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

It’s Complicated: “The Big Chill”

Sorry for the delayed post. I was going to post this review yesterday, but I got tied up doing some work for an Obie alum film, Ivory. I won’t reveal exactly what I’ve been doing for them yet–I can’t very well tell you all on my blog before I tell my parents the exciting news, now can I?–but I will in my next post! It’s very exciting!

In any case, I was originally going to review 21 Grams, but I got about thirty minutes into the movie, and decided I’d much rather review something I enjoy. So I decided on The Big Chill.

To say Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill is your typical ‘80’s film about friendship would be wholly incorrect. Sure, it was released in 1983, and it is about a group of old Michigan college friends, but the film is done in such a way that it makes the concept of friendship, both new and enduring, in and of itself interesting.

The film opens with each of seven old college friends receiving a phone call to inform them that one of their old college buddies, Alex, has committed suicide. But what makes the opening sequence so spectacular—and how you know it’s just going to be a fantastic film—is the way in which each call reveals something about the characters; and the way in which Kasdan precedes each call with some aspect of dressing Alex’s corpse drives home just how important these friends are to each other, and how deeply Alex’s death has affected them. You never actually see Alex’s face, but it doesn’t matter. The point is not who Alex was as an individual; it is who he was to each of the characters that is important.

The friends reunite at the South Carolina home of their now-wealthy friends, Sarah and Harold Cooper, played respectively by Glenn Close and Kevin Kline. Joining them is Alex’s girlfriend of four months, Chloe, played by the apparently incredibly flexible Meg Tilly.

(No, seriously. She’s like a freaking ballerina.)

One thing leads to another, and the old college crowd plus Chloe end up staying at the Coopers’ place for the weekend. And when old friends who haven’t seen each other in years get together, let’s just say things are bound to get interesting.

To sum up the basics:
1) Meg Jones, played by Mary Kay Place, is a self-described “ticking biological clock,” and wants a baby before it’s too late. And since she’s amongst her best friends, Meg figures, “Why not?” and proceeds to try to get one of her male friends to impregnate her. Slightly strange? Yeah. But not as weird (and minorly awkward) as what eventually does end up happening on that front. I’ll just leave it at that.

2) Harold gives some insider information about his prospering company to Nick Carlton, a drug addict and dealer, played by William Hurt, in order to try to get him to turn his life around. As it turns out, though, Nick has a few more problems than just drugs. Has he ever told you what happened to him in Vietnam?

3) If you thought there was a lot of sexual tension between Tom Berenger’s corny ‘80’s detective show star Sam Weber, and JoBeth Williams’ housewife and ex-writer Karen Bowens in the beginning of the movie, just you wait. The tension between them grows exponentially throughout the movie, and the way in which they interact with each other is markedly different than the ways in which the other friends interact. Sam and Karen are clearly more than just friends; and before the first half-hour is over, you want to scream at them to stop running around each other, and just get the deed over and done with already (for chrissake!).

4) Chloe is cute, and a bit of an oddball: Her reason for wanting to ride in the limousine at Alex’s funeral is not because she was his girlfriend, but because she’s never ridden in a limo before. But her strangeness—as well as the fact that she answers the door in her underwear—only adds to her cuteness. As a result, Nick and Michael, played by Jeff Goldblum, not-so-subtly vie for her attention. But while Michael has all the suave, playboy charm his job as a journalist at People magazine has afforded him, Nick has the advantage of knowing how to mix his drugs. You’ll understand when you see the movie.

So yeah. It’s complicated.

Fortunately, complicated relationships and fun movies are not mutually exclusive. It would not be a stretch to say that the film welcomes you into the somewhat crazy, but incredibly warm, world of the characters and their relationships. By the end of the movie, you, like the characters, wish the weekend hadn’t ended so quickly.

(There’s a reason I watched this movie twice in the span of two days.)

But the end of the movie isn’t really an ending. It’s a new beginning for the characters, not only for them as individuals, but as a group of friends. When they say they’ll all keep in touch and write to each other, you believe them; you can sense that it’s not just a throwaway, empty promise. The characters treat each other with such a sense of natural ease and innate love that it’s hard to believe they’d even lost touch in the first place!

Of course, good acting helps on that front. I don’t need to say it, but I will, anyway: The acting is spectacular. Each actor has his or her character down to a ‘T,’ and the way in which the actors deliver their lines is completely natural, as if they were simply speaking unscripted. Not only that, but they all seem so familiar with each other, that it’s hard to believe they’re not close friends off-screen, too. To be quite frank, you would be hard-pressed to find another cast that emanates such a strong feeling of kinship.

Last, but certainly not least, the soundtrack is the best of ‘80’s Mowtown. Among the songs are classics like Marvin Gaye’s “Heard It Through The Grapevine,” and Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman.” So unless you’re a cold fish, the tunes will almost certainly have you tapping your toes, if not dancing around the kitchen like the characters do at one point in the movie.

In short, in order not to like this movie, you’d have to be really, really boring.

Or dead.

One of the two.

Ever yours,

Film Bitch