Try That in the Key of Sex Flat: “The Piano”

If the only impression of Jane Campion’s directorial work you’ve ever gotten is Bright Star, then you are severely missing out. The slow, relatively boring romance that is Bright Star is far from reflective of her early work, namely The Piano. And by “far from reflective,” I mean far from the intensely erotic, almost tangibly sensual composition that is The Piano.

Released in 1993, The Piano is the story of Ada McGrath, a mute English widow played by Holly Hunter. Because it is the 1850’s, women are still treated like property; and because Ada is still young and attractive enough to be “profitable,” her father marries her off to a man she has never met, and she and her young daughter, Flora McGrath, played by a pint-sized Anna Paquin, are shipped off to live with him on his plantation in New Zealand.

Ada hates the place from the outset. It is wet and cold a good deal of the time—though, being from England, you think she’d be used to that by now—and she feels like an alien, both inside and outside her home. To his credit, her husband Alisdair Stewart, played by Sam Neill, does try to make Ada feel welcome and comfortable; but the fact that she can’t speak, coupled with Alisdair’s somewhat stiff demeanor, distances them, and makes their interactions awkward.

Ada’s only comfort is her beloved piano, which she has had shipped over from England. To say Ada loves the piano would be an understatement: It is as much a part of her as her own beating heart, and is one of the only ways she may audibly express herself. So when Alisdair decides to leave the piano on the beach, because it is so heavy, it is as if Ada has lost a part of herself.

(And Alisdair wonders why she doesn’t take to him…)

The plot takes a turn for the romantically complicated when a former Englishman named George Baines, played by the stellar Harvey Keitel, is introduced. George works for Alisdair as a translator for the Maiori laborers, as well as a sort of handyman/overseer on the plantation. As luck would have it, George takes an interest in this queer mute woman and her yappy, but adorable little daughter. I probably don’t even need to say it, but, for the sake of the review, I might as well: This interest quickly develops into lust after, at Ada’s insistence, he takes Ada and Flora down to the beach so that Ada may play her piano. And that’s when George realizes two and two equal sex.

George moves the piano from the beach to his home on the island; and when Ada asks for it back, he says that she may have it back—key by key, and only if she agrees to give him piano lessons.

Piano lessons. Right.

Needless to say, the lessons swiftly develop into Ada basically whoring herself out for the piano. Of course, this is not to say she does not enjoy George’s attentions—they are certainly better, in her mind, than the advances of her stiff (no pun intended) husband—and it is not long before she looks forward to the “lessons.” But George suddenly grows a conscience, and tells Ada he does not want to make a whore of her for her piano.

A little late there, buddy.

Still, Ada insists on seeing him. But what would a good, steamy romance be without the lovers getting caught? Alisdair notices the positive change in his wife, also puts two and two together—though, in his case, it does not equal sex—and literally boards up Ada and Flora in their home.

Being without George is torture for Ada; and when she can stand it no longer, she uses certain, ah, “tactics” to convince Alisdair that she loves him, and will not see George if allowed out of the house. Alisdair subsequently takes the boards off the house—and hot, passionate sex between George and Ada ensues.

Despite all the sex this movie has to offer, it is also surprisingly romantic and tender. You can tell George and Ada actually care for each other. And what makes this movie so fantastic is that you can see how Ada’s love for her piano is slowly transformed into love for George. This is not to say that she loves the piano any less; however, because she associates George with the piano, she falls in love with him, which personally led me to wonder if she would have fallen in love with him at all, had he and the piano not been connected in a romantic, physical manner in her mind.

Another thing that really struck me is how there are no clearly defined “good guys” and “bad guys” in this film. The lovers certainly aren’t “good”: Not only are they sneaking around behind Alisdair’s unsuspecting, trusting back, but their entire affair began when George decided it would be a good idea to coerce Ada into sleeping with him. Ada is no better, as she leaves poor little Flora to fend for herself when she and George are making the beast with two backs; and, after the love affair begins, her motherly interaction with Flora is reduced only to necessity, such as when she needs Flora to be her “voice”—she and Flora communicate with hand signals, and Flora “translates,” if need be—or when she wants Flora to perform some task for her.
Alisdair is to be pitied—somewhat. In his defense, Ada does not make his life any easier: She arouses him, but will not let him touch her; she ignores him; and she glares at him. I mean, how much can one guy take? However, this does not excuse the times—yes, plural—Alisdair decides it would be a good idea to try to rape Ada. Enough said.

Surprisingly, the acting in this movie is all pretty much on an even keel. Everyone’s very good, but no one particularly shines, save perhaps Paquin—but that may be due to her age, and the fact that she had to remember so many lines (‘cause, man, does that kid talk!). I feel as though the actors did not have to work very hard to make the film good, because it was good from the outset. Having a great cast helps—and I’ll admit, I am a sucker for both Neill and Keitel—but, in the end, the film’s premise was interesting enough not to require amazing actors. Neill, Keitel and Hunter are just an added benefit.

Yours forever,

Film Bitch

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