Moving Pictures
May 07, 2024, 06:28AM

The Piano and Women’s Strange Voice

Jane Campion speaks, and doesn’t, through her main character.

Image w1280.jpg.webp?ixlib=rails 2.1

Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) was the fourth Oscar Best Picture nominee directed by a woman. It’s also the fourth of those that centered on disability, and the second to feature a mute protagonist.

But it’s the first that’s an indie film rather than a Hollywood melodrama—and perhaps for that reason, it’s also the first that has become regarded as a cinematic classic. In Campion’s film, disability and wordlessness aren’t weaknesses to overcome, but analogies for the difference, and determination, of the woman artist, who refuses to speak in the ways men want her to, and instead finds her own language and her own will—a will, she says, that is “so strange and strong.”

The character with the will and the silence in the film is Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter), a Scotswoman in the mid-1800s who has, for reasons unknown even to her, refused to speak since she was six. She’s now an adult with a child (father also unknown), and her father has decided to marry her off to a New Zealand settler, Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill). Ada and her daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin), who translates signs for her mother, land on the beach with Ada’s treasured piano. But Alasdair—a penny-pincher—refuses to bring the instrument overland, probably because he doesn’t want to pay the Maori bearers.

Instead, Alisdair’s sometime business partner George Baines, a former sailor who can speak the Maori language, trades Alisdair some land for the piano. George gets Ada to give him lessons, and then offers to sell it back to her for sexual favors.

Ada is treated by the men in the film—her father, Alisdair, George—as property, to be bartered and traded to advance their own happiness and interests. Men have robbed her of her voice, so she doesn’t speak; her muteness is a sign of disempowerment.

Or so it seems at first. But Ada early on, in a voiceover, says her decision to not speak is an expression of her will—a will that she doesn’t quite understand, but which absolutely refuses to be turned aside. Her silence frustrates Alisdair, and becomes one means through which she withholds from him affection and even acknowledgement.

George’s sexual demands also are arguably coercive. But it’s notable perhaps that he’s bargaining with Ada directly, not with another man to control her. Ada’s father essentially trafficked her without her choice or consent. George asks her to do sex work in exchange for agreed upon fees—one sexual act (usually a kiss) for one piano key, more for more than one key, until all the black keys are counted up and the piano is hers.

Prior to the sex work, though, George sits and listens to Ada play. That means he’s listening to one of the ways that she speaks. He also seems to enjoy the listening as well as the sex and is never put off by her silence the way that Alisdair is. He’s interested in her as a person and as an artist.

Ada’s also attracted to George, and we first see that not really through Ada, but through Campion. Like Ada, Campion doesn’t speak in the film, but she can still convey meaning. We see George, naked, polishing the piano, before we see Ada nude, and Harvey Keitel’s penis shows up, while Holly Hunter is never shown in full frontal. The film is catering to a female (heterosexual) gaze.

That’s perhaps clearest in the sex scene, when Ada comes to George of her own accord after he’s returned the piano to her. Alisdair is passing by the shack, hears them having sex, and finds a knothole to peak in at them. He watches, rather like a movie viewer. But where a man gazing at James Bond is supposed to vicariously enjoy the sexual conquests, Alisdair is violently disidentified with George. The film here isn’t for Alisdair; it’s Ada who’s chosen what she wants, and who receives pleasure (first orally as George crawls under her dress, then in missionary position.) She, and Campion, don’t have a voice. But also the art is their voice, speaking their desires and their wants.

Alisdair is enraged by Ada’s infidelity (which isn’t really infidelity, since she never agreed to the marriage). He begins an escalating program of emotional and physical abuse, including at least one rape attempt and culminating in him chopping off one of Ada’s fingers with an ax. That’s a symbolic silencing since Ada uses her hands to speak through signs, her piano, and writing. It’s also, though, a symbolic castration; Alisdair in physically assaulting Ada, is tacitly admitting that he’s always kept her by force, and that he’ll never keep her by anything else.

Alisdair comes to that conclusion himself—in part because, he says, he hears her voice in his head telling him that he must let her go. She and George leave by longboat, with the piano perched precariously. Ada suddenly insists they throw it overboard, and when George reluctantly complies, she deliberately catches her foot in the rope, and is pulled overboard, drowning herself with her voice and her art.

But then she changes her mind. She takes off her shoe, and swims back to the surface. The film ends with her taking on a new role as a piano teacher, with the help of a new metal finger George has made for her. She’s also learning to speak through words. In finding a new life, she has found her voice.

But also, she says, she still dreams of herself floating at the bottom of the ocean with the piano, in the ocean’s quiet. Her art and her self are still in some strange, silent place that can’t be touched. The Piano claims a form and a language that women have been denied and simultaneously insists that women’s voices are most important when they refuse to adapt to patriarchal demands and meanings. It also issues a challenge to men, who can choose, to demand that women behave, like Alisdair, or can choose, like George, to listen.


Register or Login to leave a comment