“You know I am thinking of the piano. She does not play the Piano as we do Nessie… No, she’s a strange creature and her playing is strange, like a mood that passes into you… To have a sound creep inside you is not at all pleasant” -Aunt Morag
Within the Gothic trope power structures and sexuality are so intertwined that is almost impossible to separate the two (Hendershot, 1998, pg. 97). For this reason the relationships in The Piano are interesting for analysis as Campion has attempted to challenge this within the movie. There is no explanation offered as to why Ada stopped speaking at the age of 6. But her muteness perhaps represents all women during that time; lacking discursive power within broader society. It was inconceivable during that era for women to be autonomous agentic beings; instead they were expected to be docile, domestic mothers producing and rearing children for their husbands. In the opening scene we see the world through Ada’s eyes, she is looking through her fingers, held up to her face like bars in a prison. This mute personal prison is Ada’s private way of protesting against oppressive patriarchy. Ada appears to be a passive spectator rather than a participant in the real world, highlighting her isolation in Scotland and later New Zealand. Ada’s power in her muteness is paradoxical in regards to the Gothic trope as Moers suggests that the “Female Gothic as the mode par excellence that female writers have employed to give voice to women’s deep-rooted fears about their own powerlessness and imprisonment within patriarchy” (Moers cited in Brabon and Genz, 2009, pg. 5, my own emphasis added). The rejection of the paternal language and the use of other means, including the piano as a substitute suggest that Ada’s will is much stronger than was to be expected of a woman of that time. Flora confirms her mother’s understanding of her power in silence when she tells the other women “Mother says that most people speak rubbish and it’s not worth it to listen”, shocking the other women in the room who are (consciously or unconsciously) participating subordinately within the oppressive system. This essay will be exploring a number of different ways in which Ada expresses what escapes the bounds of conventional language through the body; including the impacts of colonialism and patriarchy on men within the system; the relationship between mother and daughter; and finishing with a brief discussion about the affair between Ada and Baines.
The body as a form of language is extremely prevalent throughout the film, not just through Ada but an analysis of all the main characters show interesting undercurrents of meaning. There are several clues to suggest that Stewart is very much like Ada’s father in terms of epitomising privilege by both being heterosexual, white, colonial men. Stewart doesn’t appear to be inherently evil, rather he is the perfect product of his time. We know her father upholds similar values in regards to women as property as is made evident by the sale of his own daughter (and grand-daughter) to a man neither had met on the other side of the world. It is due to Stewart’s conviction to uphold the social order that makes him obsessed with property and incapable of seeing his wife as anything other than another object to be owned. Hendershot suggests that due to his capitalist, patriarchal view of the world “Stewart can have relations only with an aestheticised Ada whom he can control through representation” (Hendershot, 1998, pg. 98). Ada is quick to pick up on the controlling nature of her ignorant husband as seen in their first interaction with one another. During this first encounter Ada uses her body, her daughter and her note-writing, to communicate to Stewart the importance of the piano to her. When Stewart, Baines and the Maoris first discover Ada and her daughter on the beach Stewart looks visibly disappointed in his mail-order bride, as we watch him survey Ada and Flora’s belongings strewn across the beach. This scene sets the tone for the future relationship between Ada and Stewart. It is clear Stewart views everything on the beach as his new acquired property including Ada herself; there is no distinction made between the way Stewart observes her or her (now his) possessions. Prior to arriving at the beach Stewart makes a pitstop in the jungle to adjust his hair using an image of Ada as a mirror, this is an indication of what Stewart is expecting when he meets his new wife: ultimately when he looks at her he is expecting to see himself (re: representation discussed by Hendershot). Through the use of her body we see that Ada is clearly made uncomfortable by her new husband, she is rigid, stiff and timid. Stewart’s blatant ignorance towards both her and her piano results in an irreversible impact on their relationship. Stewart uncompromisingly declares the piano too heavy to be transported and decides it’s best to leave it on the beach. Ada attempts to communicate in a language which her husband understands, in the form of a note delivered via her daughter Flora, who acts as a barrier between Ada and Stewart. Bainbridge suggests that this is a tactical move as “Ada is situated outside the symbolic realm of language and discourse, her daughter Flora clearly is not” (Bainbridge, 2008, pg. 170). Stewart reasserts his patriarchal power by ignoring his wife’s insistent request and it’s this exact power, and lack of understanding of his privilege which ultimately results in the Ada’s rejection of her husband Stewart.
The connection between mother and daughter is vital to the diegetic image and without Flora as moderator between her mother and the outside world Ada’s language would have been conveyed to the audience with meaning and/or emotion. When we hear the childlike ‘inner voice’ of Ada at both the beginning and end of the film we are really hearing Flora’s voice. Indicating that Flora acts as her mother’s mouthpiece: she is her mother’s physical voice. Flora is both an extension of her mother yet also engages in her own subjectivity, which transforms over the space of the film. The transformation occurs when Ada’s desire for her piano, for herself to be completely whole, threatens the bond between mother and daughter; when Flora feels herself losing her mother’s monopolised love. There is a visual and embodied mimesis between mother and daughter, seen through costuming, mannerisms, actions and ‘motherliness’ (scenes where it appears the mother/daughter roles have been reversed). We see the mimesis in action during the scene in which Ada and Flora approach Baines to ask him to assist in retrieving the piano from the beach. Their costumes and mannerisms are completely in sync and it is clear the bond between mother and daughter goes beyond an act of ventriloquism. This mimesis is extended to the next scene after which Baines has changed his mind about taking the pair back to the piano on the beach. The joy that Ada experiences once reunited with the piano is visibly shared with her daughter and it is the first time in the film we see both of them truly happy. Baines was the only person to witness this joyful moment for the mother and daughter and is crucial to understanding the affair between Baines and Ada.
As Baines bore witness to the joyous display on the beach when the girls were reunited with their piano, he saw the intensity to which Ada and Flora expressed their delight. He understood through their expressions the importance of the piano, and the desire Ada possessed for it. Baines eventually trades his property for pleasure, when he traded the land for the piano, he understood the desire Ada has for her piano. Through Lacanian subjectivity, Baines discovered he desired the piano as much as she: “my desire is the desire of the other” (Bihlmeyer, 2003, pg. 23). While their affair began from an abuse of power on behalf of Baines, there are a number of ways in which the actions of Ada could be interpreted. Bainbridge suggests that the way Ada uses her body in her exchanges, not just with Baines but also with her husband, is in relation to her “creating an economy of her own which centres on the piano” (Bainbridge, 2008, pg. 158). The bargain struck up between Baines and Ada is the first interaction in which Ada is given a chance to participate in capitalism, within her own economy. Baines acknowledges the autonomy of her body (to a point) and allows a deal to be made between the two in which she will play for him in exchange for the eventual return of her piano. The couple eventually appear to have a ‘mutual love’ for one another however it is unclear whether the love that Ada feels for Baines is genuine or whether Ada is just making the most of a bad situation, making a choice between the lesser of two evils (Baines & Stewart). Stoltenberg argues “In a patriarchal system like the western one, dominance, subordination, force and violence must be made to feel like love and sex in order to produce gendered inequality” (cited in DuPuis, 1996, pg. 71). Although it was a different time, it is hard to comprehend that an intelligent woman would eventually fall in love with her manipulative rapist without some level of coercion being exercised.
There were a number of ways our Gothic Heroine used her body to express herself, as well as the other characters and the relationships between them. It appears by the end of the film that Ada has broken free from her personal prison, thanks to the ‘love’ between her and Baines, this (and the rest of the movie), however, are always open to new interpretations and readings.
Bainbridge, C, 2007, ‘Riddles of the Feminine’ in Bainbridge (ed), A Feminine Cinematics, Palgrave MacMillan, Hampshire, pp. pp. 155-183
Bihlmeyer, J, 2003, ‘Jane Campion’s The Piano The Female Gaze, the Speculum and the Chora within the H(y)st(e)rical Film’, Essays in Philosophy, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 1-26
Brabon, B & Genz, S, 2007, ‘Introduction: Postfeminist Gothic’, in Brabon & Genz (eds), Postfeminist Gothic. Critical Interventions in Contemporary Culture, Palgrave MacMillan, Hampshire, pp. 1-15
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Hendershot, C, 1998, ‘(Re)Visioning the Gothic: Jane Campions The Piano, Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2, pp. 97-108
The Piano , Jan Chapman Productions
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