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Jane Campion and The Piano: 30 Years Later


A preview of Issue 002 of Film Club 3000, releasing December 25th.


Jane Campion, aged 39 years, released The Piano in 1993 to universal acclaim. The film, the Bronte-inspired tale of the mute Ada (Holly Hunter) fighting to express herself in her relationships with her distant husband Alisdair (Sam Elliot), and the passionate Baines (Harvey Keitel) centered in the New Zealand colonial frontier with her daughter (Anna Paquin). Her greatest concern is retrieving the titular piano, which she sees as the sole means of her self-expression, abandoned by Alisdair and held for erotic ransom by Baines. However, as Baines and Ada further entangle themselves into each other, a mutual affection and desire bridge their distance until they form a romantic relationship, only for Alisdair to discover the affair with intense consequences. The film, and Campion herself, have in the intervening three decades become established as significant in the history of cinema, with Campion becoming the second woman nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards.

Campion began her feature career with her debut Sweetie (1989), a film about dysfunctional sisters butting heads as they pursue romantic relationships, after a decade of work in shorts. Sweetie sets up several of Campion’s key preoccupations, from aesthetically communicating feminine subjectivity to women seeking romantic and erotic fulfillment in oppressing worlds by creating their own interior worlds. Those qualities align her works with the Female Gothic, a literary movement influential to Campion, which she elaborated upon with overt feminist discourses. Her sophomore effort, the biopic of Janet Frame An Angel at My Table (1990), would further establish the erotic inclinations of her work, while also establishing a new one, namely her story's historical placement. She would next make The Piano, considered by some her most significant work. 

The Piano offers one of the more complex variants on the motif of romantic and sexual fulfillment for women, wherein Ada engages in eroticism with Baines to regain access to her piano, which she sees as her only means of meaningful self-expression. As her relations with Baines become more intense, she realizes she loves him, or at least finds her encounters with him increasingly rewarding, contrasted with the way which Alisdair treats her, wherein he expects her to provide all of the affection in their relationship and remains closed off to reciprocating her desires. Even in terms of shots, Ada and Baines share more and lengthier shots sharing the frame as opposed to Ada and Alisdair, let alone shots where either pairing shows affection to one another. Note for example the attempts at consensual sex, both warmly colored, yet Ada and Baines are united whereas Ada and Alisdair are separated via framing of their faces with limited exception. Further, in their earliest encounter between the three on the beach, when Alisdair asks Baines what he thinks, Baines comments on her being (“She looks tired,” he says) while Alisdair is focused on her appearance (“She is stunted,” he retorts curtly), one showing more interest in her as a person than her as a body. 

Ada is stuck between two men who dominate over her, yet as the narrative progresses we see one, Baines, try to understand her better and put her on somewhat equal footing with him.  Ada remains defined by relations to love and sex, yet she chooses active desire, both given and received, to cool apathy. Ada previously created her interior world to escape the hardships of patriarchy via her piano but found someone who she could share her world with, finding true fulfillment. Note how when she finds fulfillment in Baines, she removes a key from the titular instrument as a sign of her love. Even when she attempts suicide by drowning herself with it, she frees herself to be with Baines, abandoning the piano to the sea with her prior desires. The Piano, like her subsequent work, hones in on the difficulty in finding fulfillment as a woman within a patriarchal society and the ways desire articulates and propagates itself. 

Afterward, Campion made several films centered on women seeking fulfillment, either in modernity or history. The Portrait of a Lady (1996), her immediate follow-up to The Piano, centered on the increasingly duplicitous social life of a recent wealthy heiress (Nicole Kidman). In The Cut (2003) studied a sexually repressed New York English Teacher (Meg Ryan) having a candid affair with a police officer (Mark Ruffalo) investigating a serial killer. Bright Star (2009), dramatizes the romantic pining of Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) and the poet John Keats (Ben Wishaw). The Portrait of a Lady and Bright Star form an especially interesting duology, both explicitly interested in how class creates detriment in romantic entanglements from two extremes, one of wealth and the other of poverty.

Outside of these works, Campion also made two films which sought to deconstruct masculinity, one explicitly about how men look at women, and one about how men interact with each other. Instead of compromising her feminist vision, it compliments it; feminism isn’t exclusively interested in women, but also in how men suffer under patriarchy as well. The prior, Holy Smoke (1999), follows a cult de-programmer (Harvey Keitel) on the job as he himself becomes brainwashed by his charge (Kate Winslet) into engaging in sadomasochistic sexual powerplays while deconstructing his own gender presentation and internalized misogyny. Yet the most well-known of the two, as the second more masculine-inclined work is her second film to garner a nomination, and her first to win, Power of the Dog.

Power of the Dog stars the domineering Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), a deeply closeted rancher, as he subjugates his brother (Jesse Plemmons) and his recently acquired wife (Kristen Dunst) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to torment. He becomes especially fixated on his new nephew and begins an especially cruel mentoring of the boy, the implication being he had been likewise subjugated to similar experiences. As their bond becomes more entangled and strange, the layers of violence become multifaceted and deeply enthralling. The film feels culminative towards Campion, a return from a long absence in cinema while she worked on the television series Top of the Lake (2013) and its sequel series China Girl (2017). A period piece set on a frontier, a story about how economic frugality influences marriages and relationships, dysfunctional families trying to co-exist, and the creation of interior worlds by oppressed characters to fulfill themselves all run rampant in the film. Yet unlike most of her prior work, the film centers almost exclusively on masculine perspectives (the wife does have some narrative pull, but very little) and how men relate to each other. The parallel between Power of the Dog and The Hurt Locker, films made by women about men who win Oscars, is apparent and frustrating.

Campion remains quiet about her next project, although she has courted several projects in the last decade which could finally materialize. After her triumphant return, it is unlikely Campion will remain quiet for long. Even if she were to retire suddenly, she has undeniably paved the way for other women in cinema. While she wasn’t the first feminist to make movies or the first to privilege women’s desires, many subsequent women have come forward declaring her essential. Sofia Coppola, Julie Dash, Sarah Gavron, and Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović have all praised the film, voting for it in the most recent Sight & Sound Poll, where it placed 50th overall. Over thirty years into her career, Campion creates highly idiosyncratic, deeply personal films inarguably her own. Since The Piano, she has remained a pivotal figure within discourses of women’s cinema and one of the strongest auteurs depicting feminine sexuality. Cinema is a better place for having her in it, and we’ve been living in the aftermath of her.


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