In Australia and New Zealand, the critical backlash against Jane Campion's The Piano and its phenomenal international success was ferocious.
It is one of those movies that – in the time honoured style of Australian/NZ film culture – no one can see very clearly, people reacting to it as either a blinding masterpiece or a hideous abomination.
Indeed, one overseas visitor (Serge Grünberg from Cahiers du cinéma) was moved to comment on the "excess of dishonour" with which some Australians greeted the film, seeing in this a sign of our "endemic cultural masochism" and our national "contempt for everything indigenous". (1)
The Piano has suffered the severe misfortune of falling between two very different kinds of cinema. For some, the tale of mute Ada (Holly Hunter) on a marshy New Zealand isle is clearly a period piece in the manner of the Merchant Ivory films, and thus needs to follow strict dramatic rules, in a relatively restrained and plausible manner.
Perhaps because some of our own costume dramas of the '70s count among the dreariest made in the world, Australian film commentators tend to be extremely literal-minded in their prescriptions for this genre. Thus, angry reviewers (including Bob Ellis, Philip Adams and John Slavin) have scoured The Piano for every last skerrick of narrative implausibility, obscure character motivation and historical anachronism.
One wonders, however, whether any of this fuss would have arose if The Piano had come to us as a magic realist art movie from overseas, signed by the likes of Emir Kusturica (Arizona Dream, 1993). The majority of European critics have had no problem accepting Campion's film on this level, as obviously heightened, symbolic and irreal; Cahiers even hailed it as a cross between Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
That the film has been so admired and appreciated by the French should not be surprising, since its mix of high romanticism, melodrama, erotic perversity and stylistic modernism is closer to the work of André Téchiné (especially The Brontë Sisters, 1979) than anything in Australian cinema.
The perversity – which is also a key feature of Campion's previous feature Sweetie (1989) and her short story "Big Shell" (2) – has proved contentious. Some have protested that the relationship between Ada and Baines (Harvey Keitel) is a glorification of sexual harassment and rape. But, for Campion, sexual desire always detours through strange bargains, power games and unspoken understandings.
It is not a flawless movie. All the scenes involving Ada, her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) and Baines are superb – stylistically bold, with always surprising rhythmic flows and performance gestures. But both the energy and the artistry dissipate whenever Ada's hapless, repressed husband Stewart (Sam Neill) appears, or when Campion cuts to a gaggle of Victorian nannies or a noble chorus of Maoris for dramatic counterpoint. The point of the latter element – the homology of collective, colonial tyranny with personal, patriarchal tyranny – is clear enough, but remains schematically sketched.
At its centre, however, The Piano is a commanding, passionate, poetic film. One would do an injustice to its artistic achievement and cultural significance if one did not consider it, at least in part, as a triumph of women's cinema – both in its intense intimacy with female psychology and sexuality, and its elaboration of what can be taken and celebrated as a female aesthetic.
Indeed, without wanting to be too dualistic and definitive about the masculine-feminine relation, it is hard not to read in the (mostly male) condemnation of The Piano a phobic fear of a new, powerfully emerging cinema – a cinema is which the classical unities of plot, character and setting are shattered in a radical, expressionist rage.
© Adrian Martin December 1994
1. Serge Grünberg, "Australia: From the Desert to Hollywood", Metro, no. 100, December 1994. back
2. Jane Campion, "Big Shell", Rolling Stone (Australia), issue 426, Yearbook 1988, pp. 74-76. back