Thursday 4 June 2009

The Piano (1993)

"No, she is a strange creature and her playing is strange, like a mood that passes into you. To have a sound creep inside you is not all pleasant."
-The Piano

"What a death! What a chance! What a surprise! My will has chosen life?"
-The Piano

Tender, meditative and wonderfully bizarre, The Piano is truly the end-all, be-all Kiwi film. It's also, incidentally, one of our favorite films ever. The other day, we reviewed another popular Kiwi classic - Once Were Warriors - and wondered how it compared to The Piano. But it wasn't really fair to compare Once Were Warriors to something that could have been romanticized by nostalgia, so we decided to re-watch The Piano. And we're somewhat startled to find that it is that much more powerful and wonderful now, over ten years since we last saw it. It's just... damn.

Silence and expressiveness are the big, meaty themes of The Piano. Set in colonial New Zealand, a mute English woman, Ada (Holly Hunter), arrives for an arranged marriage with a local settler, Alisdair (Sam Neill). With her precocious young daughter, Flora (a precocious, young 11-year-old Anna Paquin, in an Oscar-winning performance!), in tow, she navigates the wild, new country, full of knee-deep mud, sublime and mysterious landscapes and the sensitive "gone native" outcast in the house next door, George (Harvey Keitel).

Ada (Holly Hunter) and Flora (Anna Paquin).

The story builds slowly as George invites Ada to teach him to play the piano - this is basically an excuse, since George is one of the few people that recognizes the intense connection that Ada has with her piano, and he's more interested in giving her a space to express this need than actually learning anything for himself. Indeed, Ada's piano is her lost voice. And, as one character puts it, Ada's playing is not the straightforward, blunt playing of a practicing pupil - instead, it is "like a mood that infects you". This applies to the movie itself. Ada - and the movie - seems to communicate on a different level, an unconventional language made almost entirely of emotion, spirit, the heart, whatever you want to call it. In other words, pure mood (like the CD series!).

The Piano is all about mood, and particularly the ability to transmit this intuitive, human connection via music and love (here, often sex). If there was a moral, it would be: talk is cheap, repression is bad, make love and music instead. Ada's muteness informs several scenes where characters meditate on the "usefulness" of silence, the rubbish of conversation and meaningless chatter, and the potentially soul-plumbing depths of just, well, shutting up and listening to the music, watching the birds, taking it all in. The only traditional villain, Alisdair, is doomed by his inability to connect with his wife, himself and the people around him: as a result, he is repressed, oppressive, exploitative and destructive. (And the film seems to leave an open question whether this is because of Alisdair's Victorian and colonialist attitudes.) All the other characters, however, are much more in tune with the harmony of things. And, using the absolute minimum of dialogue, director Jane Campion tells a rich, nuanced love story using only visuals and melody: it's all gestures, lingering looks and, of course, the soundtrack. At times, it even feels like a silent film.

This might make it sound dull, and it certainly is slow. However, we were never, ever bored. Quite the opposite! It's absolutely enchanting. It pulls you in and, once you're in the rhythm of it, it lulls you into its semi-mystical vibe. When the romance between Ada and George develops, it's exhilarating and entrancing. When it's then complicated by Alisdair the husband, it becomes unexpectedly (and ambiguously) tragic. All three characters are so vulnerable and expressive, it's just - well, really touching! Poor Ada! Poor George! Poor Alisdair! (Or are we blinded by an all-forgiving haze of Sam Neill affection? Very possible.)

Oh, Sam. Oops, we mean "Alisdair". What's gotten into you?

Since music is so important to this film, it should only make sense that the score is by a renowned minimalist composer, Michael Nyman. And, indeed, it is just sublime. It makes the movie. Several tracks, such as the main theme ("The Heart Asks Pleasure First") are well-worn and even overplayed nowadays - but just imagine hearing them back in 1993, fresh and new and with the swooping aerials of New Zealand underneath you. Transcendental, indeed. Other tracks - "A Wild and Distant Shore" and "All Imperfect Things" (our favorites) - are merely hinted in the film, yet they still manage to contribute to the special atmosphere. We highly, highly recommend this film just for the music.

The performances are also uniformly impressive. Holly Hunter, who's Ada is steely and dynamic, is just perfect - she carries the film entirely. Harvey Keitel - apart from his body, which looks like a breathing Bernini statue sometimes! - projects just the right balance of sensitivity and rough ignorance. His fumbled attempts to court Ada, and the slow mutual seduction, are at first cringe-worthy and then you invest in it completely. Sam Neill - our personal PPCC fave - is great, particularly in the scenes after he discovers Ada and George's love. (There's also a running debate whether that is, indeed, his bum in that one scene. Feel free to contribute in the comments. If it is, wow, Sam, how many squats do you do at the gym?!)

There are other interesting things about the movie - things we still haven't quite understood. For example, mirroring and doubling are used extensively throughout the film: little Flora for Ada, the ridiculous pair of settler women who finish each other's sentences and make moral decrees on the community, even just the silly sight gag where a Māori man teases Alisdair by copying him. Then there are those wonderfully surreal grace notes - the sailors carrying Ada and Flora onto the shore, the Christmas play, Flora's vividly weird lies about her father. We don't know what all this means yet.

*art geek glee*

Is that you, Mr. Turner?!

But that's okay! The cinematography is so phenomenally gorgeous - it feels like we're in a moving Turner painting. The pacing is perfect, and some moments - such as Ada plunging into the water after the piano, or when Alisdair confronts Ada in the woods - are so well-filmed, they geeked us out completely as film nerds.

Sam Neill mostly makes wine nowadays, and we're happy the man gave us the demented trashy goodness of films like Jurassic Park and Event Horizon. But this will always be the top of his Sam Neilliness, as well as the top of Kiwi goodness, the top of using minimalist composers in film (sorry, Philip Glass! fear not, we will see Kundun toot-sweet), and in our top ten films ever.


ajnabi said...

The cinematography is sooo gorgeous in the film. But I cannot like it. It might have something to do with the repellent effect Holly Hunter has on me, or the pacing, or just the uncomfortable feeling of not really liking any of them.

Débora said...

Nice blog! I love the concept

a ppcc representative said...

ajnabi - Interestingly, I also found all 3 of them alienating the first time I watched this. But this time, I really connected with all three in a totally novel way - suddenly I saw them with a lot more sympathy. (And, as always, Sam Neill's Sam Neilliness doesn't hurt. Oh, my heart!)

Debora - Thanks, and welcome!

eliza bennet said...

I like this film very much and you were spot on describing its mood embracing you, almost hypnotic.

I loved Ada right from the start and got used to Harvey but Sam Neil's character I neither understood nor warmed up to.

I think this film is great cinema and still my favorite Campion film (I like her).