16. New Zealand — The Piano
1993, directed by Jane Campion
Both The Piano and The Power of the Dog (2021), I had to see twice before realizing how much I loved them. I had not watched a Jane Campion film before this year. The Piano is an other-worldly, beautiful film with elements a cinephile would love: beautiful landscapes of New Zealand’s coasts and wilderness; a sublime musical score; complex social themes and ideas; and of course, excellent acting performances.
Holly Hunter deserved an Academy Award (she was only nominated) for an expressive, yet muted performance — pardon the pun. She plays an electively mute Scotswoman, who is married off to a New Zealand frontiersman she has never met before. I’m not sure an exact time period is given, but I presume it’s the 19th century because New Zealand is still a wild frontier territory and there is little to no modern technology in the film. Surely, the piano is technological marvel, but it’s not modern.
It’s a magical piece of human ingenuity. You hear it before you see it in the introduction, which clues you in to the unique pacing and purposeful editing employed by Campion. First it’s being played by Hunter’s character in an aristocratic home; then it’s being carried from a boat onto the shore in New Zealand. The camera moves sensually and cuts suddenly. Also carried by the arms of many burly men are Hunter and her daughter, both tiny women. This striking image is the obvious metaphor of the film: a woman whose life and fate is solely handled and determined by men, some better and some worse, and how she navigates that time and place. Her precocious daughter, whose father we never learn of, is played by then 11-year-old Anna Paquin. Paquin, less deservedly than Hunter, won an Academy Award for her supporting role. Awards given to children are always quirky and sometimes just wrong; in my view, Paquin’s award was more for overacting than acting.
Basically, the plot is a love triangle. Hunter resists her brand new husband, played by Sam Neill in the movie’s most underrated, subtle performance. He is a man at odds with his time and place too. Presumed to be an alpha — a strong frontiersman — he is actually repeatedly cuckolded and is powerless to respond and claim his new bride’s affection. When he finally acts out in violence, almost as society expects him to, his reactions afterwards are unexpected too. The other man is played by Harvey Keitel, as the noble, quirky white man who has “gone native” archetype. He hangs out with Maori indigenous natives of New Zealand and has even adopted their cultural practice of facial tattoos. This archetype induces a healthy eye roll in 2021, but even the meh performance does not ruin the film.
Apparently, this movie had rather explicit and controversial sex scenes when first released. By nowadays standards, it’s actually rather tame. If you’re watched Euphoria, you’ve seen a lot more nudity and sex. But the most interesting parts of the film are still wonderfully weird and offbeat. For example, when Sam Neill’s husband sees his wife having sex with the interloper, what does he do, kick in the door and start a fight? No, he silently crawls beneath the floorboards of the house so he can have a better look at his wife having sex, which she withheld from him. Perhaps he is curious about what her satisfaction looks like. What a cool take.
The Piano is about gender roles and power dynamics in human relationships. It’s also about social tensions and discontent belying a reserved, repressed era of civilization. Very interestingly, the Power of the Dog explores those same themes, but from a different perspective — from mostly male characters and set in the American West. As an Oscar frontrunner, it looks like Jane Campion will finally get Hollywood’s recognition at long last.
I watched The Piano on Netflix. It’s also available on the Criterion Collection.
This is #16 in my World Tour of Cinema project. Read my introductory post here.