Jane Campion's "The Piano" relates the story of a Scottish woman who is sent to New Zealand, during the Victorian Era, for an arranged marriage with a farmer. Ada voluntarily gave up speaking at the age of 6 and communicates by either signing for her daughter, writing on a small paper tablet around her neck, or, more joyously, through playing her piano. After a long and arduous journey with the piano, Ada is forced to leave it on the beach where her boat landed. Left without her musical passion, Ada must learn to adapt in very male world. A native white man who has adopted the culture of the Maori Indians named Baines quickly discovers what the abandoned piano means to Ada. Baines secures the piano by trading 80 acres of land to the farmer and husband of Ada, Stewart.
After getting the piano back to his home, he employs Ada to give him lessons, but really wants to have sex with her in exchange for the piano. Her passion for the music allows for this and an affair is born. The affair is discovered by Stewart and he goes irate eventually cutting off Ada's forefinger in a backwards attempt to win her love. When he realizes the futility of winning her love, Stewart sends her off with Baines. On the boat to a new home and life, Ada insists of getting rid of the piano and almost commits suicide as the piano sinks to the bottom of the ocean. This movie is beautiful to watch, yet difficult.
It is raw, yet the cinematography is breathtaking. The movie connects on several levels, several which are unaware to the viewer. The story is odd but it speaks to a primal need to be loved and to love. Many of the images are disturbing.
The story is simple and brutal and points out the smallness of humans on our huge and beautiful planet. Much of the movie is hard to take but I think it deserved all of its accolades. The themes of "The Piano" mirror many of the things described in the textbooks of Privilege, Power, and Difference by Allan G. Johnson and Women's Lives by Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey. Both texts describe the matrix of oppression and the matrix of domination (Johnson, 2001).
The interconnection of Ada's traits - a handicapped woman - obviously made her least privileged and oppressed character. She was auctioned off like a lamp to a man she doesn't know in a foreign land. When she arrives, her wants and needs are suppressed by several factors, most notably her husband Alistair Stewart. Stewart is oppressed by his foreign nationality as witnessed in the scene where he is negotiating with the New Zealand Maori Indians. Baines is oppressed because of his socioeconomic status on the island. He is poor and therefore must bow to the wishes of Stewart.
Yet Ada could escape all the oppression when she played her piano, which is why she made every effort to take it wherever she went. When Stewart could not get Ada to love him and found that she was having an affair with Baines, he took his last ounce of power and axed off one of her fingers. This essentially made her mute again. Kirk and Ozakawa write about the "dominant culture often reduces women to bodies, valuing us only as sex objects". (p. 111) The plot of "The Piano" makes this clear when Baines holds the piano hostage for sexual favors from Ada.
The action of the movie takes place mostly in New Zealand adding a dimension to Ada and Flora, newcomers to the land; Stewart, foreigner trying to make a living in New Zealand, and the white native, Baines, who acts as the bridge between the cultures. Their identities were easily understood based on their skin color except for Baines who had to have tattoos and piercings on his face to separate him from the others. The Maoris with their darker skin were all examples of identifying by physical characteristics, according to Kirk and Ozakawa. (p. 61). Despite Ada's tiny rebellions, she still plays by the Victorian Era rules when it comes to her role as a woman. In Women's Lives an article by Judith Lorber talks about gender as a social institution which determines a person's role (p. 21). Ada knew her role as a housewife and did mostly what she was told except when it came to intimacy.
She would not giver herself sexually to the man who had paid for her, but she grew to love the man who blackmailed her. This is because Baines made her feel special, albeit in a dominant way. Eventually, he grew to see her as more than just a pleasure instrument, as a real person who has feelings despite her inability to express them other than at the piano. This is the moral of the story that true love can supersede domination and gender roles. In this movie, the instrument for this change is the bargaining over the piano.
Johnson, A.G. (2001).
Privilege, Power, and Difference. New York: McGraw-Hill. Kirk, G. & Okazawa-Rey, M. (2004).