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. Fier 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 Bronte 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 19thcentury 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 hardboiled, 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-pom 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.
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