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The Piano. (Reel Life).

There is a moment in "The Piano" when the crazed husband takes an ax and chops off his wife's finger. This disturbing scene culminates Jane Campion's sadomasochistic screenplay, which has been condemned by some as harmful to women and welcomed by others as an important feminist work.

Campion's directorial imagination is profoundly influenced by her training as a cultural anthropologist and particularly by the work of Claude Levi-Strauss, the French anthropologist who divined the deep universal structure of myths by an arcane process of decoding the binary oppositions of their concepts. An example is the great essay in which he reinterpreted the Oedipus myths as an attempt to understand the mystery of human conception.

In the film, Campion inverts the process of myth interpretation; she is anthropologist as expounder of myth and the creator of allegorical figures, not ethnographic case histories.

"The Piano" transcends her two earlier films, "Sweetie" and "Angel at My Table," which were ethnographic studies of certifiably disturbed women. The heroine of "The Piano" is mysteriously different; she is mute, but her silence is willed, rather than a symptom of conventional madness.

"The Piano" has a deep structure of binary opposition, but Campion's myth overflows with passion as it employs Freudian erotics and archetypal symbols to explore a woman's imprisonment and freedom. Set in the 19th century the film is an instant classic that joins with other Gothic tales that haunt our memory.

The movie opens in shadows with what seem to be heavy indistinct bars: perhaps an abstract expressionist painting. We gradually realize that we are seeing a woman signify her own state of imprisonment; the bars are her fingers held in front of her eyes. That consolidation--individual perspective transformed into artistic vision--is the hallmark of Campion's achievement in "The Piano."

Ada McGrath's voice-over establishes the premise of the plot: As a young girl, she vowed never to speak and with a will of iron has persevered. What we hear, she tells us, is the self-imprisoned voice that sounds inside her mind. We learn that Ada (Holly Hunter) has been given in an arranged marriage to a man she has never met, and she and her illegitimate daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) are being sent to him in New Zealand. Mother and daughter dressed in black are carried to the antipodal beach on the shoulders of sailors. They are small and fragile, compared with the men, and dwarfed, like all the human figures, against the churning surf.

The camera pans the beach and finds in all its real and symbolic weight Ada's prized possession, her crated piano. The artifacts of Victorian civilization stranded on the beach, and their owners dressed in elaborate layers of clothing, seem ominously out of place.

Ada's future husband, Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill), and her future lover, George Baines (Harvey Keitel), arrive at the beach to bring the women inland. Stewart responds negatively to Ada's "strangeness," complaining to Baines that the undersized Ada is stunted. He compounds the sin of this instant reaction when, with the certain judgment of a man confident of his reasonableness and virtue, he refuses to take Ada's unwieldy piano home.

Imprisoned in her muteness, Ada's piano is the sole source of her freedom. Campion's symbolism, like Freud's, connects the sacred and the profane. Playing the piano is Ada's sacred passion, but playing the piano also has a sexual meaning that comes straight out of the Freudian text as a symbol of autoeroticism. The man who is to be Ada's husband is oblivious; he abandons the icon on the beach.

Apparently unable to consummate his marriage, the husband leaves on a trip and Ada turns to Baines in the hope that he will fetch her piano. Baines is a quintessential Levi-Straussian figure: a white man gone native with tattoos on his face, a bridge between British and Maori. Without education, manners, or restraint, he is the antithesis of Ada and, in structured mythology, the perfect catalyst for her transformation.

Intrigued by Ada, Baines devises a scheme. Ada's husband is desperate to buy property and fence it in. In this, Stewart exemplifies the colonizing white man's preoccupation with individual ownership of land, whereas the supposedly savage Maoris regard their lands as a sacred communal resource. The half-native Baines takes advantage of Stewart's greed for ownership and trades 80 acres of his own land for the piano. The husband insists that Ada give Baines piano lessons.

Baines has no interest in piano lessons. But he talks Ada, who finds him repulsive, into an exchange. She will earn her piano back, key by key, if she will tolerate his indecent sexual advances while she plays. Forced to submit in order to regain the piano her husband sold without her consent, Ada is doubly wronged by men. But her need for the piano outweighs her rage. She is imprisoned, and Baines begins to use her in a one-sided relationship located somewhere between rape and forced prostitution.

Despite the awful crudeness and the indignity of it all, we begin to sense Ada's willingness as Baines ups the stakes, more keys in exchange for more sexual favors.

For some feminists this kind of interchange is the most hated reenactment in the repertoire of sexual narratives. It reinforces the male fantasy that what a woman wants and finds exciting is domination by a primitive man. Campion certainly does play out this masochistic version of female sexuality to demonstrate imprisonment and freedom. In repeatedly portraying Ada stepping into the muck of the New Zealand landscape with delicate shoes and her skirts dragging in filth, Champion symbolizes the plight and rescue of her heroine, at once a spirit being and a sexually repressed European woman. Baines as the "repulsive" European gone native reconciles her to the new world and liberates the sexual passion that he recognizes in her piano playing. When he breaks into Ada's sublimated autoeroticism, they both are imprisoned by their passion for each other. Flora, shut out of her exclusive place in her mother's heart, spies on Ada. Transformed by envious rage, she turns into the evil spirit and betrays Ada to Stewart.

The righteous Stewart, more brutal than any primitive Maori, exacts his revenge in the scene that is so horrific and so essential to the narrative. The archetypes of the unconscious resonate with fantasies of ritual mutilation. Ada cut off from the flesh of her passion. Symbolically the punishment fits the sexual crime. Castration of women by clitoridectomy was once prescribed by Western physicians as a treatment for excessive masturbation and as a religious ritual continues to this day for millions of African women. Campion's scene, feminist or not, speaks eloquently of patriarchy's brutal denial of female passion in all its liberating possibilities.

Flora, a witness to the price of her act of betrayal, screams in horror. Silently Ada staggers a few steps into a puddle and with her hoop skirts billowing around her collapses in the mud.

Stewart, unable to be a man with his strong wife, is now sexually aroused by her victimized condition. But when Ada's eyes open, Stewart is halted as he hears the voice in her mind. He must let her leave with Baines.

Their belongings, including the piano, are placed in a large Maori canoe, and, in another spectacular beach scene, Ada, Flora, and Baines set off. Once at sea, Ada unexpectedly tells Baines through Flora to throw the piano overboard. He reluctantly complies and when the piano begins to sink like an anchor, its attached line pulls Ada into the sea. The piano that liberated her passion is now to be the cause of her final imprisonment. This is an appropriate tragic ending of the melodrama--or so Campion wants us to think, as she prolongs the scene in slow motion. But Ada suddenly resists, regains the surface, and is saved. Her inner voice tells us that it was not she who chose to live but the imprisoning iron will of another self. Here, for the first time, Campion's narrative seems to falter, and the film ends with ambiguity

We find Baines, Ada, and Flora in a new town where Ada, fitted with a metal finger, gives piano lessons and is learning to speak. Baines and Flora are there to love her, but Ada dreams of still being attached to the piano in the deep sea. This is a return to the central theme: In escaping to freedom, Ada found her voice but lost her finger, her piano, and her passion. Caught, finally in the ordinariness of a life without art, she dreams of the imprisoning silence of death.

DR. ALAN A. STONE is the Touroff-Glueck Professor of Law and Psychiatry in the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Medicine, Harvard University

Next month, he reviews "Hamlet." To respond to this column, e-mail Dr. Stone at
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Author:Stone, Alan A.
Publication:Clinical Psychiatry News
Date:Mar 1, 2002
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