Jane Campion’s The Piano

Harriet Margolis, (ed.),
Jane Campion’s The Piano.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
ISBN 0 521 59721 8 (paper)
204 pp.

(Review copy supplied by Cambridge University Press)

Uploaded 1 November 2000
In The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera states: “There is a fundamental difference between the ways philosophers and novelists think. People talk about Chekhov’s philosophy, or Kafka’s or Musil’s, and so on. But just try to draw a coherent philosophy out of their writing!” Something similar might be said for Jane Campion’s film-making.

The capacity of Campion’s The Piano in particular to slide between such distinctions as arthouse/mainstream, post/colonial, inter/nationalist, feminist/masculinist, semiotic/symbolic has made it a site of contention since its release in 1993. This apparent defiance of categories also makes it a great text for film and cultural studies students.

Jane Campion’s The Piano, edited by Harriet Margolis for the Cambridge Film Handbooks series, presents a selection of essays by international scholars, most of whom are Aotearoa New Zealand-based. In keeping with what the series describes as its “prismatic” approach to film analysis, the collection offers a range of readings of The Piano, from feminist, psychoanalytic, postcolonial and Indigenous perspectives, including discussions of its music and reception. It also includes a filmography for Campion, reviews of The Piano and a select bibliography. Margolis’s introductory essay provides an excellent overview of the tensions that surround and inform the film as well as locating it effectively in terms of Campion’s oeuvre and the “antipodean” film industry.

Of all the disjunctures evoked by The Piano, this volume finds issues of race and national identity the most unsettling. As one reviewer says in summing up the inter/nationalist ambiguities of the film’s ownership: “It is, after all, a New Zealand film. Well, to be more accurate it’s a French-financed, Australian production but as it’s written and directed by a New Zealander with a New Zealand lead actor and set in New Zealand – that’s near enough.”

For Margolis, the film capitalises effectively on the “picture postcard” element that often makes Aotearoa New Zealand films marketable and has merit in merely raising questions about colonisation. Along with some of the other contributors, she is less than comfortable with its attempts to evade the merging of exotic indigene with exotic landscape. Essays by Ann Hardy and Leonie Pihama find that in spite of Campion’s attempts to address colonialist themes and to ensure active Maori participation in making The Piano, the film does not evade the “porters and funny men” images it sets out to, or, more insidiously, organisation around traditional black/white – “ebony and ivory” – oppositions.

Pihama’s essay is uncompromising about the po-co pretensions of the film and the ways in which it perpetuates a colonial impetus, particularly through its appropriation of Maori images. A key instance of this she identifies is Baines’s wearing of a partial moko. While this functions as a means of setting his character in opposition to that of Stewart, as the “Tarzan of The Piano “, this is in fact a misappropriation as the moko is a form of Maori identification that represents genealogical links.

Ann Hardy’s “The Last Patriarch” suggests that while the film may fall short in its articulation of race issues, it does a much better job deconstructing sexual difference. The collection as a whole seems far more comfortable with this issue – perhaps a reflection of the groundwork that already exists in this area. Some of the sexuality and gender issues that receive coverage in this volume include the gaze and the body, “feminine” genres such as melodrama, romance, and fairy tales; and psycho-sexual elements such as pre-Oedipal identifications and the mother-daughter relationships.

Claudia Gorbman’s essay, “Music in The Piano “, makes an interesting contribution to the discussion of sexuality in the film through investigating representations of female musicians in film history and the radicalness of Ada as a female character who produces music. She also discusses the impact of Holly Hunter’s performance of the music in the film in terms of the sense of “authenticity” and “physical embodiment” it creates.

Stephen Crofts’ “Foreign Tunes?” analyses the reception of The Piano in reference to three modes of address: the aesthetic, the female Oedipus-oriented, and the colonialist. Discussing reviews from four countries, he finds that the female Oedipus-oriented features most significantly. While the “subjectivities addressed by The Piano are more female than male, and more feminist than masculinist”, he argues that the film “invites male viewing on the basis of an early common ground with female experience”. As might be expected, this essay has a Kristevan framework, but for those who find Kristevan analysis less than compelling, Crofts’s discussion of The Piano ‘s marketing as a crossover film is certainly worth a look.

John Izod’s largely Jungian interpretation of female identity in The Piano was for me the most unconvincing. As a reader educated in postmodernism 101, no doubt I have a bias toward “fragmentary” and decentred notions of identity. However, this essay’s drive towards unifying identity tends towards a description of the characters in the film as “real people” undergoing psychological development. Izod’s acceptance of Jungian male/female, animus/anima binaries also seems to open him to taking assertions such as “the deep relationship that many women have to nature” seriously.

Jane Campion’s The Piano offers a polished and well-chosen collection of essays examining the major issues that emerge from the film. It would be of value to anyone interested in Campion’s work and particularly useful as a reference for undergraduate work.

Eleanor Hogan

About the Author

Eleanor Hogan

About the Author

Eleanor Hogan

Eleanor Hogan is a freelance reviewer. She has a PhD in English from the University of Melbourne.View all posts by Eleanor Hogan →