“I have not spoken since I was six years old. No one knows why – not even me…The strange thing is, I don’t think myself silent. That is because of my piano.”
These are some of the first lines of Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993), an evocative and original meditation on female subjectivity and sexuality. Every time I watch it, I am dumbfounded at how Campion even thought of this story in the first place. A mute 19th-century woman named Ada (Holly Hunter) is sent to the wilds of New Zealand to marry a man she has never met. She brings along her young daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin) and her treasured piano.
As she says in the aforementioned lines, she does not feel silent as long as she has her piano – it is her voice. Throughout the movie, whenever she plays, the music seems to emerge from her body rather than her piano, and she never seems happier than when she plays. The score is even made up entirely of piano, making the score a more active participant in the film than most – it is almost a voiceover itself. Thus, Ada’s “voice” permeates the whole film.
The use of music as her voice is quite significant, as language is considered inherently patriarchal in feminist theory. Language is often equated to agency, making those who speak or write well powerful in patriarchal society. Ada has chosen to avoid patriarchal language completely. Although her muteness is never explained, it is almost as if she realized that, as a woman, language would give her no power in this world, so she chose an entirely different mode of expression. I love feminist works where the female characters find a language outside that of patriarchy; Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress (2007) is one of my favorite examples. The main character in that film tells her story through her pies. Here, Ada tells it through music, and her mode of self-expression, though outside patriarchal language, exerts a power within it on those who hear her play. As the old society matron says, “She does not play the way we do…”
The character most significantly affected by Ada’s music is George Baines (Harvey Keitel). In a way, he too is an outsider to patriarchal society. Although he uses bartering to gain financial and social power, he is unable to read and write. He is not in possession of patriarchal language in its written form, so he is more able to relate to Ada’s wordless speech. Ada’s relationship to Baines is characterized by unusual negotiations around her body and the piano. He agrees to give her a key of the piano for each time she does what he says and shows him some of her body. In this way, the piano comes to stand not only for her voice, but for her body as well.
In a social sense, Campion creates a duality between Baines/the Maoris/the outdoors and Stewart/the English/the domestic. Both Ada and Flora negotiate between these two sides over the course of the film. Campion uses many shots to highlight the idea of humanity versus nature – the piano in the surf, Flora’s seahorse in the sand, the wooden boards the settlers use to walk over the mud. All of these images create a sense of humanity trying to assert itself in the wilds of New Zealand. The Maoris themselves are an unusual presence, as the script never really delves into their individual characters or explains how we are supposed to feel about them. Instead, there are moments in which the natives do not understand the settlers, and some in which they understand better than the English understand themselves. Baines has aligned himself more with the Maoris and, over the course of the film, becomes closer and closer to them and allows them to live in his house. In the end, when Ada leaves with Baines, it is the Maoris who escort them away.
Flora, Ada’s daughter, also negotiates between these two sides. Although she mostly plays the role of witness, she eventually turns on her mother and betrays her affair to Stewart. After the first time she does this, she begins to wear the angel wings she wore in the settlers’ play, signifying that she has officially aligned herself with the English side, and with Stewart. After (SPOILER ALERT) Stewart chops off her mother’s finger and tells Baines to take Ada away, there is a shot of nameless hands moving the angel wings through water. Flora has left their side, and is undergoing a cleansing re-alignment with her mother.
In the end, Ada undergoes a kind of split. She almost allows herself to drown, going overboard with her piano, but then decides to fight and return to the surface. “What a surprise! My will has chosen life,” she narrates. She then goes off to live a life of domesticity with Baines and Flora, complete with her metal finger and learning to speak. We are not allowed to end on this happy picture, though. Instead, she narrates that she dreams of her piano in its watery grave, and her there with it. We fade out on an image of her dead under the sea, floating above her piano. The last word we hear in the film is “silence.” I read this is as Campion saying that, even though Ada is beginning to speak, she still has her own internal silence, her own internal life. It is a dark ending, one that definitely makes you think, and I love Campion for not taking the easy way out. It would have felt strange for a film with so much darkness to end on a scene of domestic bliss. Instead, we are left with an eerie image of Ada and her piano residing peacefully and silently at the bottom of the sea. As Ada narrates, “It is a strange lullaby, but it is mine.”