Right up there with Frame and McCahon, John Roberts

Jane Campion (dir), The Piano


At irregular, generally long, intervals, works of great force emerge from the ruck of creative aspiration. They mark a new manifestation of the power inherent in different forms of art. They challenge comfortable assumptions about what is appropriate or, indeed, possible. My first encounter with the phenomenon in New Zealand literature was the novel, Owls Do Cry. At the time, people of my age, fed on Dickens and Austen, had begun to look for enlightenment in other cultures. We set out timorously over the moral continent Tolstoy had called into being. We struggled to find a place of calm in the ethical tempest generated by Dostoevsky. We were swept into a flood far beyond the piddling backwater of our local experience.

Janet Frame’s work of psychic desolation and ferocious honesty appeared fit to stand in ethical terms beside the great Russians. It would be foolish to propose that she has an equal gift of style or insight but her most stringent critic would not deny her a similar passion to explore the human condition to its bitterest contradiction. She opened an important path for the growing body of accomplished fiction in our society.

We had the same experience in the visual arts. Travel and the marvels of modern printing brought us within sight of the greatest stylistic revolution since the renaissance. But as we pored over the iconoclastic adventures of Henri Matisse or Jackson Pollock, we became aware that a painter was at work in Auckland who had also broken with tradition; who had evolved a stark, often crude but powerful commentary upon the aesthetic preconceptions and ethical dilemmas of our society. Even now, we’re only starting to recognise the extent of Colin McCahon’s genius. It will take a generation’s scholarship to get it into proportion.

Jane Campion has ascended with impressive speed to a position comparable to that of Frame and McCahon. From the moment that Sweetie appeared we realised that a unique eye and moral sensitivity had come into world cinema. Angel at My Table, based on the Frame autobiography merely confirmed what was already obvious. Indeed, there was a danger in her mastery of the medium – a story-telling impulse equal to that of her subject – that she might have been underrated. We forgot how extraordinary her achievement was.

Of all the arts, cinema is probably the most sexist. Women have been exploited and traduced by film makers since The Great Train Robbery flickered on to the screen. Name one female director who has begun to approach the status of a Griffith, an Eisenstein or a Bergman. Count the number of women with burning individual presence who have been forced to distort their talent to fit the stereotype of a plaything for males. Honour the Australian film school that produced Campion and other able women directors such as Gillian Amstrong and Jocelyn Moorhouse. Rage against the fact that there is no place in her native land where Campion could learn her trade.

The movie is an intractable beast, as I know from practical experience. It reminds one of a jigsaw in which some of the pieces are missing and others seem to come from another puzzle altogether. Things happen at irregular moments which are wrong in every way except for the light, or the noise, or access to the particular location. That is why the studios, in the high Hollywood days of the emperor producer, tried to reduce the process to controlled factory environment while the director took on the nature of a process manager. Thank god they failed. In such an aesthetic there would be no room for a Jane Campion.

The Piano is the product of dominant creative mind. Jane Campion wrote the script which has now been published along with a discussion among the members of the production team. She and her producer, Jan Chapman, arranged finance from a single source. The adult characters are played by an experienced team in a manner as far removed from the devices of the so-called “star” system as it is possible to conceive. They are asked to perform in conditions that offer none of the flattering emphasis on individual performance.

In life, people in this environment would have been overshadowed by the struggle with the unique ecology of the rain forest. In art, the struggle is not smoothed over by manipulative technique. Although this may be difficult for foreigners to concede, there is no exaggeration. To the uninitiated the “bush” is alien, an impediment not simply to mundane ambition but to psychic security as well. No wonder fire and the axe were enlisted to slash and burn this threatening presence. Campion speaks of the “underwater look”. Stuart Dryburgh, the director of photography discusses the “murky blue-green tones” of the “bottom of the fish tank” that they sought to preserve wherever possible.

Whatever strangers may think of it, Campion along with most New Zealanders know that the mis-en-scène of The Piano is not concocted, vegetable Cabinet of Dr Caligari. For me it was also the animating principle of the film. The characters played out their drama in that context and no other. It is part of Campion’s genius to demonstrate the unique conditions of their involvement. This is not a simple matter. As with all significant works of art, feelings are inconstant, protestations ambiguous, outcomes unforeseeable. Life is fascinating but messy and so is this film.

The content of the film has to do with the erotic charge generated by the intersection of three lives in a coastal wilderness. Ada with her fatherless child Flora has come to make a home as the wife of Alisdair Stewart, a settler in the process of acquiring land, as is his neighbour Baines. Ada has not spoken since she was a child. She communicates when circumstances compel by signing to Flora who, through this duty, is privy to the adult world in far greater detail than is usual for a child of 10. Ada however would prefer to commune largely with herself at the piano she brings with great difficulty to the shore of her new country. Stewart refuses to transport so frivolous an object to the house he has built in the bush. The piano, incongruous on the beach, where it was landed by surf boat, has already become an emblem of the film and may even move into the rare company of universally recognised artefacts like Charlie Chaplin’s cane and bowler or Judy Garland’s magic red shoes.

To Stewart, inhibited and anxious, the piano is an expensive folly fit only to be abandoned despite Ada’s passionate protest. The illiterate Baines, who is far more securely adapted to the realities of a settler’s life, is struck by the significance of the piano to Ada and Flora. He acquires it from Stewart in return for land (note the sexist assumptions about property) and in effect, agrees with Stewart that Ada will teach him to play. Ada protests but Stewart points out that this will give her access to the piano which Baines has brought from the beach to his whare in the bush.

The conditions for a sexual encounter having been established, the drama is played out in a manner reminiscent of Eliot in The Mill on the Floss or Hardy in Tess of the d’Urbervilles with one important exception. The erotic behaviour of the characters is made explicit rather than implied by circumlocution and coy symbolism. In Sweetie, Campion revealed her brilliant understanding of the way sex shapes the course of people’s lives while pursuing a parallel and singular course of its own. This gift – an essential quality of the narrative art – encourages her to take a bold step forward by making a paradoxical retreat. In her published discussion of the film she observes that “These characters don’t have a twentieth-century sensibility about sex. They have nothing to prepare themselves for its strength and power”.

Campion suggests that the contemporary world has so much information, so much expectation, such easy access to experience that in her words, the “pure sexual erotic impulse is lost to us”. She does not reject the proposition that the character Stewart, might be realised as a middle-aged man who has no direct experience of heterosexual behaviour. This would be openly acknowledged as a pathological condition in contemporary culture. Campion is careful to leave the issue clouded by reticence.

The Piano is a film in which the locale becomes one of the dramatis personae. Stewart and Baines live in their crude bush houses on either side of a gully. Ada has to undertake the passage between the two houses on a narrow boardwalk to reach the piano. Her spreading Victorian skirts swirl above the prevailing mud. Her bonnet frames a pale inward face. Her movements are quick and impatient as she struggles to master the alien conditions. Baines and his shadowed house are ambiguous. Baines is interested in Ada, not the piano, but with a curious primitive, intensity and stillness. His blunt, masculine solidity resonates with her pliant, feminine softness. Her sharp rejections dwindle, the imploring urgency of his feelings melt a frozen sensuality. They become the exultant captives of sexual need.

None of this is unknown to Stewart. He plays the part of a voyeur peering through the gaps in a crude wall to observe the lovers but his reaction is humiliatingly passive. He is moved to a savage act of jealousy only when Ada burns a sentimental message on a key from the piano and sends it to Baines. Campion proposes that primary female sexual behaviour is so alien to ordinary life that it cannot be expressly acknowledged or accepted. The awakened Ada offers sexual consolation to Stewart but is rejected. Bewildered by his own irresolute reaction, he surrenders his claim to Ada who abandons the piano to the sea as she starts a new life with Baines.

Whether one likes it or not this unique film suggests that Campion has the ability to reach through the particular to an archetypal explanation of human behaviour. It is a rare talent much pursued by those with creative potential. I am indebted to my old friend Peter Munz for a parallel in Boccaccio’s Decameron. The first story of day five tells of Cimone whose, “rough and uncouth voice and manners more befitting a beast than a man” were gentled by his love of Ephygenia encountered asleep by a fountain. On the evidence of her work to date, I believe that Campion is fit to stand in the company of the writer who, more than any other, initiated the tradition of European prose fiction.

That is high praise, but I offer in support Campion’s brilliant account of the Maori members of her company. This is no exercise in political correctness. Nor is The Piano about quaint Maori custom. It is about quaint Pakeha custom. The Maori are onlookers fascinated by these extraordinary birds of passage with their desire to subdue the land, their fatuous and fatally attractive clothing, their risible mannerisms.

She demonstrates the temptation to imitate the Pakeha in a profusion of detail worthy of the gossipy Tuscan. For example a Pakeha gives a pompous speech and a Maori imitates him in facial expression, body language and gesture. It is a wonderfully funny sequence but it is not conceived as ridicule. The imitation is intended to capture aspects of an alien skill much as a Pakeha would note gestures and oratorical devices in order that he might subsequently make his mark on the marae. If I had to offer a single testimony to support my belief in Campion’s greatness, I would choose her ability to use all the devices of cinema to explore the glancing reality of a primary racial encounter.

This is not an easy choice. There are other dimensions in which she proves to be a mistress of the art of narrative. For example, she creates a credible pattern of behaviour for actors who must assume a degree of singularity and inconsistency that almost matches the inconsequence of real life. The three principles are, of course currently at the head of the profession. Campion, for all her achievements is still a tyro. She asked for an exacting self-restraint from the two men and a female personality of such exaggerated character and at such disadvantage that it is a triumph merely to advance the script. Holly Hunter’s skill in persuading us to identify with her dilemma is all the more remarkable in that it uses none of the usual cinematic cajolery. No one who sees the film will forget the uncontrived shots of that pale closed face and those snapping hands.

But in this field we are also faced with something close to a miracle in the performance of Anna Paquin as Ada’s child, Flora. It is difficult to speak about this. Infant actors are not popular: “How do you like children?” they asked W C Fields. “Boiled!” he replied. I suspect that most actors have the same opinion. Who can compete with cute?

Well, the answer in this case is that the child is the equal of any of the performers while never appearing as a scene-stealing midget adult. It is her ethical sense that forces the dénouement and her energy drives the drama on. Jane Campion acknowledges that the relationship between Paquin and Hunter established the conditions under which the child could both enjoy the close confidence of a beloved mother and betray her because she had acted wrongly. This may well be the key to Paquin’s achievement and a measure of Campion’s generous spirit. In the end, that generosity is the foundation of the film’s greatness.

Do I praise her too much? Am I a victim of the provincial’s disease, willing greatness where there is no more than competence? After three major films can she be the only woman director fit to stand with masters of cinema? If you doubt me then there is only one solution. Go to see The Piano again.


This review was first broadcast on the Concert Programme of Radio New Zealand.


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