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HGPS.ThePiano

HGPS.ThePiano

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Published by: Stephanie Fadem Wise on Nov 04, 2011
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11/04/2011

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Remarks on Jane Campion’s
The Piano
Psychoanalysis and FilmsCo-sponsored by the Houston Psychoanalytic Societyand the Jung Center in Houston, TexasAugust 18, 2011
Jane Campion’s The Piano, enjoyed both critical acclaim and box office successfollowing its premiere in 1993. The exuberant reviews were accompanied bynominations for best director for Ms. Campion and nominations and ultimately awardsfor best actress to Holly Hunter and best supporting actress to 11 year-old Anna Paquin.The film also won the Palme d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival, sharing the 1993 tophonors with Farewell My Concubine. Campion uses brilliant dreamlike images and powerful symbols to weave a story of sexuality and repression, power and impotence, passion and betrayal and silence and voice. I vividly remember seeing this movie for thefirst time and being completely mesmerized, so it is particularly meaningful to have theopportunity to comment on it tonight.For a bit of background, Jane Campion was trained as an anthropologist and thereis evidence of that lens throughout the film. She is a remarkable storyteller and her earlier movies also told stories of women misunderstood in their time and the price they pay. Interestingly, she wrote a novel of the same title, published in 1995, which providesmore detail regarding the circumstances of Ada’s childhood, including the informationthat Ada’s mother died in childbirth.The film inspired a flood of articles and essays that continue to this day,deconstructing the message embedded in her narrative and Campion’s role in cinema.The reactions in academic journals and publications have ranged from wild enthusiasmfor Campion’s groundbreaking depictions of female sexual desire to condemnation of her treatment of the indigenous Maori people and her romanticized depiction of the freeexpression of sexuality and emotion belonging to the wild jungles of New Zealand. Thisis contrasted with the repressed, isolated experience of the colonizers, with littleappreciation for the experience of colonial oppression. One critic notes that in the film’songoing focus on sexuality as the central theme, we see an anthropologist’s reading of Freud as well as an anthropologist’s excursion into the 19
th
century (Stone, 1994).Christopher Goodwin in his 2010 article from the Sunday Times says, “What’s particularly fascinating is how effusive, even physically ecstatic, the normally ice-coolacademic reaction to The Piano has been, especially among feminist critics. They seemto react to it as intensely as Ada did to Baines’ transgressive touch, thrilled that ThePiano was the first film in which decades of dry feminist theory, artfully redressed as acompelling gothic romance, became palatable and comprehensible to the mainstreamaudience” (Goodwin, 2010). All of that said, it is a gorgeous film and whatever one’s
 
assessment of its message, it is a compelling story which ultimately challenges not onlythe mores of a particular time and place but also illuminates our most basic conflicts anddesires and brings these into relief in a way that allows for a much more complexconversation; and that is what I hope we might be able to do this evening..I want to divide my comments into several sections so that we might take intoaccount some of the distinct themes of the film, which often appear to be presented asdualities. There is the theme of silence and will—and what constitutes voice; there is thetheme of mother and daughter and the ways in which they speak for, protect andultimately betray each other; there is the theme of sexuality and sensuality for men andwomen and, ultimately, the theme of sexuality and violence; the juxtaposition of whatconstitutes “civilized” society in contrast to the primeval lands and passions that are oftendestroyed; and finally there is the choice of life over death.The film begins with Ada peeking through her fingers, which function in their own way as a prison, obscuring her vision and foreshadowing the multiple prisons thatimpact her. The voice is childlike and we assume it is Flora, only to learn that it is Ada’sown child voice which cannot be heard outside of her own head. She says, “My husbandsaid my muteness does not bother him. He writes, and hark this: ‘God loves dumbcreatures so why not he?’ Were good he had God’s patience, for silence affects everyonein the end.”Ada’s muteness, however, is not only silence but also a stirring protest to beingin a world in which she feels that she has no voice. We are continually made aware of the jarring disconnection between the angry containment we see on the surface and the powerful passion and internal life that we see through her piano. We know that she chosethis silence at age six, that her father said it was a strange talent, and that he likened her ability to one in which she could literally stop breathing if she put her mind to it, and tosome extent Ada agrees. Her soon-to-be husband, having purchased her from her father,seems equally bewildered and discomfited by her silence, perhaps because it becomesvery clear that it is not simply silence at all. Ada, for her part, has her daughter who isfully prepared to speak her mother’s mind with passionate intensity—in much the waythat daughters have been searching to know or to speak their mothers minds for centuries—as well as her pen and her piano and her willingness to go to war over thethings that matter. Yet none of these actually protect her from her status as property. Shealso has her hands that play music, communicate her most tender thoughts to Flora, present her rageful thoughts for translation and speak to her own sexuality, but they arehands; not voice.With regard to Ada and Flora, there is an exquisite and tender bond betweenthem. Flora is the free sprite, the soul of Ada that has not yet been silenced. She is anemblem of the wild spirit that Ada cannot express. Their bond is lovingly depicted asAda and Flora emerge from the tent they have constructed out of Ada’s skirts, as if theyare born anew. Flora not only translates her mother’s signs, but amplifies them. Shedisplays the unrestricted exuberance that is available initially to Ada only through theeroticism of her music. Flora is also intensely protective of their exclusive relationship.
 
When she insists early in the film that “I’m not gonna call him Poppa; I’m not gonna callhim anything; I’m not gonna even look at him,” Ada both understands and tacitly agrees.Their nightly reveries and playfulness feel far more sensual than anything that Adaexperiences with Stewart, and he watches mother and daughter as an outsider aching with jealousy. Stewart covets that bond that neither is willing to relinquish. In fact, Flora plays with fabricated secrets of her parents love, but at core wants to possess her mother for herself. However, Ada increasingly pushes Flora out of their secret world just as she begins to experience her own sexuality. Flora is furious at both the abandonment and thediscovery of her mother and Baines, telling Stewart “she never gives him a turn and just plays what she pleases.” She berates her mother and ultimately betrays her, just as Adahas moved beyond the dyad of her special relationship with Flora. It is Flora whodelivers the final evidence of Ada’s passion to Stewart and it is Flora who delivers theevidence of Ada’s maiming—some critics refer to it as a clitoridectomy—to Baines(Stone, 1994).The entire film is filled with sexual and sensual imagery and the contrasting viewsof Ada as subject and object. In the very first scene when Baines and Stewart find her onthe beach, Stewart says “I did not expect she would be small”; whereas Baines speaks toher experience: “She looks tired.” The roiling sea and the dense, exotic oozing forest both evoke a sense of unbridled forces, and for the forest, rich and earthy fecundity. TheVictorian dresses and undergarments brilliantly restrict touch and movement whilekeeping Ada’s genitals literally caged, and the bonnets function a bit like a horse’s blinders to prevent access to the larger world. Stewart is early on referred to as “DryBalls” and as their marital contract becomes more frustrating, he experiences theexquisite humiliation of the one who longs for sexual contact, and whose longing leaveshim vulnerable and demeaned. The scenes with Stewart stand in sharp contrast to theevocative pictures of Baines, placing his finger in the hole of Ada’s stocking, later reverentially inhaling the smell of her jacket and then rubbing her beloved piano with hisundergarments. Baines increasingly recognizes that his wish to possess Ada by tradingher sexual favors for piano keys and treating her sexuality as property is ultimatelydoomed, and he recognizes that he can only have her by kindling her desire. This is instark contrast to Stewart’s desperation and desire to possess the woman he has duly paidfor. The trade gets even more grotesque when Stewart claims that rather than returningkeys, he will chop off a finger for every transgression. While Stewart becomes moreenraged, displaying the brutality of the impotent, Baines recognizes that there is nointimacy without mutuality. He speaks of his longing: “I’m sick with longing; does thismean something to you? Do you love me?” Finally, there is Ada’s own use of her sexuality with Stewart. Unlike the very sensuous lovemaking with Baines, she begins totaunt Stewart, touching him but not allowing herself to be touched. She becomes subjectand he is object. Her caressing his buttocks as he lies helpless transforms him into a passive recipient and he looks frightened and ashamed.The romantic view of the sexually free and ultimately nonviolent Maoricontrasted with the unbearably restricted colonials is the backdrop against which theentire story is told. The total impracticality of the impossible British clothing comparedto the loincloths of the native New Zealanders, the scenes of easy physicality compared

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