There and back: Circularity in Jane Campion’s «The Piano» (1993)
Cet article a été rédigé dans le cadre d'un cursus à l'ENS de Lyon.
Ever since her first theatrical feature Sweetie caught the attention of film critics at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989, Jane Campion has been one of the few female directors who managed to carve out a permanent space for herself in the male-dominated film industry. While some of her productions such as The Piano (1993), Bright Star (2009) and The Power of the Dog (2021) received more accolades than others, her work never ceased to spark interest due to its stylistic and thematic scope. Most of her films feature some degree of intermediality in that they are inspired by the lives of artists (the New Zealand novelist Janet Frame in An Angel at my Table (1990) or John Keats in Bright Star) or by novels (Jane Mander’s The Story of a New Zealand River in The Piano, Henry James’ novel in The Portrait of a Lady (1996) or Thomas Savage’s novel in The Power of the Dog) and they often depict solitary figures or rebellious women as protagonists. On a stylistic level, Campion likes to rely on lightning techniques that create ethereal colours which, when paired with gloomy landscapes, make her storyworlds unique. In addition, her films are often shot with unconventional frames and angles that reflect the perspectives of outsider characters.
The Piano is an ideal point of entry into Jane Campion’s oeuvre in that it epitomises most of these stylistic and thematic characteristics. As a mute Scotswoman who possibly had a child out of wedlock and arrives in New Zealand with her daughter to marry frontiersman Alistair Stewart, Ada is introduced as a typical outsider. However, the film successfully eases the viewer into her unusual perspective on the world and invites them to sympathise with her when her emotionally remote husband fails to understand her love for piano playing and sells her instrument to his overseer George Baines. He in turn coerces Ada into a wrongful arrangement as he allows her to play the piano in exchange for sexual liberties. Even if Ada’s emancipation throughout the story is ambiguous because of a complex web of passion, sexual abuse, and power, she falls into the category of rebellious women as she challenges her husband’s authority by taking on a lover. Moreover, the film features continual encounters between characters (natives and settlers or men and women) and between characters and nature that simultaneously construct and deconstruct notions of the Other. These elements are astutely held together by the narrative space of the island and the sense of circularity that is created by Ada’s and her daughter Flora’s arrival and later departure from the island.
1. Breaking vicious circles thanks to the female gaze
With its long point-of-view shot, in which Ada partially covers her eyes with her fingers while the voiceover of her “mind’s voice” explains her intentional muteness, the opening sequence in The Piano immediately immerses the viewer into the young woman’s distinctive perspective on the world. From this point of view, the film soon makes it clear that Ada’s life is governed by the patriarchal conventions of the 19th century (she is married off without her consent and confined to the role of wife and sexual object) which deprived women of their voices and visibility in society. Ada’s silence draws attention to the voicelessness of women and the faults in the patriarchal system (McRuer and Wilkinson, 2003), yet it does not keep her from gaining agency as the story progresses.
Upon Ada’s arrival on the island, the viewer soon understands that the young woman follows her own rules as she converses with her daughter in sign language and relies on her piano to convey her thoughts and feelings. Her resistance to conventional methods of communication is echoed by how Campion strays away from male-centred cinematographic techniques to establish what Iris Brey calls a “female gaze” (Brey, 2021). The film is therefore preoccupied with Ada’s experiences as a woman and the camera resists the objectification of women by the male gaze. For instance, in a love scene between Ada and the overseer George Baines, the camera represents her desire for him by foregrounding her facial expressions and her actions rather than turning her into a passive object of male desire through long, eroticising close-ups of her body parts. Besides, in the same scene, Campion subverts the Peeping Tom trope as Ada and Baines are secretly observed by her husband Alistair Stewart, but the camera turns him (rather than Ada) into the object of the viewer’s gaze [1:13:49-1:17:25]. Campion further refines this female gaze through Ada’s piano playing as it both complements the storyline and grants the viewer access to her inner life. For these reasons, The Piano is often instanced as a prime example of the female gaze and has inspired film directors such as Celine Sciamma whose Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) similarly counters the methods of male-dominated cinema and illustrates how women can defy society’s norms through and in art.
In Ada’s case, the piano opens up a space of (artistic) self-expression and her mastery of the instrument helps her to a form of cultural capital, which distinguishes her from the other women in The Piano who are complicit in the patriarchal distribution of silence and invisibility. Nevertheless, once she is seen and loved for who she truly is by Baines, she manages to sever her metonymic relationship with her piano as she no longer depends on it to give meaning to her existence. As she departs from the island, she throws herself and the piano into the ocean yet decides to return to the surface, leaving the instrument and her old self behind. This decision testifies to her emancipation from the patriarchal system and anticipates her later resolution to learn how to speak. Thus, thanks to her stay on the island and the encounters it allowed for, Ada is able to break the spell of silence. However, the impact of these encounters deserves further nuancing.
2. Encounters with the Other
Though Ada’s personal journey and trajectory from muteness to agency takes up most of the screen time, white European colonialism still constitutes the backcloth of the story set in 19th-century New Zealand. However, the film makes no direct mention of any specific historical event, nor provides any contextualisation of the British colonisation. Almost two centuries after the first Dutch explorers reached the coast of New Zealand – Aotearoa in Māori language – and several decades after the British did (with James Cook in 1769), the first New Zealand Company was created in 1825, paving the way for the arrival of white settlers. Following the failure of that first attempt at systematically colonising the island, a second New Zealand Company was founded in 1839, around Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Wakefield advocated the idea that the Company needed to attract capitalist investors, by selling them lands purchased from Māori inhabitants and guaranteeing them that there would be enough labour force. The labourers who worked on these lands were chiefly British (Scottish and Southern English, for the most part) and emigration was strongly encouraged through a propaganda campaign in Great Britain. It appears then that the first colonisation of New Zealand was mainly commercial. Later, in February 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between Captain William Hobson, on behalf of the Crown, and several Māori chiefs, aiming to establish British sovereignty over New Zealand. This constituted a second step in colonisation, a more political one, which was followed by decades of violent Anglo-Māori land wars.
While the film does not clearly state when the action exactly occurs, it depicts a form of colonialism which belongs to the beginning of the 19th century. This particular colonialism – or as bell hooks labels it, this manifestation of “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (hooks, 1994) – is expressed mostly through Stewart’s attitude towards natives and their land, which evokes a white settler’s behaviour towards what may be called the human and non-human Other. Stewart’s interest in the conquest of the island reveals itself right from the start, when he leaves Ada after they have just met in order to undertake some business, stating that “there’s some Māori land [he’s] interested in which [he] may buy very reasonably” [20:02-20:07]. Similarly, during a bargain scene later in the film where Baines acts as an interpreter (showing, incidentally, the settler’s lack of interest in the culture and language of the Māoris, seen as human Others), Stewart only uses commercial lexicon (“Are they selling? Offer the blankets for half the land.” [48:59-49:06], “What do they want the land for?” [49:22-49:23]) and ignores the sacredness of the land embedded in Māori culture. Not only is the process of colonisation referred to, but the spectator can also view the consequences of white colonialism and the British approach to agriculture and land ownership, as designed by Edward Gibbon Wakefield: the need for arable lands led to deforestation, which is why the spectator can catch sight of so many fallen or burnt trees as well as chaotic muddy grounds in some natural settings of the film. Such a treatment of the land further complicates the relationship between Europeans and the non-human Other, as the island is perceived as strange and even hostile. This is exemplified by the scene of Ada and Flora struggling to walk in the mud, which gives the impression that nature is untamed and savage, though this state seems to result in fact from human actions. Consequently, the untamed nature becomes the subject of a hostile gaze, just like Ada, because of her status as an “untamed woman”.
An implicit parallel is thus drawn between the conquest of the land and the conquest and fetishization of women's bodies. Such fetishization, a product of patriarchal societies, is orchestrated in the film by Baines and Stewart who both covet Ada and at some point sexually abuse her. Just like the Māoris and the island, Ada, by her eloquent silence, ends up representing the Other, that which is beyond understanding and is therefore all the more silenced. The Other would be fashioned as that which is different, or even estranged, from oneself, to the point of being excluded, therefore encapsulating both non-human and human Others. Nevertheless, the film somehow operates a shift towards the end, as Baines “recognizes that he cannot buy or possess Ada” (Bentley, 2002, 49) and refuses to reduce her to a mere sexual object, contrary to Stewart. Ada ultimately gains agency inasmuch as she is given a choice, yet at the same time, according to bell hooks in her criticism of the film, she still complies with the patriarchal order, “in keeping with male exchange of women” (hooks, 1994), as she passes from Stewart to Baines, from a nuclear family to another one. This movement back and forth – and in and out of the island – seems to suggest that Ada's journey in New Zealand was but a temporary ordeal she had to go through, before returning to a conventional, marriage-like life.
3. The island as storyworld: fictionality and mirroring effects
Apart from character arcs and the circular structure with the arrival and departure from the island, circularity may also be viewed as a trope which pertains to the cinematographic fabric of the film and to Campion’s aesthetics. Indeed, she constructs the island as a narrative space in which mirroring and echoing effects create a powerful symbiosis between the characters and nature. Since Ada does not speak throughout her stay on the island, the long, meditative shots of nature effectively prolong or complement more eventful scenes in which she figures. For example, after Stewart has left Ada’s piano on the beach after her arrival, halfway through their hike to the settling, Ada turns back and longingly gazes at her instrument from afar. The scene is followed up by a long tracking bird’s-eye view shot of the forest whose gloomy lighting (paired with the melancholic piano background music) mirrors Ada’s emotional turmoil caused by the loss of her piano [13:40-14:43]. This function of nature as an extension of the characters’ inner worlds and the isolation of the narrative space of the island are reminiscent of Campion’s most recent film, the neo-Western The Power of the Dog (2021), set on a far-off ranch in Montana. Similarly to The Piano, weather, landscape, and seasonal changes align with the characters’ states of mind and echo the narrative in an almost Romantic way. Yet, it is also this Romanticism which problematizes the Māoris’ status in The Piano: even if they are often portrayed as having the moral upper hand, their general relegation to the background and their close association with nature make them appear as if they were a mere décor to the storyworld.
More strikingly, Campion adds another dimension to the island as a narrative space in constructing it as an ahistorical, closed are(n)a whose inhabitants are trapped like puppets in a puppet show. As such, some mini-tales (or embedded narratives) that Campion adds inside her main story, supposedly for comic reasons, seem to echo the main story (Ada’s journey) and could be regarded as portents for the future, as the audience reinterpret them at the end of the film. For instance, when Flora seemingly makes up a story about her father and her mother to Aunt Morag [17:31-18:46], the allusion to a “great storm” that tragically ended her mother’s marriage may prefigure the actual raging storm towards the end of the film, when Ada’s finger is chopped off by Stewart in a fit of rage [1:33:04-1:34:00]. The screen shows a cartoon-like scene while Flora tells the story, adding to the fictionality of the embedded narrative and reinforcing the impression of a life-size puppet show. Likewise, a performance based on the story of Bluebeard killing his wives [55:42-56-54] appears retrospectively as yet another instance of bleak foreshadowing. To elude this tragic fate, Ada and Flora need to escape the island and the beach here symbolises a liminal space set between two opposite, enclosed worlds – Ada’s and Flora’s old and new worlds. The very first scene of the film which shows them arriving on the beach with the piano and entering the space of the island is mirrored by the scene of departure, where they need to cross the beach in order to break free.
Thanks to its network of echoes, The Piano appears as a sophisticated, well-structured film, in which both the narrative and the camera embrace circularity. Remarkably enough, critics also seem to have been going around circles for decades since the film’s release, some of them praising it as an emancipating, feminist work of art while others pinpointed its inaccuracy, accusing Campion of recreating a form of neo-colonialism. All in all, a multilayered analysis remains paramount in order to understand and reinterrogate the film and its implications.
Commented extracts: taking a long hard look in the mirror
Throughout the entire film, the motif of the mirror is a cinematographic trope that enables Campion to interweave several of her narrative elements: the female gaze, mirroring effects between characters and nature, and the defamiliarizing encounter between the self and the Other. The following two mirror scenes are particularly telling examples:
In the first scene, the camera focuses on Flora through a close-up and tracking shot, while Ada’s reflection in the mirror remains out of focus. Mother and daughter are separated by the wooden frame of the mirror which creates a complex composition on the screen and brings forth an elaborated web of glances, as the spectator looks at Flora while having access to her own field of vision, through the mirror. Flora’s sceptical facial expression invites the viewer to scrutinise Ada who, akin to a dummy, wears her wedding clothes as if they were a disguise. The scene as a whole thus captures a ritual, performative moment, during which Ada is faced with the role that is being imposed on her through her own reflection in the mirror. Ada therefore seems trapped in a fixed marital image and the frame of the mirror echoes the constraints of society.
Contrastingly, in a later mirror scene this vertical composition is replaced by a canted angle shot in which Ada, lying in bed, indulges in self-contemplation. Ada’s mesmerised state in front of her own image may be reminiscent of Jacques Lacan’s theory of the gaze. To him, gazing into a mirror constitutes a crucial step in the child’s construction as a subject. Thus becoming aware of their subjecthood, children both enjoy their sense of entity while also discovering that they are subjected to society’s gaze, through a triangular relationship between gazer, object of the gaze and a possible third party (Lacan, 1973, 70). Ada’s experience of her reflection stands in stark contrast with the former scene and suggests a form of progression, which is reinforced by the sense of movement conveyed by the tilted camera. This ties in with the fact that Ada just turned her back on her daughter, which entails an inversion of roles between mother and daughter, inasmuch as by rediscovering herself through the hand mirror Ada somehow goes back to a primary state of infancy. She thus accepts herself as a constituted human subjectivity and liberates herself from the position of the object of male dominance through the marital institution.
Accordingly, Campion’s aesthetics of circularity paradoxically enables the audience to perceive a progression in Ada’s life despite the dense network of echoes and symbolic re-enactments that they bring about. Though still trapped on the island and in her condition as a woman, Ada achieves a form of liberty which may anticipate her departure.
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CAMPION, Jane. 1993. The Piano. Nouvelle-Zélande : CiBy 2000 & Jan Chapman Productions.
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—. 1996.The Portrait of a Lady. États-Unis : Gramercy Pictures.
—. 1998. Holy Smoke!. États-Unis : Miramax Films.
—. 2009. Bright Star. Royaume-Uni : Warner Bros. Entertainment UK.
—. 2021. The Power of the Dog. Australie & Nouvelle-Zélande : Transmission Films.
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Pour citer cette ressource :
Annalena Geisler, Arthur Dussart, "There and back: Circularity in Jane Campion’s «The Piano» (1993)", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), mai 2023. Consulté le 03/12/2023. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/arts/cinema/circularity-in-jane-campion-s-the-piano-1993