and clothes are no longer socially determined. Physically Baines is Stewart's opposite: he never appears dressed as a colonial master and his face is pricked with Maoriesque markings. It is this unconventionality which frees Ada.

The relationship begins when Baines saves Ada's prized piano by intimating a desire to learn how to play. The instrument is brought to his hut, and Stewart tells Ada she is to instruct him. Baines' fascination is not with learning, but with watching Ada play, so a bizarre bargain is struck whereby Ada is allowed to play and win back her piano, while he is permitted to watch, to touch and gradually to unclothe her. As spectators it is clear that we are entering—or rather intruding on—an intensely private world. This intrusion begins one evening after the piano has arrived at Baines' hut: Baines gets up from his bed, removes his shirt and, naked, uses it indulgently to dust the piano, circling it, judging it, getting to know it. Baines considers himself alone, we really shouldn't be there, but we are intrigued by the ritual.

In this formal Victorian world, Harvey Keitel's proud nakedness is both shocking and liberating. Convention is inverted as the man is constructed as a sexual being before the woman. We the audience find ourselves privy to a private dialogue which imbues clothes with a potency beyond the bounds of fetishism and makes what follows an elaborate seduction rather than a cheap strip. This is partly due to the scenes' curious rhythm, a slow but relentless evolution as Ada reworks and refines repeated musical refrains while Baines tells her when to stop, what garment to remove or when he wants to kiss her or lie with her in response to a complex set of rules agreed beforehand. The rich obscurity of the clothes-language is counterbalanced by an incongruous matter-of-factness that puts the relationship on a different plane from anything else.

The language has to do with the sensuality of clothes: how they feel, smell and look, not just what they might signify, as in Picnic At Hanging Rock. Thus Baines' rapture can be contained within the minute act of smelling and burying his face in one of Ada's garments while she remains wrapped in her music. Campion's fascination with clothes is reminiscent of that described by the seventeenth-century poet and priest Robert Herrick, whose illicit passion for Julia is displaced on to her clothes—her lace is "erring", and beneath her "tempestuous petticoat" lurks "a careless shoestring in whose tie/I see a wild civility." Herrick creates a clothes-eroticism so enticing that Julia becomes insignificant by comparison.

In The Piano, the point is not that the clothes are substitutes for Ada, but that they are part of her and her body's sensuality. Perhaps the film's most erotically charged moment is when Baines, crouched under the piano, discovers a tiny hole in Ada's stocking and slowly caresses it, skin touching skin. Later, when Ada is sitting at the piano in just her bodice and skirt, Baines stands behind her naked to the waist and glides his hands across her bare shoulders. Again the camera acts in collusion with the characters, skirting around them as Baines circles Ada, picking up the charge between them. Ada and Baines are gradually becoming equals, as the traditional striptease relationship of one person clothed watching another undress is supplanted. When they finally have sex, they undress together.

Why is this secret language not ludicrous like the adolescent heavings of Picnic At Hanging Rock or the misguided gay advances of Cloud Nine? The strength of the affair in the The Piano lies in Ada's responsiveness; she is no longer the passive Victorian woman, acted upon rather than acting. At first she remains wary and resentful of Baines' bargain, yet she gradually discovers that the relationship can offer her the freedom she, with her mute defiance, had been holding out for. Yet this is not an easy realisation: when Ada returns to Baines' hut having already acknowledged that she loves him, she slaps his cheek and pummels his chest before they kiss, as if she needs to repel him as she repelled Stewart. Then they have sex.

The relationship with Baines is the catalyst to Ada's sensual awakening. When she arrived in New Zealand her piano was her only liberation; she had not spoken since she was six and she had been married off to a stranger. Through The Piano Ada discovers the means to articulate what she wants—firstly through constructing an intimacy around clothes, through choosing Baines over Stewart, choosing not to be drowned by her sinking piano, and finally choosing to learn to speak when she and Baines have started a new life together in Nelson. The closing image is of a woman attached to the piano by a taut rope like a graceful helium balloon; beautiful in death but silent. But however momentarily enticing this ocean death may be, Ada chooses to reject it and to live. The Piano is primarily but not exclusively Ada's liberation; it is also the reclamation of women's desires, the sexual personae which the past silenced.

Lizzie Francke (review date November 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of The Piano, in Sight and Sound, Vol. 3, No. 11, November, 1993, pp. 50-1.

[In the following excerpt, Francke comments on theme in The Piano, noting that the film "demands as much a physical and emotional response as an intellectual one."]

For a while I could not think, let alone write, about The Piano without shaking. Precipitating a flood of feelings, The Piano demands as much a physical and emotional response as an intellectual one. As with the Maoris in the film who, believing the Bluebeard shadow play to be real, attempt to stop the old duke add another wife to his collection, I wanted to rush at the screen and shout and scream. Not since the early days of cinema, when audiences trampled over each other towards the exit to avoid the train emerging from the screen, could I imagine the medium of film to be so powerful. Like Ada's piano music, which is described as "a mood that passes through you … a sound that creeps into you", this is cinema that fills every sense. The opening shot of delicate pink skin smoothed over the screen, as fingers hide eyes, suggests the membrane that the audience must burst through to make the painful and traumatic trek into the film's dark, gnarled woods, finally to be released in the watery death/birth of an ending. Moving pictures indeed.

A film about silence and expression beyond language, The Piano resonates with the silences embedded deep in the texts of such 19th-century women writers as Emily Brontë or Emily Dickinson, women who hid scraps of their work under blotters, who hid themselves behind pseudonyms. They, like the strident composer Ada, were told that their creations were most irregular. In The Piano, Jane Campion feels her way around those echoing caves upon which they built their haunted houses of fiction. It is a virtuoso interpretation of that literary sensibility in a cinematic form, truer than any doggedly faithful adaptation of, say, Wuthering Heights. Indeed, The Piano puts us in the grip of the repressions of the 19th century—an era which saw polite society sheathing the ankles of piano legs with special socks in case they gave young men ideas. Such is the erotic object at the heart of the film.

Campion is playful with the period's more bizarre neuroses. The film flashes with moments of indignant humour, such as when Flora is ordered to whitewash some trees after she and her young friends are caught rubbing up against them in a playful—and unwitting—imitation of the sexual act. But Campion is careful not to let the comedy take hold. Under less thoughtful direction Stewart could have been the buffoonish patriarch, hauling his white man's burden behind him. He treats the Maoris like children, paying them in buttons and staking out his territory over their sacred burial grounds. After the shocking punishment he metes out to Ada, he informs her, "I only clipped your wings." He is, as one Maori dubs him, an emotionally shrivelled "old dry balls". Yet this awful paterfamilias is invested with some sympathy. He is a confused man, who attempts to guy his world down in the chaos of change, who wants his music—and his sex—played to a strict time, so fearful is he of the other rhythms that might move him. If only he could listen, like Ada's previous lover and the father of Flora, upon whom she could "lay thoughts on his mind like a sheet". It is the communication of the gentle caress, the smoothing of nimble fingers over sheets and scales.

Conventional language imprisons Ada like the crinoline, which ambiguously also marks out her private, silent space (the skirt provides an intimate tent for Ada and Flora to shelter in the beach). Crucially, it is the written word that finally betrays her as she sends her love note to Baines, who cannot read but who knows the languages of those around him. Her arrangement with Baines has previously been based on a sensuous play of touch, smell and sound.

Bodies become instruments of expression, while the piano smelling of scent and salt becomes corporeal. Baines' massaging of Ada's leg through a hole in her black worsted stocking is given the same erotic charge as her fingering of the scales. After such libidinous exchange, the marking down of her feelings for him with words only brings destruction, which is hastened by Flora, Ada's little echoing mouthpiece (who is also the most compulsive and intriguing of fabulists).

What to make, then, of Ada's sudden plunge after her lifeless piano, which can no longer sing, into the watery grave? Ada's bid to enter into the order of language brings only death. Her will moves her finally to wave, not drown, to take life.

But there is the disquieting shadow of death cast on to the coda of the film. Brighter than in any of the previous scenes, she is seen in mourning grey, her head covered in a black-edged veil, tapping out notes with the silver artificial finger, which now marks her as the town freak. She is learning to speak but her voice rings the knell—"death, death, death". At night she dreams of her husk, anchored to the piano, skirts billowing out like a balloon, floating in the silence of the deep, deep sea. Impossible to shake off, it is the final image in a film that weighs heavy on the heart and mind, that drags us down into our own shuddering silence.

Brian D. Johnson (review date 22 November 1993)

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SOURCE: "Rain Forest Rhapsody: The Piano Is a Work of Passion and Beauty," in Maclean's, Vol. 106, No. 47, November 22, 1993, pp. 72, 74.

[In the following review, Johnson praises The Piano on a number of counts, including its story and strong female leading role, and describes it as "a welcome antidote to almost everything that seems to be wrong with the movies."]

Every now and then, a movie comes along that restores faith in the visionary power of cinema. The Piano, a haunting fable about a mute mail-order bride caught between two men in the wilds of 19th-century New Zealand, is that kind of film. It arrives as a welcome antidote to almost everything that seems to be wrong with the movies. People complain that there are no good stories, that there are no strong roles for women, that there is no eroticism, just sex—no magic, just manipulation. On all counts, The Piano serves as an exhilarating exception to the rule. And for New Zealand-born director Jane Campion, it marks a milestone. Last spring, she became the first woman in the 48-year history of the Cannes Film Festival to win the grand prize, the Palme d'Or. And her film—a wildly original work of passion, beauty and intelligence—confirms her status, at 39, as one of the best directors working today.

With The Piano, Campion expands her repertoire of strong-willed, unbalanced heroines. Her first feature, Sweetie (1989), was the offbeat tale of a young woman's lunatic spiral of self-destruction. Then, with An Angel at My Table (1990), Campion dramatized the true story of New Zealand novelist Janet Frame, who was wrongly institutionalized for schizophrenia. "I like working with extreme characters," the director told Maclean's recently, "characters that carry more extremely a lot of the syndromes that most of us share in a minor way." But unlike her first two movies, made for about $1 million each, The Piano is a sumptuous period saga with a name cast—Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel and Sam Neill.

The drama of a love triangle among colonials in the bush, the movie has the romantic intensity of a Brontë novel. But despite its 19th-century setting, The Piano seems in tune with the times, resonant with contemporary obsessions ranging from gender confusion to aboriginal rights. And although the script was Campion's own invention, it has a timeless enchantment. "It does feel archetypal," she acknowledges. "It's like a Grimm's fairy tale—I don't even feel that it's quite mine."

The movie's spell is cast right from the opening scene, a sequence of breathtaking images filmed on a savage New Zealand shore: a woman in a bonnet and hoopskirt clambering out of a boat in rough seas with her daughter, men hauling a large crate on to the beach, mountains of surf crashing behind them, the woman's hand poking through a hole in the crate and caressing the keys of a piano.

The woman, a Scot named Ada (Hunter), has been imported to New Zealand for an arranged marriage with a settler, Stewart (Neill), whom she has never met. Ada is mute. For mysterious reasons, she has not spoken a word since the age of six. The piano belongs to her; it is her voice. And she becomes understandably distraught when Stewart decides to leave it on the beach, rather than drag it through the bush. Later, Ada persuades his neighbor, Baines (Keitel), to retrieve it. He is an illiterate colonist who has gone native, decorating his face with Maori tattoos. Baines is the 19th-century answer to the New Man.

After salvaging the piano, he buys it from Ada's husband in exchange for some land. Ada is furious. But Baines offers to sell the instrument back to her in return for "piano lessons"—one black key for every session. His proposal is merely a pretext for seduction. While she plays, he watches, and inch by inch, he prods her into stripping away her Victorian layers of inhibition. "She's an object of curiosity to him," says Campion. "But what he really wants is a sort of reciprocity. He wants her to feel for him the way she feels about her piano."

The adulterous romance, and its dire consequences, take place amid primeval surroundings, a claustrophobic world of rain and mud. Campion has filmed the forest in shades of ultramarine, giving it an underwater look that activates the central metaphor: drowning.

For a director with such a strong visual sense, Campion is exceptionally good with actors. In The Piano, she draws note-perfect performances from her cast. Without uttering a word (except in the narration), Hunter expresses herself with the kind of power and subtlety that wins Oscars. Neill modulates his character's insensitivity with touching strains of pathos. And as Ada's nine-year-old daughter, an impetuous sprite named Flora, New Zealand's Anna Paquin is amazing. Most remarkably, though, Keitel trades in his hard-boiled, urban persona to play a beguiling romantic lead with a soft Scottish burr.

Campion's stars, meanwhile, are rhapsodic about her talents. "I would have played the third Maori from the left for Jane," says Neill. "She's a fantastic woman and a great director." Kietel calls her "a goddess."

She is a vivacious woman, with blue eyes, waves of blond hair and a reckless laugh. One morning last month, weary from jet lag, Campion talked with Maclean's in a Manhattan hotel room, absently stirring a bowl of soggy granola and berries. It was her first round of interviews since Cannes, and stepping back into the public eye was not easy. Last June, just two months after winning the Palme d'Or, she gave birth to her first child, Jasper, who died 12 days later.

Campion now lives in Sydney, Australia, with husband Colin Englert, a TV producer and director. The child of two actors, she was raised in New Zealand, then attended Victoria University in Melbourne. She chose to study anthropology, she says, "because it seemed like the course where the greatest proportion of students passed. But it became quite a passion for me." After graduating, Campion dove into another obsession, enrolling in a Sydney art school where minimalism and performance art were all the rage. "It was unbelievably exciting," she recalls. "The school was run by really young artists who had incredibly tough standards. I was having nervous breakdowns. Trying to find your own personal vision—that was the challenge."

Campion found her vision by staging "little plays about women and sex," which led her to make her first short film. She went on to attend film school and work with Australia's Women's Film Unit. "But I am very influenced by painting," she says. "That's where I come into film-making. I do love films, but I'm not a film buff at all. When people go on about Preston Sturges and all that, I'm completely lost."

Influences of both painting and anthropology surface in The Piano, a sexual gothic tableau that Campion seems to have divined from her New Zealand roots. It is a primal tale of ancestral innocence. And the anthropology, she says, is intuitive—"it's behind me in the layering of meanings and cultural symbols."

She dreamt up the idea for The Piano well before making her first film. But it took time to work up the nerve, and the money, to execute it. "I really wanted to do a love story where you could see the growth from fetishism towards eroticism, and to more of a blend of love and sexuality," she says. "These characters are approaching sex with really no experience. Although Ada's had a child, we imagine it was from a pretty rudimentary experience."

The director takes issue with the way sex is usually portrayed in movies. "One of the obsessions, with men directing sex scenes, is to show sex as they would do it," she says, laughing at the idea. "So there's a sort of athleticism involved. And they try to turn the audience on in a soft-porn kind of way." She adds, "I don't mind if the sex in my film does titillate or arouse, but that's not the ambition in itself. The important thing is that it doesn't seem out of place for the characters."

An unspoken feminism seems to inform Campion's attitude, and her sense of humor. "But at the time I was writing The Piano," she recalls, "I thought I wouldn't like to be pigeonholed as a feminist. Now I think that yes, I really am a strong feminist, in the sense that I like women a lot and I am curious about women. Also, men do seem to have the obvious, literal power and wealth." Campion appears unimpressed by the obvious. But, after improvising a career out of intangibles, with The Piano she has found her voice and taken her place as a diva among directors.

Stuart Klawans (review date 6 December 1993)

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SOURCE: Review of The Piano, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 257, No. 19, December 6, 1993, pp. 704-06.

[In the following mixed review, Klawans finds The Piano contrived and allegorized, but acknowledges that most viewers will admire the film's eroticism and formal inventiveness.]

A skeptic's notes on the most believed-in movie of the year:

No one will deny that Jane Campion's The Piano is a genuinely erotic picture. That alone would have made it stand out in any era; it glows all the brighter today, when screen couplings resemble either the Clash of the Titans (Basic Instinct) or a perfume ad (Henry and June). What a stimulus, what a relief, to see Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel get naked in The Piano, in a scene with both heat and moisture; what delicious suspense later on, when Hunter explores the skittish body of Sam Neill. Poems will soon be written about the curves of the performers' buttocks as they're outlined in candlelight; about the atmosphere that surrounds the dropping away of each item of clothing; about the immediate tactile shock when flesh first touches flesh in the film, in closeup, as a fingertip covers a tiny hole in Hunter's stocking. Such moments are surely beyond even a skeptic's power to resist.

Nor could the most hardened skeptic doubt the beauty of The Piano. Campion has set the film in the wilds of New Zealand, where silver waves pound the beach beneath a misty, purplish horizon and lush greenery spouts from primordial muck. Yet Campion is such a formidable image-maker that the landscape, for her, is more of a surplus than a necessity. In an early scene, for example, Hunter and her movie daughter (Anna Paquin) must camp out for one night on the beach. Campion has them take shelter beneath a hoop skirt, which, lit from within, shines on the screen like an improbable Chinese lantern. That's how good Jane Campion is—she transforms everything she sees. A teacup in Sam Neill's hand, abruptly shown from straight above, turns into a placid little pool, where the character's desires have been contained. A set of fingers, held close to the lens, turns into an abstract pattern of red lights and fuzzy shadows—the curtain of mystery that must part for the film to reveal itself.

That shot through the fingers functions as more than just a moment's decoration. Though Campion has an eye for sensual pleasures, she also (as an honest skeptic will admit) has a mind for themes and motifs; and so she thickens her film with multiple peekaboo shots and a continual wagging of fingers. Characters in The Piano are forever spying on one another; digits are always talking. You will also notice that a good many of the characters are easily influenced—they tend to ape one another's words and gestures and show a weakness for theatrical illusion. The heroine's daughter, having been cast in a church pageant, wears her angel's wings ever after and tries to live up to them. A group of Maoris, alarmed at a pantomime in the same pageant, storms the stage; though later, when a similar crisis erupts in real life, the same Maoris don't budge. People who are malleable and credulous, the film seems to argue, are likely to be undependable to boot.

Since that is one of the morals to be drawn from The Piano, I will assume I have Jane Campion's permission for skepticism. Her film is astonishing, even ravishing, in many ways. But why are so many people swallowing it whole, and why (in my case) did it not go down?

Here is the story:

A nineteenth-century Scotswoman, Ada, is sent off with her daughter to New Zealand, there to marry a settler named Stewart, whom she has never met. For reasons that Ada herself does not understand, she gave up speaking at age 6. Now she communicates only through writing, sign language, occasional feats of mental telepathy and (above all) piano playing. Her music, composed for the film by Michael Nyman, is supposed to be original, impassioned and wild. Actually, it's just a lot of modal noodling, in a style that goes over well today on sound-tracks and in the tonier Los Angeles restaurants but that in the nineteenth century would have been considered not so much eccentric as brain-damaged. Ada, however, is not brain-damaged. She is just inexplicably mute and intensely piano-dependent and indomitably strong-willed, though not so much as to prevent her husband (the one she's never met before) from abandoning her indispensable piano on the beach. It's too heavy, he says, to carry to their far-off home. But geography turns out to be variable in this movie. When a tattooed, gone-native neighbor named Baines later takes an interest in Ada, he not only has the piano delivered straight to his house but even contracts for a tuner to visit him in the inaccessible, photogenic wilds.

Sexy stuff then happens between Baines and the strong-willed Ada, who doesn't like him at first but then does—just as her daughter abruptly stops despising Stewart and comes to adore him. (As Darryl Zanuck used to decree in his celebrated script conferences, "Her love turns to hate!") Eventually, Stewart gets wise and locks up his wife, who responds by playing finger exercises on his spine. Now remember, Stewart is a thoroughly rigid, shuttered man—the kind who would abandon a large piece of symbolic furniture on the beach. He's so thick, he tries to buy a Maori burial ground with a jar of buttons as his payment. Yet he has the exquisite sensitivity to wait for a mail-order wife to come to his bed. When she does, he also has the spiritual refinement to hear her unvoiced words. Naturally, an experience of such depth and tenderness leads him to violence (his love turns to hate), in the course of which, though a clumsy man, he performs a feat requiring near-miraculous fine-motor control. After that, three more reversals occur without benefit of motivation, whereupon the film reaches as satisfying a happy ending as Zanuck himself might have engineered, or even Louis B. Mayer.

In brief, this skeptic thinks The Piano is a work of imagination but also of the will—not Ada's will, unfortunately, but Jane Campion's. Compared with Sweetie, her extraordinary first film, The Piano seems to me contrived, allegorized, rhetorical and altogether too eager to tell people what they want to hear. It's not so much an outburst of wild talent as it is the performance of wildness before an audience; not so much a waking dream as a melodrama.

Or, as true believers would have it, a fairy tale. Many of the viewers who give themselves up to The Piano will surely excuse its inconsistencies by appealing to Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm; and yet the comparison doesn't work. The Piano is too bound up with specifics of time and place to be a fairy tale, though not enough so to be a historical drama. It's something in between—a reverie about the Victorian, colonial past—which means it's just close enough to realism to frustrate anybody who pauses to think about the plot. The same holds true for the characters. The makers of fairy tales are pretty shrewd about human behavior; Freud himself never wrote a case study more acute than "The Princess and the Pea." But in The Piano, Campion's whim is the only law. You can't learn anything about the characters beyond what she chooses to tell you at the moment, because they are mere artifices—like Michael Nyman's music, which is neither convincing as a nineteenth-century imposture nor substantial enough to withstand scrutiny as part of our own era.

To the great majority of viewers, none of this means a damn. They're swept away by the eroticism, the beauty, the formal inventiveness and (no doubt) the easy allegory of The Piano. I yield to their judgment, bearing in mind the motto of the great art historian Ernst Gombrich: "There are no wrong reasons for liking a work of art." In fact, of all types of art, films are the most likely to overwhelm the carpings of reason—which means you could argue that The Piano has the added virtue of expressing an inherent quality of its medium. And yet …

The difference between admiring The Piano with reservations and believing in it wholeheartedly comes down to one's willingness to identify with the heroine. That's a tricky business. In current film criticism, especially the hard-core stuff, identification has become a key concept, as if it were general to narrative filmmaking. But with whom would you identify in Citizen Kane? Pickpoket? Andrei Rublev? The Bank Dick? Though it's undeniable that many narrative films encourage you to identify with a given character, others don't. So, to address the crudest form of identification theory, the "chick's movie" slur: Yes, I am willing to adopt the point of view of female protagonists. Because of certain oddities in my upbringing, I'm even more willing to identify with piano players. (Somebody once asked for a list of my ten favorite films. I came up with Quai des Orfèvres, Shoot the Piano Player, Five Easy Pieces, Stroszek, Letter From an Unknown Woman, Hangover Square, A Song to Remember, George Kuchar's Pagan Rhapsody, The World of Henry Orient and El Dorado, for the scene where Robert Mitchum shotguns a piano.) So my failure to plunge into the being of the piano player in this new movie very likely reflects some shortcoming in the production—perhaps Jane Campion's insistence that I should, I must, I will identify with Holly Hunter.

A sharper critic than I, Stephen Dedalus, has remarked that two types of identification are at work in the classic theory of drama. Aristotle's "pity," says Dedalus, moves the viewer to identify with the suffering character; but "terror" simultaneously incites us to identify "with the secret cause." To this, I would add only that the intuition of a secret cause of our sufferings, our attempt to know that cause by joining with it imaginatively, is the act that brings reason into play. My objection to The Piano? The film gives reason nothing to do. It intuits no secret cause. It offers only the occasion to feel pity, and for a character you're right to pity.

I bet you'll love it.

John Simon (review date 27 December 1993)

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SOURCE: "Praise Jack, Shoot 'The Piano,'" in National Review, Vol. 45, No. 25, December 27, 1993, pp. 65-7.

[Simon is a Yugoslavian-born American film and theater critic. In the following excerpt, he argues that The Piano contains numerous logical inconsistencies that detract from its quality.]

At a New York Film Festival press conference, Jane Campion said she had originally intended to have the Cannes grand-prize-winning The Piano end with the drowning of the heroine. Instead, she has her going off to live happily ever after with her lover. I wonder about a writer-director who ends up making the opposite of what she set out to do.

The film starts with Ada, a Scottish mail-order bride, arriving on a desolate New Zealand coast with her small daughter, Flora. It's sometime in the nineteenth century, and there is no dock; the sailors unceremoniously dump people and their belongings on a deserted beach. Next day, Stewart, the husband, arrives with some Maori carriers. As the return trek leads through muddy jungles, Stewart decrees that Ada's most precious possession, her piano, be temporarily left behind, exposed to the mercy of the waves and weather. Ada, by the way, is mute, and communicates with her daughter in a home-made sign language; with others, via a notebook she wears around her neck, on whose pages she furiously scribbles the notes she hands out. Early sequences of the film have voiceover narration in Ada's voice at age six, when she voluntarily stopped speaking. Don't inner voices mature?

We never find out anything about Ada's background, her first husband, and how Stewart acquired her in marriage. Or why she gave up speaking. Later, Flora will offer a wildly fanciful explanation that we, clearly, are not meant to believe. When mother and daughter spend that first cold night on the beach, they sleep under Ada's hoopskirt; who would have thought a crinoline could provide shelter for two? Why would a welcoming husband abandon his bride's beloved piano, her chief mode of self-expression, when there are enough porters to carry it; and why not at least move it out of the reach of the waves? Later, it is Stewart's less affluent partner, Baines—an Englishman gone native, who sports Maori tattoos on his face—who buys the piano from Stewart, and seems to have no problem hauling it to his homestead. That the piano should play perfectly after what it's been through is one of the film's most resounding lies.

Ada refuses to sleep with her husband, which he meekly accepts; he'll wait. Baines tells Ada he'll let her have the piano back in exchange for lessons. She goes to his house to give them, each session earning her a black key or, if she is particularly complaisant, more than one; the white keys, evidently, have no market value. Baines watches her from odd angles, including from below, often playing with her various extremities—with anything but the keyboard. Eventually, he presents himself to her naked and panting with desire; session by session, he has already removed quite a bit of her clothing. She succumbs, and they make wild, un-Victorian love. After that, things become rather more implausible.

Jane Campion prides herself on leaving much unexplained. She has every right to be proud: at leaving things unexplained, Miss Campion is a champion. We do not even get a sense of topography, of the distances between places, of what kind of settlement this is, of the reasons for the comings and goings of certain other white persons. As for the Maoris, they are lazy, giggling children, given to making rude jokes about the whites, which are sometimes, not always, translated by subtitles. Flora's actions consistently make no sense, but she at least has the excuse of being a child. What the adults do would make sense only as the wet dream of an inane woman, which The Piano, apparently, is not meant to be.

A final example. When Ada, who now plays teasing sexual games with her embarrassed husband (who had watched her through a window make love to Baines, and said nothing, only to keep her later under household arrest), decides to send a love message to Baines, she writes it on a key she rips from her piano—as if there were no paper, and as if Baines, who is illiterate, could read it. She entrusts the missive to Flora, who, perversely, walks miles to deliver it to Stewart instead, even though she bears him no particular allegiance. The consequences are dire, of course, but in an utterly loony way. Miss Campion claims kinship with Emily Brontë; but Wuthering Heights, another over-heated spinsterish fantasy, makes a lot more sense, and has a little thing called genius going for it.

Even the music is absurd. Except for one piece of mauled Chopin, the score is by Michael Nyman, one of the most self-important, overrated, and, to my ears, worthless composers around; for this period piece, he has written his usual New Age claptrap. Yet, in other ways, Miss Campion is a stickler for accuracy, especially when such accuracy looks or sounds ridiculous to us, e.g., people wearing London street clothes and shoes to slosh through jungle mud.

Holly Hunter looks dismal and ghostly most of the time, her two white ears protruding through an oily, slicked-down carapace of black hair like a pair of stale shrimps. She plays piano and bizarre equally well. Harvey Keitel manages to act supremely randy in a childlike way, and wears his blue Morse-code-like tattoo with a straight face, which is an accomplishment. Sam Neill struggles with a role as unappetizing as it is thankless, and Anna Pacquin is an adorably precocious brat ripe for strangling. What possessed the Cannes judges to divide the Golden Palm between this and Farewell My Concubine, which is at least indisputably a film? The only similarity between the two lies in each having a main character one of whose fingers gets lustily chopped off.

Richard A. Blake (review date 15 January 1994)

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SOURCE: "Sound Effects," in America, Vol. 170, No. 2, January 15, 1994, p. 14.

[Blake is an American educator, editor, film critic, and Roman Catholic priest. In the following review, he asserts that The Piano provides "a brilliant analysis" of human isolation and remarks on Campion's artistic development.]

Traditionally, the holiday season works violence on the emotions. It offers images of happy family gatherings, but the sad reality is that many people eat Thanksgiving dinner alone in cafeterias, neither give nor receive Christmas presents and play solitaire on New Year's Eve. At a time when need for communication becomes obsessive, loneliness weighs like a Yule log on the heart. The January removal of Christmas decorations from shop windows comes as a blessed relief.

The Piano, written and directed by Jane Campion, offers a brilliant analysis of such poignant human isolation. Ada (Holly Hunter) cannot speak, Baines (Harvey Keitel) cannot read and Stewart (Sam Neill) cannot love. Despite their tragic solitude, masking its painful truth under a guise of self-sufficiency, each longs for the touch of another person. Since they cannot communicate directly, a piano mediates their relationships, thus assuming a symbolic, even mystical function throughout the film. It, rather than the human characters, is the center of the story.

Through voice-over narration, Ada, speaking with the voice of a young girl, explains that she simply stopped speaking at the age of six. This attractive young widow travels with her 9-year-old daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) from Scotland to New Zealand to marry Stewart, whom she has never met. Eager for a bride, Stewart accepts her muteness as an indication that she is "stunted." Her inability to communicate, however, becomes a sign of her own apparent inner strength. When she and Flora are dumped on the beach by the traders, she converts one of her huge hoop skirts into a tent so that she and Flora can survive until the groom arrives with his Maori porters to take her and her possessions to her new home. Her insistence on having them take her crated piano puts the new couple into immediate conflict. For him it is foolishness; for her it is life. When he leaves it on the beach, she is diminished, if only for a time.

In the mid-19th century, at this remote edge of the rain forest, European conventions have not yet taken root. Ada will have no wedding ceremony other than a photograph taken in a dripping shed with her soggy wedding gown draped loosely over her street clothes. Immediately after their wedding, Stewart announces his plans to be away for a prolonged period, and he will hear nothing more of the piano.

Baines, however, is more sympathetic. Tattooed with Maori markings on his forehead and nose, this roughhewn neighbor gradually sees the piano as an opportunity to befriend Ada. His Maori workers, men and women both, engage in ribald conversation to tease him about his need for a wife. By offering Stewart a parcel of land, Baines takes possession of the piano, moves it into his own house and arranges to take lessons from Ada. At the end of a series of lessons, one for each black key on the keyboard, the piano will revert to Ada.

Eager to regain her only form of self-expression, Ada complies, knowing quite well that Baines is more interested in her than in music. At first he is content to watch her feet and to touch her shin through a hole in her stocking as she plies the pedals. In exchange for additional black keys she allows greater liberties, as Flora, not fully comprehending, watches them from the porch. What has begun as an eerie seduction for Baines and a business proposition for Ada, has, against their better judgment and good sense, matured into romance.

The erotic theme reinforces the frustration of failed communication. Ada soon realizes that Stewart cannot respond to her sexual overtures, and Baines cannot have the woman he loves. Thus both are sexually unfulfilled. Caught in an irresolvable triangle, Ada finds herself imprisoned in her own bedroom just as clearly as she is trapped in her own muteness. Her only form of expression is her piano, with its glorious music exposing the passion that rages in her heart. As it once gave her power over Baines, in her own home it provides a sense of emotional superiority over her uncomprehending, unfeeling husband.

The piano remains the focal point of the narrative as it twists through several abrupt, shocking developments. The love story stands on its own merits dramatically, but as the triangle sorts itself out, Ada and her piano acquire a significance that reaches far beyond the romantic conflict. The film enters into a dream mode, where images penetrate the subconscious, provoke, disturb and ultimately enlighten. In one of the final scenes, for example, Ada appears with a black veil over her face, and we must wonder how much of her we have actually seen or understood. She remains a mystery to the end. Ada's story speaks of love and survival, dignity and destruction, and especially of loneliness and communication.

As writer and director, Jane Campion has reached artistic maturity in a remarkably brief time. Her script holds all the elements of tragedy and pathos of the Victorian romance, but she refuses to offer her audience one moment of easy sentimentality. In Ada she has created a character of such strength that she evokes admiration rather than pity. Holly Hunter's features have sharpened since Broadcast News (1987), and her set jaw and tight lips speak more eloquently than any dialogue. Her silent rage during her arguments with Stewart, her comic negotiations with Baines and her tender exchanges with Flora show the expressiveness of silent images created by a talented director and actor working as one.

Harvey Keitel continues to grow as an actor. Baines is part brute and part lovesick fool, but Keitel and Campion make him neither frightening nor pathetic. In their telling, his strange behavior seems plausible, even inevitable. Sam Neill creates a suitably bland Stewart, whose rage quietly builds until it explodes in a series of increasingly desperate, destructive acts. Stuart Dryburgh's photography is splendid without being showy. His presentation of the New Zealand forest is exquisite, while the dark interiors of the lantern-lit cabins provide an appropriate image of Ada's sense of confinement.

Does The Piano have the required happy ending? I'm not sure. I was certainly not elated, nor was I depressed—but I was profoundly disturbed. The memory of this film will last a long time, and that may be the true test of a work of art.

Sarah Kerr (review date 3 February 1994)

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SOURCE: "Shoot the Piano Player," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLI, No. 3, February 3, 1994, pp. 29-30.

[In the following review, Kerr discusses the scenery, costumes, and narrative of The Piano, arguing that Campion creates an "immersion experience" rather than a dramatic narrative.]

Several reviewers of her latest film [The Piano] have called Jane Campion a fourth Brontë sister. Campion, too, has dropped hints that this is where she got her inspiration. Attached to the book version of her screenplay, there is an appendix entitled "The Making of The Piano" in which she is quoted comparing "the kind of romance that Emily Brontë portrayed" to the perverse love affair in her film. This statement sent me paging through an old paperback of Wuthering Heights, where I came across a preface by Charlotte Brontë, an eloquent defense of her sister's novel written for the 1850 edition, two years after Emily's death. In it, Charlotte concedes that the central characters of Catherine and especially Heathcliff were perhaps too "tragic and terrible," and she finds the Yorkshire setting unrelievedly stark. But she counters that brightening the dialogue or adding a day trip to London would have subtracted from what was most true about the book. Emily's nature had, after all, been a brooding one. Bleak heaths and gnarled firs were the everyday view outside her window. Besides, according to Charlotte, she had possessed the true creative gift, the kind that "wills and works for itself," heedless of its owner's conscious intent.

The preface clarified a misgiving I'd had about comparing that particular mid-nineteenth-century novelist to this particular late-twentieth-century director. It is hard enough to reconcile the romantic picture, preserved since high school, of the solitary artist, in a naive trance-like state in her rural "wild workshop," with the multimillion-dollar, multinational, collaborative state of film making today. it is especially hard, though, to reconcile it with a film like The Piano, whose own trance-like quality seems not naive, but the result of cool, worldly calculation.

The appendix to the screenplay, part backstage visit with celebrities, part Cliff's Notes (and, by the way, pretty much the same as the press kits publicists handed to reviewers at advance screenings, hoping to jog memories and suggest a good hook for their reviews), documents a lot of hard planning. Holly Hunter, the star, tells how she took her acting cue from the restrictive corsets and stiff-hooped petticoats women wore during the 1850s, when the film takes place. Andrew McAlpine, the production designer, explains that he finessed the mood of certain scenes by layering an extra web of supplejack—a sinister, creeping black plant—over the New Zealand bush, where the movie was made. As if to underline the fact that this was not the view outside anyone's window, but a meticulously designed enterprise, the smallest eccentricities of which were deliberate, someone has supplied a glossary of terms like moko and kumera: Maori for facial tattoo and sweet potato.

The publisher has chosen this clinical-sounding quote from Campion as an epigraph: "I think that the romantic impulse is in all of us and that sometimes we live it for a short time," she says, "but it's not part of a sensible way of living." As an announcement of what the film is "about," this statement is remarkably bland and equivocal, but it does in an odd way capture the spirit of The Piano. The key word is not "romantic," but "impulse." The focus, quite accurately, is on "us," the rapt audience, whose breath Campion intends to quicken.

What we get in the movie is less a story than a situation, which is set up in the first few minutes, then turned loose. Ada, a mute Scottish woman, is promised in a match arranged by her father to Stewart, an English settler in New Zealand. She sails there to marry and live with him, bringing along her impish ten-year-old daughter, Flora (who the father was, we don't know), with whom she communicates in sign language, and her piano, which we are meant to understand as her surrogate voice. (She has played since she was five or six, around the time she stopped talking.)

From the beginning, Ada is a perverse heroine, indifferent to her stiff husband's shy request that she be more "affectionate," and, quite beyond her muteness (which, it is hinted, is willful), emotionally remote. When she plays the piano her eyes dilate, her cheeks twitch, and she looks disturbingly off, like a proud cat that has bathed and forgotten to stick its tongue back in. Any warmth she has is for her daughter, whose company at all times, including night-time, she prefers to that of Stewart. (There appears to be no incest here, but, as in her first film, Sweetie, Campion fixes on petting and power games between parents and children—on the thin line separating doting from coercion. The relationship of Ada and Flora is the most complicated one in the film.)

Stewart, recognizing the piano as a rival, trades it, against Ada's wishes, for a piece of land to another settler, a crude, illiterate Welshman named Baines. As part of the deal, she is to teach Baines how to play. A number of clichés get teased in The Piano, beginning with this throwing together of two unlikely people, a standard prelude to movie intimacy. Using his ownership of the piano as leverage, Baines arranges a deal with Ada, and the "lessons" in his cabin quickly turn into strange intimate sessions in which she lets him "do things" to her.

Whether it is love or power or jungle fever that motivates Baines is unclear. He politely notifies her in advance of what he is about to do each time he nuzzles her neck or peeks up her skirt (right in line with the Antioch rules), but there is an ugliness to their time together, because it is bought. His desire seems primitive. Alone, in between lessons, he lies in bed looking undone by lust; he gets up and in a slow, solo nude scene strips off his nightshirt and uses it to wipe down the piano. Harvey Keitel, bringing some Actor's Studio introspection to this scene (and, bravely, a squat body that makes him resemble a twisted balloon animal), keeps us in further suspense whether Baines is a feminist dreamboat or simply Tarzan beating on his chest.

Of course, this is exactly the question that Campion designed her film to provoke, and then, it seems, to duck. She presents Stewart as a "character" with a set of attributes (lonely, wants a family, something of a bore), and the actor, Sam Neill, plays him that way. But Ada and Baines are kept opaque in the way that real people we hardly know are opaque. Their histories are murky, and their motives, despite the surface emotionality, are unfathomable. Even Ada's muteness seems conceived as a disorienting device. The less readable her behavior, the more thrillingly her affair with Baines unfolds, before our eyes, free of distraction.

The same goes for her music. Piano-playing is said to be Ada's voice, but significantly, she plays mood rather than expressive music—not the truly romantic pieces she might have been expected to know, with a melody, a dramatic arc, a real voice. (The dreary score, like an étude in which the student works to make each new note sound as much as possible like the last, is by Michael Nyman, the composer for Peter Greenaway's baroque, impersonal films.) Music may be too articulate a form of expression for Campion's purposes. She does better with a baser stimulus, like touch: early on, Baines's thumb brushing the nickel-sized patch of Ada's thigh that shows through her stocking, and later, the consummation, which,

STEWART watches, stepping down to peer lower as BAINES buries into ADA's skirt. He does not seem to notice the dog licking his hand. Suddenly he pulls his hand away and looks at it, wet with dog saliva; he wipes it on the boards and continues watching as if mesmerized.

The sex scenes are uncannily immediate, more purely sensual than any I have seen. This is sex in a different century, under a different set of rules—sex without a script, without particular characters. And Campion makes us into witnesses.

But twice in the second half of The Piano, we are jolted in a contradictory way. These moments are not plot twists in the conventional sense: no character is revealed, no confusion cleared up. Each one comes out of the blue, and neither seems to have real consequences. The first occurs when Stewart, after keeping her locked up for days, decides to trust Ada not to repeat the tryst with Baines and leaves the house to resume surveying his land. In his absence Ada attempts to send Baines a piano key as a love token. But instead of delivering the key to Baines as her mother ordered, Flora hands it to Stewart. Stewart returns in a rage, grabs Ada and throws her around, throws his axe at the piano, and drags her to a tree stump outside and hacks off her index finger. He then goes to see Baines, holds a gun to Baines's throat, and confesses his torment.

Here arrives the other jolt, which is twofold. Presumably Baines calms Stewart down, because in the next scene he and Ada and Flora are departing in a boat. Ada impulsively orders the beloved piano thrown overboard:

As the piano splashes into the sea, the loose ropes speed their way after it. ADA watches them snake past her feet and then, out of a fatal curiosity, odd and undisciplined, she steps into a loop.

The rope tightens and grips her foot so that she is snatched into the sea, and pulled by the piano down through the cold water.


Bubbles tumble from her mouth. Down she falls, on and on, her eyes are open, her clothes twisting about her. The MAORIS diving after her cannot reach her in these depths. ADA begins to struggle. She kicks at the rope, but it holds tight around her boot. She kicks hard again and then, with her other foot, levers herself free from her shoe. The piano and her shoe continue their fall while ADA floats above, suspended in deep water, then suddenly her body awakes and fights, struggling upwards to the surface.

This harrowing sequence, done in slow-motion, captures the dumb desperation of trying to claw one's way out of a trap but being unable to move that one experiences in dreams. But this nightmare, regrettably, is followed by an epilogue, a sunlit scene on the porch of their new house which looks imported from a film version of Pride and Prejudice. In the screenplay they've ended up in the pretty town of Nelson, New Zealand. Ada explains in a voice-over that Baines has built her a new metal finger. She gives piano lessons. There she is, learning how to talk again, her daughter cartwheeling past in the garden, her lover reeling her in for a kiss.

The scene is a negation of everything that preceded it. The reckless logic of the film has prepared us to reject Baines and Ada as a happy domesticated couple, just as the more stoic logic of Casablanca would be ruined if Ingrid Bergman's getting on the plane with Paul Henreid to help him fight Nazis turned out to be a ruse. (Nobody really wanted to see her and Humphrey Bogart five years later, sitting down to breakfast in a tract home in New Rochelle.)

In fact, the logic of The Piano would make any ending seem pat. The film makes its point by showing how time-bound and rhetoric-laden our expectations about sex are: how much we rate it, classify it as "casual" and "serious" and sometimes "rape," look for signs of love or lack of love, for an expression, in miniature, of a character's approach to life. We usually subordinate sex to a larger story, but the point of The Pianois the sex: there's no larger story to tell.

Campion has solved the usual problem with historical films, which is that everything on screen feels too familiar: the waistlines, the hairdos, the shade of lipstick are all from this month's magazines, and so, we suspect, is whatever dilemma the characters are grappling with. On the contrary, she has been unsparingly thorough. The blue-green, yellow, and amber tinges that at first seem mere mood heighteners actually mimic autochrome, a nineteenth-century stills process. Charred trees were placed just so to create a slashed-and-burned look around Stewart's house. In the production notes, Campion makes it a point of honor that Holly Hunter's hair was authentically greasy.

The vanished landscape was resurrected, however, not to be understood but as another field of tactile and visual opportunities to be mined. Campion makes a self-conscious point in the production notes of her determination to do a "Maori story." The movie takes place in the 1850s, and there is some oblique business here about contested land; in one scene the Maori complain about the takeover of a burial ground. By 1860, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on New Zealand, the land gripes only hinted at here broke out into a full-fledged war that lasted ten years. Campion painstakingly avoids the usual traps; her Maori are neither especially savage nor excessively innocent. But sitting cross-legged in the forest, wearing their top hats, they come periously close to being backdrop, like the cliffs and the waves, contributors to the estrangement the audience is supposed to feel. Mostly, they serve the purpose of being hipper to sex than the whites are. They dispense salty putdowns ("Old dry balls is getting touchy," one of them says about the uptight Stewart), and encourage young Flora, flustered from peeking in on one of Baines's "lessons," to make out with a tree.

Campion is a brilliant depicter of moods and reactions—a behaviorist, poking at her characters with a stick and showing us how they wriggle—and The Piano strings together a dozen or so memorable moments of great psychological truth. Its cumulative effect, though, is to induce a feverish pang, like lovesickness, in the audience.

In an essay on Bertolucci's film 1900, Pauline Kael wrote about a point in mid-career when a great director experiences the almost missionary drive to express "what the artist thinks are the unconscious needs of the public." Kael was talking about films from Intolerance to Apocalypse Now which, like certain huge, layered, didactic nineteenth-century novels, attempt to diagnose the way we live now, often with great bitterness. Though the story of The Piano is tiny and confined, Campion directs it with the grave authority of one of these films, so that we reflexively look for a sermon in the sensations she thrusts in front of us.

But The Piano is different in offering no message whatsoever. Certain men have found it to be anti-man, and certain feminists have accused Campion of hating women. These opposite reactions point to a hollowness at the film's core. Its avoidance of judgment gives it an open-armed warmth, a slightly New Age quality that shows up at the end of the final credits, when Campion thanks everyone who tried out but didn't make it to the screen. It has another more remote, asocial side, though. Its goal is a private sensory charge—or, as Campion puts it in the production notes, describing what she can do now that Emily Brontë couldn't in her time, "the actual bodyscape of it … because the body has certain effects, like a drug almost." While it dangles in front of us intense images (the piano, the cut-off finger) that look as if they should work the way symbols in great novels do, The Piano has a peculiarly contemporary, almost technological dimension. The story of Ada and Baines's affair is, like the story of Spielberg's T-Rex, secondary to its physical representation. Instead of a dramatic narrative, we get an immersion experience: a Virtual Romance. We leave the theater more intensely aware of how tight or loose our clothes are hanging, how close the next person is standing, how damp the air is outside.

Right now Campion is completing a screenplay adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady, which she plans to shoot next year. She has enough specialties in common with James (willful heroines, charged glances) to make this something to stand in line to see. Still, I wonder whether her brand of insight isn't best suited to adapting not nineteenth-century novels, but biographies.

Real people rarely have been served well by the movies, which tend to camouflage physical and psychic flaws, and pound lives into the shape of a lesson. Campion's previous film, An Angel at My Table, is a beautiful exception to the rule. It is based on the autobiography of the New Zealand novelist Janet Frame, who because of extreme shyness was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic while in her early twenties, and confined to an asylum, where, over a period of eight years, she was dealt close to two hundred rounds of electric shock.

Campion's unsentimental grasp of period detail and shifting states of mind allow us to follow Janet from childhood tableaux through wrenching, particular adolescent hurdles and finally to an adult calm. There is an especially moving moment at the end, after Janet has left the asylum, done a European tour, established a small literary reputation, and returned to New Zealand, where she is staying with her one surviving sister, in a shed adjacent to the sister's trailer. From up in the night sky, we look down on Janet alone in the yard on a break from work, and hear the dim sound of a pop song coming from inside the trailer. We see her stand listening. She does a brief distracted dance, then after a moment goes still, waits, turns, walks back inside the shed, and as the camera descends and closes in on the window, first slowly and then picking up speed as if hurrying to catch something terribly elusive, we see her begin to type.

There is no obvious prettiness here: just a middle-aged woman with a red afro and rotting teeth and terrible social skills, typing. Yet the mix of concreteness and mystery seems almost medieval, like the confirmation of a sacred calling. It means nothing, and teaches nothing, but it reaches us in some intense and direct way.

Harvey Greenberg (review date Spring 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of The Piano, in Film Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 3, Spring, 1994, pp. 46-50.

[Greenberg is an American educator, psychiatrist, nonfiction writer, and author of Screen Memories: Hollywood Cinema on the Psychoanalytic Couch (1993). In the following review, he discusses the themes of The Piano, focusing on sexuality and identity.]

Jane Campion's Sweetie (1989) described the calamitous impact of a raucous schizophrenic woman upon her relatives. An Angel at My Table (1990), based on the autobiography of Janet Frame, depicted the no less harrowing effects of institutionalization upon a female writer misdiagnosed as chronically schizophrenic. The Piano, directed from her own screenplay, comprises Campion's most extraordinary exploration of unsettled, unsettling feminine outsiders to date. Its heroine is Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter), a Victorian unwed mother of pallid countenance and somber dress, whose silent compliance conceals and protects a fiercely unconventional spirit.

Ada is not so much unable as unwilling to speak. She suffers, or, depending upon one's viewpoint, practices elective mutism. This rare, puzzling condition usually develops in early childhood and occurs rather more frequently in girls than boys. The electively mute child has been characterized as symbiotically bound to a powerfully possessive adult; as alternately clinging and shy, or intensely stubborn and negativistic; as terribly fearful of the sound of its own voice; as traumatized by abuse or non-abusive injury; as fighting intense family scapegoating with passive-aggressive silence. Interestingly enough, especially in light of Ada's character, the syndrome is thought by some to represent a strategy of active manipulation and control, rather than merely being a symptom of autistic withdrawal.

Campion compounds the enigma of Ada's condition by furnishing only the sparest details of her background or the early forces which have played upon her. She lives in a cloistered, mid-Victorian Glasgow home. The Piano's establishing sequence begins out of focus, as in a hypnogogic state. The camera peers at the emerging world through the lattice of a child's fingers, while Ada's six-year-old voice tells us she ceased speaking at that age, and does not remember why. (One notes that The Piano's narrative engine is propelled by the internal monologue of a character who cannot or will not speak—another compelling paradox spun out of Ada's mutism.)

She relates that her beloved father (neither he or any other family member is ever seen) has a strangely approving notion of her affliction as a "dark talent." He's arranged her marriage to a lonely expatriate English farmer in New Zealand. Quite possibly he is the recipient of her dowry.

In a trice Ada is whisked over the sea, dumped unceremoniously upon the New Zealand shore with her baggage, her precious piano, and her out-of-wedlock daughter Flora (Anna Paquin)—a precocious and voluble nine-year-old who is Ada's interpreter to the world. The two communicate through their own invented sign system.

Campion has kept the camera claustrophobically screwed down until now: Ada's instant voyage is literally embodied by the fragmented hands and torsos of the sailors carrying her from skiff to land (a locution the director used to underscore the heroine's schizoid isolation from an equally alienated husband in Sweetie). The mise-en-scène briefly opens out into a vista of stormswept grey sky, huge waves tumbling against a barren stretch of sand. One's view is then constricted again, and for the most part will remain so. Tight close-ups further accentuate the nuances of an unfolding and mute—or barely spoken—triangle of desire.

Stewart, Ada's new husband (Sam Neill), is stiff-upper-lip reticence personified: handsome, not unkind, but disastrously unimaginative. His narrow utilitarian purposes immediately oppress Ada's sensibility when he refuses to bring her instrument back to his plantation. In a breathtaking long shot the lone piano is limned starkly against the rolling surf: it's suddenly a vivid icon of cultural collision, of yet another stifling of Ada's voice, of her delivery into paltry domesticity in a startling alien environment.

Stewart's home is kept by gabbling, censorious female relatives. Ada and Flora retreat from a bizarre simulacrum of English gentility into their room and private world. The taciturn Stewart, unlike the rest of his clan (and much like Ada's father) accepts, even approves of Ada's disability ("There's something to be said for silence"). As frustration with his unconsummated marriage mounts, Stewart wonders if Ada might be mad as well as mute, yet grows ever more entranced with her.

Stewart's neighbor, Baines (Harvey Keitel), offers to purchase the beached piano from Stewart for 80 prime acres, with music instruction by Ada thrown into the bargain. (Campion permits an inference that the two men have previously done business, and—perhaps as a result—aren't altogether happy with each other.) Stewart agrees, hoping she can be drawn out of her shell. Baines makes an unprepossessing pupil. He's squat, illiterate, his face tattooed like the ribald Maoris who lounge about his ramshackle hut.

Baines offers to sell back the piano one key at a time in return for voyeuristic liberties with Ada's person. Apparently shocked at first, she nevertheless consents with her usual passivity; then piquantly shifts the grounds of what seems like a perverse, humiliating bargain, demanding more keys for each favor. Eventually the two lie together nude without making love; Hunter's unexpectedly voluptuous body is pressed against Keitel's compact, powerfully muscled, yet unglamorous frame—a moment both unutterably moving and incredibly erotic.

Baines grows disgusted with himself for engineering a degrading charade: he was instantly smitten with Ada, and could think of no other way to court her. When he proposes ending their "arrangement" and returning the piano to Stewart's house, she flies into a fury and quickly takes him to bed. One infers this is her first real passion. The relationship which engendered Flora seems to have been short-lived and cerebral, with a man Ada implies was too timorous to keep "listening" to the quicksilver mind and tumultuous roil of emotion hidden beneath her silence.

Stewart discovers the affair. In an exceptionally creepy scene, he peeps upon the trysting couple from underneath the floor of Baines' hut—he, not Baines, is revealed as the repressed voyeur. Enraged, he forbids her Baines' presence, literally penning her up in his house with the piano until she can be "good." Unaccountably, she appears to warm to her husband, and he gives her back her freedom.

Ada is next seen pressing her lips against her mirrored image, then caressing the piano's keys with a sensual backhand gesture. When she attempts to awaken Stewart with the same languours touch he cannot abide his arousal and rebuffs her. Rather than rejection, she feels release. It's subtly apparent that while one part of her has been dutifully attempting to shape herself to Stewart's limitations, the larger part has been using her husband as a substitute object—as well as her piano and her own reflected self. All are now metonyms of her rapturous infatuation with Baines.

She entrusts Flora to give Baines a piece of the piano's keyboard, upon which she has penned a testament of her love. In a jealous fit, Flora brings it to Stewart instead. At this moment, he represents the lesser of two evils, since he poses no threat to Flora's symbiotic attachment to her mother. But the child, caught up in fantasies of retaliation which are ultimately aimed at regaining her mother's affection, misgauges the potential for violence born out of Stewart's narcissistic injuries. Stewart takes an ax to the piano, then to Ada's hand. Amidst a welter of screams and blood, he awakens to a horrified recognition of his unleashed brutality—and to the impossibility of Ada's ever coming to heel, ever truly becoming his wife. Wishing only to be quit of her uncanny power over him—"I am afraid of her will!"—he relinquishes her to Baines.

Campion's tale sounds over-the-top penny-dreadful in the telling, but it's tremendously absorbing on the screen. The dark side of Eros is often diminished today: sexuality is chattered to death in the tabloids, on "Oprah," or in the clinic. The Piano restores the orphic power of sex. In the film's puritanical milieu, desire is filtered through murky Victorian notions about feminine purity or evil, through the era's fascination with the sway of the primitive, the savage imperatives of nature, the chilly balm of death.

The Piano's protagonists are intensely passionate. But Campion intimates they are also erotic naïfs (the men in particular), who confront sexuality as if it were newly minted in the disconcerting unfamiliarity of the New Zealand bush. Stewart can only follow the rulebook that stringently tutors him on patriarchal duty, feminine docility, the white man's imperial burden. Baines, who emigrated after being abandoned by his wife for reasons never explicated, is discovered sunk in debauched despair.

Ada is the most daring of the three in her struggles with Eros. It is moot whether some ungovernable childhood abuse, some terrible skepticism of ever being understood or cherished has driven her behind her wall of stillness. Her sea change liberates the extraordinary "will" that so infuriates (and intimidates) her husband. It surges forth with a force so primal as to seem impersonal to her, spurring an unruly independence—and a tender carnality which finds its match in the bosom of the no-less-wounded (and nearly as inarticulate) Baines.

The Piano's literary antecedents include those lurid Gothic romances replete with frail heroines, exotic locales, and masterful/sinister noblemen; the amours fous of Wuthering Heights and Tess of the D'Urbervilles; fairy tales with amour fou preoccupations, notably Beauty and the Beast and Bluebeard. By design or unconscious intention, Campion has adroitly reinterpreted such sources. Her work exemplifies the unique spin on Gothic strategems, inflected by the surreal peculiarities of "down under" nature, which has distinguished the cinema of Australia and New Zealand at least since Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and The Last Wave (1977). Stuart Dryburgh's photography of the deep aquamarine shade and rough, tangled vegetation of the New Zealand bush serves to highlight the protagonists' convoluted and excessive emotionality (as when the vengeful Stewart rushes upon Ada, and both become caught in a twisted mesh of ancient vine).

The Piano is true to its period in every respect (saving its music), while simultaneously addressing a host of issues dear to contemporary cultural critics and film scholars. Feminist theoreticians have notably explored the suppression of the feminine voice under patriarchy's insensible rule and the attendant possibility for recovering that voice at the very core of its suppression. In this context, Ada's muteness can be interpreted as a limit case of patriarchal domination, both symptom and countercoup.

In a much cited study, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" [published in Screen (1975)], Laura Mulvey asserts that classic Hollywood cinema treats woman as the object of male gaze; her disruptive sexuality must be neutralized by transforming her into a docile fetish, marrying her off, or killing her. Ada's two suitors attempt to "objectify" her by all of these measures (Stewart stops just short of murder). Yet Campion has her turn the tables and make Stewart and Baines helplessly enthralled objects of her gaze, her desire.

The arrogance and ignorance of the colonizing consciousness toward native culture and the parallel bewilderment, silent contempt, and resentment of the Maoris toward their English masters constitute a less visible, but no less crucial ideological subtext of The Piano. Stewart is horrified when he sees Flora and her Maori friends in semi-masturbatory play. What he takes for licentiousness betokens the Maori absence of Victorian childhood sexual repression (their taboos lie elsewhere).

During the colonists' staging of Bluebeard, the horrified locals rush upon the stage to prevent the butchering of the wives (presaging Stewart's savage attack upon Ada). The Maoris are indeed untutored in Western drama, but Campion's chief point here is that Bluebeard's sadistic intention toward his wives is deeply offensive to them.

While her sympathies are tilted toward the Maoris, Campion's perspective on settler as well as indigenous tribe is for the most part coolly balanced. The Maoris are not glorified (or degraded) as noble primitives. The director shows that they and the English are equally capable of being wrongheadedly amused or appalled by each other's Otherness. Nor is Stewart an unregenerate villain. His hopefulness about winning Ada's love in the face of her fierce disdain is as pitiable as his violence upon her is odious.

Sam Neill poignantly captures Stewart's uncomprehending pain over Ada's disaffection as well as his repellent paternalism. Anna Pacquin's Flora is a radiant delight. Harvey Keitel has created a galaxy of Caliban-like characters; The Piano shows him evolving into the light, Baines' defensive brutishness yielding to an amazing, grave sweetness.

But the film's complex heart belongs to Hunter. Her perky American roles (Broadcast News and Raising Arizona [1987], Always and Miss Firecracker [1989]) do not prepare one for the acute intelligence and volcanic sensuality spoken by the actress's pale face, her flashing eye, and her exquisitely tuned gestures. She transforms Ada's perennial black dress, bonnet, camisole, and bustle into a prison for her character's body and soul.

Hunter is also an able pianist; her rendition of Michael Nyman's score heightens her verisimilitude in the role. Nyman has often reworked earlier styles with a kind of Brechtian defamiliarization (e. g., his brittle deconstruction of Purcell in The Draughtman's Contract [1982]). In The Piano, he refuses to dissect or defamiliarize mid-nineteenth-century Romanticism, indeed makes little reference at all to the musical idioms of the period. Using New Age harmonies and plangent arpeggios, he has composed an elegiac improvisation on wild Scottish folk themes which would have proven bathetic in less skillful hands.

Voyaging with Baines to resettlement in urban New Zealand, Ada pitches her piano overboard lest the boat capsize. She becomes entangled in a rope, and is herself pulled over the side. She sinks into the deep, but to her utter amazement decides to free herself—"my will has chosen life!" The image dissolves to scenes of that life; her now adult voiceover relates that Baines has repaired Stewart's assault and provided her with a curious metallic finger. She has taken up teaching piano, is learning to speak haltingly again, and muses that she is probably viewed as the "town freak."

The conclusion of this intricate fable of feminine identity is ambiguous. In The Piano's enigmatic opening, a child peers at a world yet unborn through fingers which both hide and disclose. It's not precisely clear whether they belong to Ada or Flora. In retrospect, one speculates that Campion is meditating upon a Victorian girl's fascinated, terrified fantasies about her path toward sexual awakening.

For Ada, these fantasies unfold in an odyssey shot through with references to voyeurism, the primal scene, rape and castration fears—and an overarching anxiety over incestuous desire. It is moot whether Ada has been banished by her father to New Zealand in aid of improving his cash flow or has herself actively sought flight from an imperious, possibly seductive/abusive father who prized and perhaps enabled her loss of voice. Stewart may be interpreted as his neurotic reinvention; Baines, as embodying his gentler, more wholesome recuperation. One hopes Flora will find calmer seas. Campion offers subliminal hope that she may fare better than her mother, not least because Baines represents a father who can allow a woman a voice and space of her own.

But the director also intimates that her heroine's decision to voyage from the New Zealand wilds back to "civilized" life with Baines may constitute a sacrifice of her freer, darker nature, one that perhaps would not have occurred had there been no Flora. In jettisoning the piano, Ada seems compelled not only by the imperative of survival but also by the need to abjure the dangerous Dionysian thrust of her temperament. One is left with a ruling image of her eerily suspended in mid-ocean like some tenebrous, funereal blossom, before her "will" chooses a tamer Eros over the Thanatos which may well be the ultimate desire prefigured by her muteness.

Sara Halprin (review date July 1994)

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SOURCE: "A Key to The Piano," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. XI, Nos. 10-11, July, 1994, pp. 35-6.

[In the following review, Halprin discusses The Piano in relation to the published screenplay and comments on the film's literary influences.]

I am frightened of my will, of what it might do, it is so strange and strong.

Jane Campion began writing the script for her acclaimed and controversial third feature film, The Piano, in 1984, nine years before it reached the screen. The published script, accompanied by production notes, monochrome stills and credits, is a literary oddity which owes its life and reason for being to the film. It serves as a study guide, clarifying and articulating the territory the film explores.

The Piano is marked by unusual visual perspective, strong acting and music-impelled narrative. Set in the 1850s, it tells the story of Ada McGrath, mute by her own decision from the age of six, and her illegitimate ten-year-old daughter Flora, who accompanies her from Scotland to the New Zealand bush to start a new home with Stewart, the mail-order husband procured by Ada's father. Flora shares a private sign language with her mother and serves as her voice in the world. Stewart, despite Flora's translation, is unable to understand Ada or her passion for her piano, her other voice. Awkward and earnest, he longs for her affection and fails to win it.

His more sensitive colleague, Baines, also longs for her, and is more successful. He trades land to Stewart for the piano, then uses the piano to barter for sensual favors from Ada. He stops, however, when he perceives that the deal is making her into "a whore." "I want you to care for me," he says to her, "but you can't." Stewart is too busy trying to wrest more land from the Maoris to notice what is happening. His inability to understand the Maoris' passion for their land is equalled only by his incomprehension of Ada. Meanwhile, Ada realizes that she does care for Baines and, with characteristic impetuosity, goes to him.

When Stewart discovers that Ada and Baines are lovers, he is beside himself. Kept from Baines, Ada turns her newly awakened sexuality toward Stewart but still refuses him her affection. She sends a love message written on a piano key to Baines through Flora, who delivers it instead to Stewart. Driven beyond the bounds of his limited reason, Stewart takes violent revenge. In front of Flora, in a shocking scene, Stewart chops off one of Ada's fingers. Eventually, however, through a convoluted sequence of scenes, he is persuaded to allow Ada and Flora to go off with Baines. Seated in the Maori canoe that is taking them to another part of New Zealand, Ada orders her piano shoved overboard and apparently allows herself to be dragged in with it, but then frees herself and survives. The film ends with her "mind's voice" (heard once before at the beginning) reading lines from a poem by the nineteenthcentury writer Thomas Hood, which appear on screen:

        There is a silence where hath been no sound
        There is a silence where no sound may be
        In the cold grave, under the deep deep sea.

The Piano has been widely reviewed as a Victorian melodrama, influenced, depending on the interests of the critic, by the Brontës, Emily Dickinson, The French Lieutenant's Woman, the German filmmaker Lotte Reiniger, Victorian portrait photography, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence and Edward Lear. Insofar as the film depicts events that follow one another in time, it is a conventional narrative, but it does not explain why things happen or why characters behave the way they do, which has perplexed and infuriated some viewers. Critical responses to the film following the award of the Cannes Palme d'Or—the first time it has ever gone to a film by a woman—ranged from sublime to ridiculous to hostile, with feminist responses split down the middle.

Campion herself, in the production notes that follow the script, says:

I feel a kinship between the kind of romance that Emily Brontë portrayed in Wuthering Heights and this film. Hers is not the notion of romance that we've come to use, it's very harsh and extreme, a gothic exploration of the romantic impulse. I wanted to respond to those ideas in my own century.

The script articulates crucial moments in the film that for some viewers may have passed too quickly to stick in the memory, but which were meant to help explain a character's motivation. Some critics have questioned Flora's motivation for delivering the piano key to Stewart, which precipitates the action that leads to her mother's mutilation. Reading the script, we quickly realize that Flora is truly her mother's daughter, with a strange, even perverse will of her own. During one of Baines' early piano "lessons," she is described as "operating a merciless power game with [Baines'] dog, forcing it out of the verandah with a stick." In the next scene she "cradl[es] the poor confused dog, asking him what cruel miserable person sent him out into the cold and wet." When the betrayed Stewart barricades Ada and Flora in their hut, the child "joins in the spirit of the exercise, gaily pointing out any slats Stewart has missed." When her mother orders her to deliver the piano key to Baines, she "is shocked, stunned"; at the junction where the paths leading to Baines and to Stewart separate, she "looks back to see if her mother is watching; she's not"—and chooses her stepfather over her mother's lover.

The Piano is not a film for everyone; it is not for those committed to patriarchal concepts (see John Simon, for example, in the National Review, who called the film "the wet dream of an inane woman"), nor for every feminist. The violence against Ada, seen through the eyes of young Flora, is the focus of most feminist concern about the film; what is the function of this violence? The script is helpful here in articulating a sense of the inevitability of an explosion, one made so not only by Stewart's unimaginative insistence on his own pragmatic way, but also by Ada's remorseless use of the virginal Stewart as a sexual object.

The script also confirms that a performance of "Bluebeard" at the local mission center is meant to prefigure Stewart's attack on Ada. The silhouetted figure of Bluebeard brandishing an axe at his wife is echoed in the image of Stewart striding home with his ax; the script tells us that when Ada hands Flora the fateful piano key, "her black shadow behind the sheet recalls the macabre play." As used in this film, "Bluebeard" is the story of a man's attempt to subjugate a woman to his will by obliterating all traces of her own, even in his absence, and of her refusal to be subjugated.

The script makes clear Ada's role in creating the tension that culminates in Stewart's violence. Far from being a helpless, silent victim, Ada is depicted as a willful woman, at once courageous and foolhardy in pursuing her passion, whether for her piano or for Baines. The script explicitly compares these two: in one scene, Ada looks "down at Baines and his but, in the exact same manner that she once looked at her piano…." The production notes that follow the script explain Campion's view of Ada and Stewart's relationship:

Ada actually uses her husband Stewart as a sexual object—this is the outrageous morality of the film—which seems very innocent but in fact has its power to be very surprising. I think many women have had the experience of feeling like a sexual object, and that's exactly what happens to Stewart…. It becomes a relationship of power, the power of those that care and those that don't care.

The Piano explores sexuality, intimacy and power in the complex relationships not only between women and men, mother and daughter, but also between colonizer and colonized. The Maori subplot is intended to function not as a colorful, exotic background to the white European romance but as a parallel example of power, its misuse and the resulting violence. In fact, the greater violence in The Piano is that done to the land itself: the film shows Stewart's hut "bleakly set among smoking stumps."

The script and accompanying notes make it clear that Campion wished to represent Maori frustration that they and the land they hold sacred are treated as objects by the colonist Stewart. However, this is an area that could have been strengthened in the film. Many of the scenes in the script that were deleted from the film have to do with the Maoris; they prefigure the war that was very soon to break out between the Maoris and the colonists.

Their deletion suggests that Campion may have had difficulty in realizing her intentions; ultimately, it will be Maori filmmakers who succeed with Maori perspectives on New Zeaiand. The lines by Thomas Hood can be seen to refer in part to the silence of those who survive systematic violence at great cost to their freedom of expression. I would have liked to learn the actual relationship of script to film—was this the actual working script? and were the deleted scenes shot and then dropped in editing, or were changes made before shooting took place?

Apart from Wuthering Heights, it is hard to say what the actual influences for The Piano were. Certainly it is possible to view the film and read the text and imagine all the influences critics have mentioned, and more: the work is grounded in a sophisticated sense of European and New Zealand culture and history. But a comparison comes immediately to my mind: the work of Marguerite Duras, who has done so much on women's silence, as a defense, as a weapon, as a language; and on issues of voice and perspective—in writing and in film. Duras was a pioneer in the field of multimedia; she understood that a story may have many lives, as a text, as a play, as a film. Her work—nonlinear and often shocking audiences used to more conventional narrative—explores global as well as intimate perspectives on power relations. And her use of her childhood in French colonial Indochina/ Vietnam is comparable to Campion's use of her own background, her "strange heritage … as a pakeha New Zealander." Campion's comments in the production notes show she realized how the look of the film—its portrayal of the bush, the authenticity of the Victorian costumes, the greasiness of Holly Hunter's hair—would both document and construct a composite portrait of an era and its human relationships.

To construct that portrait, Campion pulled together an extraordinary collection of talents, briefly described in the notes. One of these was the composer Michael Nyman, whose comments appear in the notes along with those of Campion, her producer Jan Chapman and the actors. Nyman describes how he used Scottish folk songs as a base, and created a score especially adapted to lead actor Holly Hunter's ability as a pianist. "It's as though I've been writing the music of another composer," he says, "who happened to live in Scotland, then New Zealand in the mid 1850s."

I am disappointed that the book is not fuller because I have gained so much from what is there. I also would have liked the book to take more care in introducing its own materials: it is difficult to get a sense of who wrote the various parts. It seems there was no actual author; someone simply assembled Campion's script, Miro Bilborough's production notes, some sepia-tinted stills and a list of credits. The book lacks the film's cohesiveness, and compares unfavorably to other documentations of films, such as the book about Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and the text and separately published production history of Marguerite Duras' India Song. (A novelization of the film by Jane Campion and Kate Pullinger has since been published, also by Hyperion.) The film itself is an instrument of great subtlety and power in depicting the scope and boundaries of a woman's will; the book provides a useful, if slight, accompaniment to the film's greater performance.


∗Principal Works


Further Reading