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The Piano

Remarks on Jane Campion’s
The Piano

Psychoanalysis and Films
Co-sponsored by the Houston Psychoanalytic Society
and the Jung Center in Houston, Texas

August 18, 2011

Jane Campion’s The Piano, enjoyed both critical acclaim and box office success following its premiere in 1993.   The exuberant reviews were accompanied by nominations for best director for Ms. Campion and nominations and ultimately awards for 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 top honors 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 the first time and being completely mesmerized, so it is particularly meaningful to have the opportunity to comment on it tonight.

            For a bit of background, Jane Campion was trained as an anthropologist and there is 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 provides more detail regarding the circumstances of Ada’s childhood, including the information that 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 enthusiasm for Campion’s groundbreaking depictions of female sexual desire to condemnation of her treatment of the indigenous Maori people and her romanticized depiction of the free expression of sexuality and emotion belonging to the wild jungles of New Zealand.  This is contrasted with the repressed, isolated experience of the colonizers, with little appreciation for the experience of colonial oppression.  One critic notes that in the film’s ongoing focus on sexuality as the central theme, we see an anthropologist’s reading of Freud as well as an anthropologist’s excursion into the 19th 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-cool academic reaction to The Piano has been, especially among feminist critics.  They seem to react to it as intensely as Ada did to Baines’ transgressive touch, thrilled that The Piano was the first film in which decades of dry feminist theory, artfully redressed as a compelling gothic romance, became palatable and comprehensible to the mainstream audience” (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 only the mores of a particular time and place but also illuminates our most basic conflicts and desires and brings these into relief in a way that allows for a much more complex conversation; 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 into account some of the distinct themes of the film, which often appear to be presented as dualities.  There is the theme of silence and will—and what constitutes voice; there is the theme of mother and daughter and the ways in which they speak for, protect and ultimately betray each other; there is the theme of sexuality and sensuality for men and women and, ultimately, the theme of sexuality and violence; the juxtaposition of what constitutes “civilized” society in contrast to the primeval lands and passions that are often destroyed; 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 that impact her.  The voice is childlike and we assume it is Flora, only to learn that it is Ada’s own child voice which cannot be heard outside of her own head.  She says, “My husband said my muteness does not bother him.  He writes, and hark this:  ‘God loves dumb creatures so why not he?’  Were good he had God’s patience, for silence affects everyone in the end.”

 Ada’s muteness, however, is not only silence but also a stirring protest to being in 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 chose this 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 to some 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 becomes very clear that it is not simply silence at all.  Ada, for her part, has her daughter who is fully prepared to speak her mother’s mind with passionate intensity—in much the way that 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 the things that matter.  Yet none of these actually protect her from her status as property.  She also 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 are hands; not voice.

            With regard to Ada and Flora, there is an exquisite and tender bond between them.  Flora is the free sprite, the soul of Ada that has not yet been silenced.   She is an emblem of the wild spirit that Ada cannot express.  Their bond is lovingly depicted as Ada and Flora emerge from the tent they have constructed out of Ada’s skirts, as if they are born anew.  Flora not only translates her mother’s signs, but amplifies them.  She displays the unrestricted exuberance that is available initially to Ada only through the eroticism 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 call him 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 Ada experiences 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 the discovery 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 Ada has moved beyond the dyad of her special relationship with Flora.  It is Flora who delivers the final evidence of Ada’s passion to Stewart and it is Flora who delivers the evidence 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 views of Ada as subject and object.  In the very first scene when Baines and Stewart find her on the beach, Stewart says “I did not expect she would be small”; whereas Baines speaks to her 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.  The Victorian dresses and undergarments brilliantly restrict touch and movement while keeping 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 “Dry Balls” and as their marital contract becomes more frustrating, he experiences the exquisite humiliation of the one who longs for sexual contact, and whose longing leaves him vulnerable and demeaned.   The scenes with Stewart stand in sharp contrast to the evocative 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 his undergarments.  Baines increasingly recognizes that his wish to possess Ada by trading her sexual favors for piano keys and treating her sexuality as property is ultimately doomed, and he recognizes that he can only have her by kindling her desire.  This is in stark contrast to Stewart’s desperation and desire to possess the woman he has duly paid for.  The trade gets even more grotesque when Stewart claims that rather than returning keys, he will chop off a finger for every transgression.  While Stewart becomes more enraged, displaying the brutality of the impotent, Baines recognizes that there is no intimacy without mutuality.  He speaks of his longing:  “I’m sick with longing; does this mean 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 to taunt Stewart, touching him but not allowing herself to be touched.  She becomes subject and 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 Maori contrasted with the unbearably restricted colonials is the backdrop against which the entire story is told.  The total impracticality of the impossible British clothing compared to the loincloths of the native New Zealanders, the scenes of easy physicality compared to the scene of Stewart’s aunt requiring three helpers and two raised sheets to urinate, the outraged Maoris’ terror at the shadow scene of violence, the easy talk about sex, and the playfulness and pleasure that characterize exchanges are in sharp relief to the communications between Stewart and his family.  Baines plays the interesting role of the colonizer who has “gone native” in a way that leaves him in the shadow land between cultures as well as the character who mediates the categories of British and Maori.  He is a man without education or manners and without restraints, and this is in sharp contrast to both Ada and Stewart. 

            Finally, there is the choice of life over death.  This is, of course, the final climax of the film when Ada puts her foot into the rope with the intent to drown with her piano, and then is overtaken by her own will to live, knocking off the shoe that holds her back and rising to the surface.  “What a death, what a chance, what a surprise.  My will has chosen life.  Still, it has me spooked and many others besides.”   I think there is another moment when there is a choice of life over death and that comes when Stewart sees his reflection in Ada’s eyes as he attempts to have sex as she is feverishly recovering from the amputation.  He says he can hear her will—he can hear her speak.  He hears her saying, “Let Baines take me away, let him try to save me.”  He opens himself up to the possibility of his own empathy, his own mentalizing, in a way that totally expands his possibilities in this world and holds the potential for his own salvation.  Ada embraces her own agency both in the power of her will and by reclaiming her voice.  Stewart owns his own ability to hear. 

Some critics see the final scene, in which Ada contemplates the endless silence of the ocean and we watch her skirts floating above the piano, as an invitation to the viewer to consider the ongoing questions about her final choice and whether she still contemplates death as a release (Sklarew, 1998).  But the alternative view is that of Ada reborn and the possibility that they are all transformed.  Embedded in the narrative is both a wish and a warning and the recognition that there is great cost and triumph in the victories we win.


Buren, V.J.  (2000)  Silences from the deep:  Mapping and nonbeing in The Piano and in a schizoid young woman.  The Psychoanalytic Review.  60p138-161.  08/12/11

Goodwin, C.  (2010)  Why Jane Campion’s The Piano is a classic.  The Sunday Times.  01/1710.  08/15/11

 Sklarew, B.  (1998)  Film review essay:  I have not spoken:  Silence in The Piano.

International Journal of Psychoanalysis.  79p1011-1013.  08/14/11.

Stone, A.  (1994)  The Piano.  Boston Review.  08/14/11.