Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993), is one of my favourite films ever, if not the favourite. Which is why I find it so hard to write about it – it’s like trying to write about somebody you love. But I find myself wanting to say something about it now, however imperfect and incomplete. This is a ‘non-review’ I suppose: a description of my adoration rather than a distanced and rounded analysis of the film. If you want to read something objective on The Piano, I suggest you stop reading my own words now.
There’s a scene in The Piano that makes the sensitive hairs at the back of my neck stand on end. In truth, there are many other scenes in the film that do that, but this one does so in particular. It’s when Baines watches Ada’s nape as she plays piano. He then begins to very slowly touch her fingers, her wrists, her elbows, her arms, and then her neck and back. Desire has become such a cliché on screen: heaving chests, rough breathing, glamorous shots of a woman’s thighs, heads thrown back in ecstasy. You get the picture. It’s rarely a delicate thing, rarely something that speaks beyond the sexual act itself, the way that making yourself physically vulnerable to another human being is something that also speaks beyond what actually goes on in the bedroom. This scene could have so easily collapsed into something boring and standard, but instead it becomes lovingly entwined with the rest of the film’s themes.
For me, so much of this film is about generosity, and the physical body as a marker of that. Ada speaks through her fingers, and it’s through them that she tries to connect with other people. When she transfers this communication to the rest of her body through desire, she also learns the difference between being owned and possessing your own body. The piano, a mirror of herself, is something that moves between being a possession and a gift. I once saw an interview with the actress Juliette Binoche in which she spoke about what it actually means to her to be nude in a film. She described how she views her willingness to share her body with an audience for a narrative as an act of generosity, determined by its context. And also, how she finds it sad that such generosity is often received as something lewd, used to objectify her body. I think I understood what she was saying in this interview when I saw The Piano. Ada’s body, like the colonised native people of New Zealand, is legally and physically possessed by men who pass her around like property. Baines may initially approach her body in the same manner, but her romance with him is something that quickly moves in an opposite direction to suggest the gift of the body, rather than its ownership.
I don’t pretend that this is what the film is about in its entirety. It’s probably only one aspect out of many. But whenever I watch this scene I’m so moved by Campion’s ability to evoke desire and represent the body without making me feel like the actors and the characters are being diminished. There are very few films I can actually say that about. It would take me a dozen more posts to say all I want to say about this film though, and I won’t subject you to that!