"...Down there everything is so still
and silent that it lulls me to sleep.
Released 1993, Eastman Color
Runtime: 121 minutes
Certification: Australia: M / USA: R
Also Known As:
Box Office figures
Awards and Nominations
(Full list can be obtained form the Internet
Best Actress in
a Leading Role
Best Picture -
LA Film Critics
AFI Awards (1993)
Best Actor in s
Supporting Role - nominated
Monographic related book
Gatti, Ilaria. Jane Campion. Le Mani, 1998.
Printed Media Reviews
Bernard, Jean-Jacques. In: Première (France). June 1993. p. 16. (MG)
D'Yvoire, Christophe. In: Studio (France). June 1993. p. 10. (MG)
Kamsvaag, Geir. In: FilmMagasinet. (Norway) June/July 1994. p. 85. (MG)
Bednarz, Christina. In: cinema. (Hamburg). 29.07.1993. (MG)
Ludvigsson, Bo. Hetta och kyla vid pianot. In: Svenska
Dagbladet (Sweden). 27 August 1993 (NP)
Presence on the Web
Connery's Hair Raising Movie Shoot
In Deal With Propaganda
La Leçon de piano (Nouvelle-Zélande)
D.(1994) "Feminist Film Criticism: The Piano and 'the Female Gaze'.
Most of my resource gathering happened on the Internet, using the Internet Movie Database as a starting point, and various other search engines, such as AltaVista and Excite to supplement my searching. Sourcing printed media did not prove to be as successful as looking on the Internet. 9 years have gone by since The Piano was released so one would have to dig deep into printed archives to dredge out this information.
I did encounter some obstacles while searching - especially - for box office related information. Ironically, finding box office figures for the Australian release of The Piano proved especially difficult. I cannot say whether this is because of the availability of those figures or my searching technique (most probably the latter), but as you can see, those figures are regrettably absent in this review.
Interviews with cast or crew were also exceptionally difficult to locate, given again the amount of time that has lapsed since it was released.
Their arrival in New Zealand is hardly one of pomp and ceremony. Ada and her daughter have to spend their first night in a strange land camped out on the beach with their luggage, an item of which is Ada's piano. Stewart arrives with Baines, his neighbour, and Maori bearers to carry Ada's luggage the next day. While organizing the transport of Ada's possession, Stewart decides that the piano is too heavy to carry back to his homestead, and despite fierce insistence from Ada, refuses to oblige and the company take their leave, leaving it on the beach.
Ada, feeling the need for the piano, which serves as her outlet of expression, her "voice", approaches Baines with Flora some time later and pleads with him to bring them to the beach where they landed. Baines objects initially, but is finally won over, and they head back to the beach, where they spend the rest of the day, with Baines carefully observing the Ada's interaction and response to the piano.
Baines later approaches Stewart and offers a tract of land in exchange for the piano, and lessons from Ada. The unsuspecting Stewart enthusiastically agrees, and Baines has it brought to his cottage. Knowing her longing for the instrument, he tells her that she can earn the piano back; one visit for every key. Only the black keys, she insists. And so their bargain is sealed. What happens next is an exploration of passion between Stewart's wife and his neighbour, an unlikely a pair as any, while Stewart finds himself a helpless (and cuckolded) bystander.
This is a film that explores the deeper and darker emotional sides of human beings - passion, love, betrayal, fear and how they are all tangled into volatile web and its consequences.
In many of the reviews which have given this movie a less-than three star rating (out of five), its editing has been called into question. Reviews have criticized the sometimes jumpy, abrupt cutting in many of the scenes, saying among other things, that it disrupts the flow of the film. Personally, I find that contrary to disrupting the flow, the irregular cutting brings forth an aspect of the film that is neither verbalized nor portrayed in the acting - the lightning shift of passion - its quick transgression from love, hate, indifference and despair; all of which are important themes in the movie. This is also important when one considers the gaze in the film. Jump cutting helps define certain scenes from Ada's point of view, imitating the quick shifting movement of the eyes as she takes in her surroundings. In a lot of the film, the dominant gaze belongs to Ada, and hence things are seen in her point of view, which brings me to my next point.
Another criticism leveled at the film is the one-dimensional portrayal of Stewart, and to a lesser extent, Baines. Certainly there is no development on the part of these two characters. Out insight to their personalities are limited to their words and actions to Ada. However, if we consider that the film presents them from Ada's point of view, it makes more sense. Often when one of recounting a past event to another person, people mentioned in that tale are never given much development outside the context and motivation of the tale. Whether or not this is a deliberate machination of the director, it certainly comes across that way.
Also perhaps this little tactic of reducing the character development of the men is a feminist response to the overt misogyny present in the film. Aside from the character depicts, most Hollywood films are more often made with an inherent male gaze. Viewers, male or female, are forced to identify with the male character because these gazes are patriarchal; therefore there is a need to establish the masculine gaze before using it to define the feminine role. In reducing the importance of Stewart and Baines by keeping their characters shallow, Jane Campion empowers the feminine gaze.
White supremacy too is addressed in the film. Stewart is shown from the start as pompous, emotionally stunted, insensitive and something of a cuckold. He is also the only white man in the film. Baines, although white, has symbolically 'transcended' the typical definition because of the Maori tattoos on his face, which aligns him more with the Maoris than Stewart. Stewart on the other hand, farcically performs Englishness to a fault, from the top hat to the suit and the neat, combed hair, in his first appearance in the film. Except that in a land where all these "qualities" are unnecessary, impractical, and above all else, despised because of their associations with colonialization, he stands out as a beacon to be laughed at.
Notably though, Jane Campion forces us to consider the feminine desire in relation to Hollywood film. Unlike the sexual temptresses of Hollywood cinema, Ada is not a curvaceous, flesh-baring siren that captures the imagination. Were she a typical Hollywood heroine, some of the potency of the film might have been lost. Instead, she is plain, small, mute and with a disposition that is anything but attractive in conventional Hollywood taste. The same can be said for Baines. He does not share any of the qualities of the conventional Hollywood hero either.
The unlikely pairing
of these two characters forces us to address the issue of presentation of passion
and its source. Aside from the moments where Baines and Ada are actually engaging
in physical intercourse, the heat that is stirred between them possesses no
phallocentric qualities. The issues of the phallus are ever raised. The erotic
pleasure is subtler than the act of sex itself. Its lure is to be found in the
discreet elements such as the music, or the image of her hands playing the keys,
rather than the sight of the bare bodies of her and Baines. Certainly it is
not something that would be showcased in internet or magazine porn because the
sight of their bodies does not evoke much masculine pleasure.
In Chapter 12 of Australian National Cinema, Tom O'Regan mentions the lower participation rates from women in certain sectors of the film industry, as well as a concentration in masculine centered storylines (and hence male leads) onscreen. The recognition of the proverbial Aussie battler as inherently white and male does no favours for women in and out of the industry as well, which is why film like The Piano, Monkey's Mask, and Muriel's Wedding (among others) given Australian cinema another aspect of itself to reconsider. The Piano certainly redefines masculinity within the context of its female lead, which is something we have come to expect from director Jane Campion.
The Piano would certainly fit the bill of the "quality" Australian film. It deals with cultural issues and serves as a commentary for them, and feminism in particular, in the contemporary landscape in the western world. In it, Ada's muteness is symbolic of her having no control over her own life, a reflection on Australian film in general, such as Walkabout, Sunday Too Far Away and Crocodile Dundee. In all of these films, women are either shown as little more than living baggage, or entirely not present at all. In The Piano, it is no different. Ada is Stewart's bargaining chip, to be exchanged for land, which Stewart obviously finds more valuable.
In her other work,
such as the 1999 film Holy Smoke and more notably Sweetie (1989), films which
have given voice to Australian women, both on- and off-screen. Certainly, within
The Piano, Campion concentrates on empowering the female and more importantly,
the feminine, a cultural label which has taken on the burden of being overshadowed
by its antithesis, the masculine. Their wants and desires are given legitimacy
to rather than that of the males.
A medium-sized English Language Cinema
As an English language speaking national cinema, Australian Cinema is in direct competition with the international cinema Hollywood. The Piano has done well in asserting itself as the product of a medium sized national cinema. It retains that characteristic while making its mark in the international cinema scene by being nominated for and winning numerous awards, most significantly The Oscars, the Golden Globes, and of course, the AFI (Australian Film Institute) Awards.
O'Regan, T. (1996) Australian National Cinema. London: Routledge.
For web references, refer to the Presence on the Web section