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The Piano

October 11, 2015

TPThe Piano is a dark film about power — the power of the will against the power of domination.’ Jane Campion, writer and director of the film, won the award for Best Director at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival for this haunting work of art. Ada (Holly Hunter), a Scottish woman of uncommonly strong will, is married off by her father to a stranger who lives in the wild and lush rainforests of New Zealand. Ada stopped speaking at age six; “no one knows why, not even me,” she says in a voiceover at the opening of the film. We know little of her childhood except that her father says her muteness is “a dark talent and the day I [Ada] take it into my head to stop breathing will be my last.” Whatever the family dynamics behind this statement can only be guessed; but one suspects that Ada’s range of possible responses to life are as confining as the Victorian corsets that she must wear. And so Ada ends up with no voice (literally) and a husband who lives halfway around the world, selected for her by her father.

Ada has, however, significant power in silence, which, as she says in the voiceover, “affects everyone in the end.” She has an awesome gift of telepathy which frightened off her first lover. In her own muteness, she communicates

to others by writing on a tablet and through her young daughter Flora (Anna Paquin), who has gone with Ada to New Zealand. Flora was born of that first affair, and in many ways she is a fused alter ego for her mother, bound to her in part through her role as interpreter of their own sign language. In addition to her daughter, Ada also has her piano, which is the medium through which she communicates her emotions and her passion, and which she loves beyond everything except Flora.

A struggle begins upon the first meeting of Ada and her new husband Stewart (Sam Neill), as he arrives on the windswept beach to pick her up. He is on first meeting disarming — shy and uncomfortable, hair slicked back for the meeting — but his inability to understand and accommodate Ada’s need to have the piano portends an increasingly horrifying pattern of domination that will end in the most shocking and heinous abuse. Stewart is blind to Ada’s needs and her feelings. The piano is left behind on the beach because that are too few to carry it; however, Stewart refuses even to make the attempt, and he offers no assurance that it can be retrieved later.

In subsequent days, as Ada pines for the piano, she elicits the help J Stewart’s neighbor Baines (Harvey Keitel) to make the difficult trek back so the beach for a rapturous reunion with the piano. Later, Baines retrieves thy piano from the beach. When Stewart agrees to let Baines have the piano exchange for land and insists that Ada give Baines lessons, Stewart away the possibility of any real relationship with her.

Stewart is as trapped as Ada, it would seem, but in a different way a male colonist from Europe, he is caught in the powerful social assumption that he possesses the right to have control over all that he owns, including his wife. Campion’s portrait is the more chilling because Stewart’s assumptions and behavior are out of the range of his own awareness. He is as in his way as Ada is mute. He can see only what he expects to see as one trained and taught by his society as a dominant European male Ian He clearly wants to be loved in a most desperate way, but he cannot leap across his role to enter into the soul of his wife and give to her what she seeds.

This same pattern of domination can be seen in Stewart’s relationship to the land. The land around his house has been clear-cut and burned; in stark contrast to the lush forest, it is black and bare. He cannot understand why the local Maori will not sell their land for blankets and guns. “What do they want ie for?” he asks Baines. “They don’t cultivate it, burn it back, anything. How do they even know it’s theirs …?” His possession of the land and the consequent mutilation of it parallels his possession of Ada and his mutilation of her. In this respect, the film is a striking illustration of the parallels in patriarchal systems between the treatment of women and the treatment of nature.

Stewart’s relationship with the Maori people underlines the same pattern once again. He has not bothered to learn their language. He insults them with payments of buttons when they bring the piano to his house. He insults them more deeply when he fails to understand their reverence for their land. Fortunately, they are keen critics and are not about to be dominated. They call him “dry balls” and spit at his insulting offers.

Stewart’s struggle for control of Ada becomes increasingly overt as the relationship continues. At first he is patient about Ada’s lack of affection toward him and does not push himself on her. When he sees, however, that she is passionate toward Baines, his veneer of forbearance quickly turns to rage and he attempts to rape her. He then boards her into the house much as he had fenced in his land (both are, after all, his possessions). Then, when Ada attempts to send word of her love to Baines, Stewart’s rage reaches its climax: he chops off her finger, and sends it to her lover, threatening to take off another and another if Baines sees her again. Later, as she lies feverish, he attempts to minimize (!) his crime, telling her “I clipped your wing, that is all.” Aroused at the sight of her, he would mount and rape her comatose body except that she awakens and burns her thoughts into his mind. In the end, he relinquishes her (to Baines), saying “I want myself back; the one I knew.” One suspects that this is precisely what he will get; not a transformation of self but a return to his old self, safe from passion or rage.

Baines is the character in the movie who chooses to let go of his power to control and who thereby saves himself and Ada. Baines is a liminal figure, a Scotsman gone half native. Unlike Stewart, he has learned the Maori language, has tattooed his face, made friendships with the Maori, and seems to have adopted many of their values. In the end, he abandons completely the Western colonial mentality of Stewart, relinquishing all of his land and possessions.

From the beginning of the film, we see signs of the capacity for empathy in Baines. He notices that Ada looks tired when she arrives. He gives in to Ada’s request to make the trek back to the beach. Following that visit, Baines is smitten with Ada, and he contrives a plot to trade his land to Stewart for her piano. He then strikes a bargain with her that she can earn back her piano by allowing him voyeuristic sexual favors, one visit for each black key. This arrangement is crassly manipulative and intensely disturbing; yet it is different from Stewart’s relationship with Ada in that Baines has the ability to see what he is doing to Ada and to discern the difference between domination and a true relationship. After a number of these encounters, he can no longer live with himself: “The arrangement is making you a whore and me wretched,” he tells her. He gives her back the piano and, though obsessed with love, releases

her. If the love is not mutual, he does not want her.

Ada is now for the first time set free. The result is that she is able to love, a

love that was not remotely possible in her previous relationships with either Stewart or Baines. She is now safe enough with Baines to express her pent-up fury at his perverse control over her. Once this anger is expressed, a mutual relationship becomes possible, and passion follows.

Ada’s passion, once released, overflows the banks of reason and caution in

erotic expression. She goes to Baines, in spite of the obvious distress of her daughter, to consummate the relationship. Stewart follows and spies upon the lovers. When she is subsequently imprisoned by Stewart and forbidden from seeing Baines, she turns the tables on Stewart and tries to use him for the gratification of her passion, just as Baines had earlier used her. Stewart knows, however, just as she knew, that he is being used.

Upon learning that Baines will be leaving the territory, she pulls a key from

her piano and writes “You have my heart,” signing her unmarried name (the marriage had never been consummated). She forces her daughter to carry the key to Baines. Flora, perhaps jealous of her mother’s attachment to Baines or desperate to keep the only father she has ever had, takes the piano key instead to Stewart, and the horrible scene of Stewart’s mutilation of Ada’s finger ensues.

It is Baines who takes Ada and Flora away. However, in a surprising twist of plot with a haunting ring of truth, it becomes clear that a man’s love alone cannot save Ada. As they leave in the boat, she insists that the piano thrown overboard because “it is spoiled” — perhaps because one of its keys s now missing or because of the tragedy that has surrounded it. And Ada deliberately catches her foot in the rope attached to the piano and goes dew into the ocean with it. Presumably she likewise is “spoiled” now that she has no finger with which to play.

However, in the moment of death she chooses life. She pulls herself free of

the rope and thereby separates herself from her piano (literally and psychologically) and struggles to resurrect herself from the watery grave. As moves upward through the water, we hear her thoughts: “What a death! What a chance! What a surprise! My will has chosen life!” In this, her own will’s time, she begins her new life with Baines.

Campion’s story is all the more compelling because of the complexity and contradictions in the characters. There are times when the viewer is drawn into sympathy with Stewart, trying so hard to woo this strong-willed wife, Imposing his intense vulnerability in spite of himself. It would be easier to watch a two-dimensional figure like Bluebeard, depicted in the little play that !prefigures Stewart’s act of violence. Nor is Ada the typical Victorian heroine. Her behavior can at times be shocking and self-absorbed. Campion has a true pit for capturing most realistically the complex nature of human beings.

The film is further enhanced by the most memorable visual images. Several s:enes become etched on the memory: the piano on the vast beach; Ada mating above the piano in the ocean depths; the beauty of the rain forests of New Zealand that conjure up images of Eden. Here we see in the intense relationships between three people isolated in the primeval forest what went wrong in paradise and how people might recover a piece of it in the midst of domination and destruction.

The theme of domination is also illuminated with particular brilliance in the Gospel of Mark, a first century story about the efforts of Jesus of Nazareth to challenge the systems of domination in his nation Israel. Mark was probably written during or just after the Roman-Judean War of 66 to 70 CE.3 In that war of Israel’s revolt against Roman domination, the Romans defeated the Judeans, conquered Jerusalem, and destroyed its Temple. Some 40 years after Jesus’ death, the author shaped his version of the story about Jesus, in part, in order to show that any attempt to dominate others with force – by nations or by individuals – was contrary to the way God intended for human beings to relate to each other.

Mark is not, therefore, addressing issues about the legitimate use of power to maintain social order but the illegitimate use of such power over people by leaders in order to retain their own power and control over others. The historical authorities in Israel (in contrast to the authorities as Mark portrays them) might have argued that they were only keeping order. Mark, however, was written from the peasant perspective which experienced this patriarchal order as exploitative. Hence, Mark presents a contrast between those with authority who dominate others and aggrandize themselves and those who benefit others by their refusal to use power over others and by their use of power in service to others…….. In death, Jesus is clearly afraid to die. His will to God, “not what I will”. Though Jesus, like Ada, would choose life for himself, yet he is willing death in the course of serving others he is willing to submit even his death to give up control of others – triumph over his enemies or the possible success or failure of his movement. He has been able to live without dominating and without controlling. He will die opposing oppression without becoming an oppressor himself.

In the end, Jesus is put to death just as violently and gruesomely as he had predicted. Mark, more than any other gospel, portrays the horror and the suffering on the cross. Jesus’ death shows most clearly that this was a life lived for others in spite of the cost. At the end of the story, the resurrection of Jesus, made known by the announcement of the young man at the empty grave, puts God’s ultimate affirmation on Jesus’ life and teaching.

When we put the Gospel and the film The Piano next to each other, we can see that Campion’s story presents us with a compelling illustration of the human condition when people “lord it over” other people. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus always points to examples that are not explicitly religious in order to illustrate his teaching: a woman who patches clothes, a farmer sowing seeds, a kingdom divided against itself, or a landowner dealing with violent tenants. In a similar way, the film provides a modern, extended illustration of the dynamics of the rule of God as applied to individuals: the transforming power of mutual service in contrast to the futility of coercive domination.

Thus, looking at The Piano through the framework of Mark enables us to see more clearly the dynamics of power in the film. For example, we see more clearly the tragedy of Stewart’s attempt at domination. It could have been different had he had a framework for his life other than “the rulebook that stringently tutors him on patriarchal duty, feminine docility, the white man’s imperial burden”. Stewart is blind precisely in the way the authorities in the Gospel are blind: from their point of view, they believe they are doing right, just as Stewart does. He thinks he is upholding society and world order according to the expected/accepted social-religious norms, and he cannot see how it leaves him unable to love, unable to experience mutual service in a relationship of equals. People in positions of power are certain that they are right because the core values of the culture — in this case, the quest for wealth, power, and status — support them.

Like the leaders in the Gospel who have power, Stewart must stay in control of his domain. Mark makes it clear that fear underlies the human need to control. Just so, as Stewart begins to lose control, he becomes increasingly fearful and rageful. Although one might interpret his jealous rage as unre­quited love, it is clear that he never loves Ada in the mutual way that is set out by Jesus (“love your neighbor as yourself”; “the two become one”). Had he been able to trade the framework set out by Jesus for his own, he might have learned to serve Ada’s needs and to let go of his need to control her ­whether she chose to love him or not.

It is likewise with Ada’s will. We are tempted to find Ada’s strong will heroic when we imagine what would have been the extent of her victimization without it. But Campion does not glorify Ada’s will. While it has perhaps been her only weapon in the twisted power relationships of her culture, it has cost her a lot. She lives mute, has supplanted most human relationships with her love of the piano, chooses virtually to prostitute herself to keep it, has a daughter born out of wedlock who yearns for a father, puts her daughter in great emotional peril to consummate her passion with Baines, and predicts to Stewart (through her burning thoughts) even more devastating consequences from her will if Stewart does not release her.

It is interesting to watch what happens when Ada emerges from this relationship of domination and is able to experience a chosen, mutual love. She is able to let go of those things to which her will is so attached, and we watch the unknotting of all that has been so twisted up. Her will chooses life; she is able to separate herself from the piano and leave it behind in its watery grave; she is resurrected to a new life, and she even begins to learn to speak. To be sure, she says in a voiceover at the end of the film that death continues to pull on her; nevertheless, she is sustained by her will to live. This is an illuminating example of what can happen when one experiences mutual love similar to that which Jesus teaches and lives out in the Gospel of Mark. There is no longer the need to control, either in aggressive or passive-aggressive


In letting go of Ada and his consuming desire for her, Baines stops “lording it over” her and offers her a relationship of mutual love. He is willing to risk losing what is most important to him in order to have a relationship that is non-coercive and reciprocal. Their lovemaking, as they face each other side by side, becomes a symbol of this new relationship. He then becomes her “servant,” taking her from Stewart, insisting that her piano be transported with her in spite of the danger, making a metal finger for her so she can piss the piano again. Though the seeds of compassion were evident in his character from the beginning, so was the power of domination. It was his choice to relinquish his will to dominate that turns his love into a redemptive force.

Thus, with all his flaws and humanness, he is a compelling example of Jesus’ teaching on choosing mutuality and servanthood.

Once we have seen the dynamics of power in The Piano we are in a better position to see Mark in light of The Piano. By comparison with the film, the Gospel extends the dynamics of power beyond the personal to the societal and the political .It is precisely the power of The Piano that it focuses so intensely on personal, with sparse commentary, leaving the viewer spying in upon eagle of very human, contradictory relationships. However, the film does not draw implications for society, even though the whole of Western society is :aplicated in what happens in this remote spot in New Zealand. The Gospel of Mark, however, provides us with a vision of how the transformation from domination to mutuality in The Piano might be attempted as a renewal of the political and social order as a whole.

Furthermore, whereas The Piano does not foreground the spiritual dimen­sions of life, the source and impetus for the restoration of mutual love in Mark is the power of God in service to humanity. In the film, the theme of God’s restoration of creation is only glimpsed ephemerally in the most contradictory symbols – Eden spoiled by mud, the clergyman staging a play about Bluebeard, Flora’s angel wings full of dirt. The Piano is essentially a story of redemption through human love. Yet, when the film is placed next to Mark, we can see that this love mirrors the redemptive love of God. The Gospel of Mark displays a love that is larger than the love between a man and a woman. It is about a love at the source of life, which both empowers human love and allows humans to love the divine in return. In the view of Mark, this love of God can be a source both for the redeeming of personal relationships and for the renewing of society.

Finally, while the film leads viewers to discern the dynamics of domination and mutuality, the rhetoric of the Gospel of Mark goes further by urging readers to embrace its story as their way of life. The portrayal of the ultimate self-giving of Jesus is meant to inspire readers to give up their tenacious self-centeredness and be like him. The abrupt ending, with the women fleeing the tomb afraid and failing to say anything, propels readers to take up the story themselves and to be courageous in spite of the risks. And seeing the nature of God’s rule and the alternative it offers to wealth, power, and domination empowers readers to choose a new realm of life comprised of relationships of mutual service. Explorations in Theology and Film: Movies and Meaning – ed. Clive Marsh & Gaye Ortiz pp. 47f

[first lines] Ada: The voice you hear is not my speaking voice – -but my mind’s voice. I have not spoken since I was six years old. No one knows why – -not even me. My father says it is a dark talent, and the day I take it into my head to stop breathing will be my last. Today he married me to a man I have not yet met. Soon my daughter and I shall join him in his own country. My husband writes that my muteness does not bother him – and hark this! He says, “God loves dumb creatures, so why not I?” ‘Twere good he had God’s patience, for silence affects everyone in the end. The strange thing is, I don’t think myself silent. That is because of my piano. I shall miss it on the journey.

[last lines] Ada: There is a silence where hath been no sound / There is a silence where no sound may be / In the cold grave, under the deep deep sea. -Thomas Hood…

George Baines: Ada, I’m unhappy. ‘Cause I want you. ‘Cause my mind has seized on you and can think of nothing else. This is why I’ve suffered. I am sick with longing. I don’t eat, I don’t sleep. So, if you have come with no feeling for me, then go. Go. Go. Get out. Leave!

Stewart: [to George Baines] She said, “I have to go, let me go, let Baines take me away, let him try and save me. I am frightened of my will, of what it might do, it is so strange and strong”.

Ada: George has fashioned me a metal finger tip, I am quite the town freak which satisfies!

Flora: One day when my mother and father were singing together in the forest, a great storm blew up out of nowhere. But so passionate was their singing that they did not notice, nor did they stop as the rain began to fall, and when their voices rose for the final bars of the duet a great bolt of lighting came out of the sky and struck my father so that he lit up like a torch. And at the same moment my father was struck dead my mother was struck dumb! She never spoke another word.

Ada: What a death! What a chance! What a surprise! My will has chosen life! Still it has had me spooked and many others besides!

George Baines: I want to lie together without clothes on.

George Baines: I have given the piano back to you. I’ve had enough. The arrangement is making you a whore, and me, wretched. I want you to care for me. But you can’t. It’s yours, leave. Go on, go.

Stewart: Where’s your mother? Where’s she off to?

Flora: TO HELL!


From → Film

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