Touch creates its own language. In The Piano (1993), Jane Campion’s gorgeous, Gothic romance, it speaks multiple dialects. Campion gives us access to mute Ada McGrath’s (Holly Hunter) voice when her fingers touch her beloved piano, which has travelled all the way from Scotland to New Zealand with her. Ada’s piano is also an object suffused with her repressed desire, articulated through Michael Nyman’s rapturous compositions. She touches the piano like a lover, with tenderness, recognition, and the thrill of discovery. On the beach, as she and daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) wait for her new husband Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill) to retrieve them, Ada removes some of the piano’s packing material, like she’s unbuttoning a shirt. Campion narrows her focus onto Ada’s fingers entering the dark, intimate space and caressing the keys.

Ada’s yearning is magnified when the piano is left behind on the beach. Campion positions her atop a cliff, looking down at the instrument. Later, at Stewart’s house, Ada looks out the window with the same longing. George Baines (Harvey Keitel), an Englishman turned ‘native,’ bargains with Stewart for the piano, exchanging it for land. He wants to get close to Ada, and realises early that the piano will allow him to do so.

The Piano turns on the complexity of meanings associated with touch – desire, control, liberation, risk, power, pleasure, and violence. Ada, Baines, and Stewart each engage with touch in different ways. In particular, the economy of touch between Ada and Baines explores how sexual desire between women and men is a bargain in which power relations are repeatedly renegotiated over shifting ground. It is a concern that Campion has returned to throughout her career, most notably in the films Holy Smoke! (1999) and In the Cut (2003).

Touch is also vital to The Piano’s physical textures and narrative currents. Through close ups and lyrical camera movements, Campion creates a sensory, sensual world. At times the camera sits so close to skin it appears to stroke it. An instance of this erotic dynamic unfolds early in the film, after one of Baines’ first piano ‘lessons’. Campion shows Baines lying on his bed gazing with yearning at the piano after Ada has gone. He rises, and standing before the instrument, undresses. Baines wipes the piano with his undershirt then touches it with his hand, placing his skin where Ada’s has been before it. At this point, as Sue Gillett writes, Baines wants to be the piano, “to be the receiver of such rapturous touching, to be played upon, to have such haunting music evoked in and through his own body.”1

Campion turns the intimacy of touch into a spectacle. When Baines first touches Ada, the camera tightens its lens on the back of her head as she plays. His hand fills the frame as it lands on her neck and he tries to kiss her. The shot, with this tension between Baines’ rough, enveloping hand and Ada’s delicate neck, startles because of its contradictions. It is disquieting, and Ada jumps. But in Campion’s framing and pacing, there is also a bold, sexual frisson, repeated during another lesson, when Baines touches Ada’s skin through a small hole in her black wool stockings. Campion fills the screen with Baines’ finger on this tiny patch of skin and then shifts to Ada’s point of view, as she falters over the notes.

What does Ada want? Does Ada have any agency in this agreement? Is she appalled or aroused? These questions have preoccupied commentators since The Piano’s release, many whom see Baines explicitly as a rapist, and Ada’s acquiescence to the “bargain” (alongside the film’s happy, conjugal ending) as a betrayal of feminist resistance. But Campion positions Ada and Baines’ relationship, and its increasingly erotic terrain, as a rejection of convention from the very start. Scenes in which we see Stewart taking tea with Aunt Morag (Kerry Walker) are insipid and comical in comparison to the serious intensity of events unfolding at Baines’ cottage. Neither Ada nor Baines wants what might be described as a ‘normal’ relationship. He has a wife in England; she a husband in whom she has no interest. Their desire for each other is patently disruptive, a risk, and they are each empowered and disempowered by it.

While Baines is certainly crude in his proposal – that he be allowed to do certain things while Ada plays in order to restore full ownership of the piano to her – he eventually reveals himself to be something more. Desire renders him both active and passive. As their sexual exchanges escalate, Baines’ power is destabilised by what Campion chooses to show and not show us taking place between them. When Baines displays his naked body to Ada he emerges from behind his sheer, red curtain as a soft, vulnerable body to be looked at, not as a sexual aggressor. Campion feminises Baines and in doing so reminds us that what he desires above all else is for Ada to desire him. When Ada finally comes to him of her own free will, he falls to his knees, fulfilling her needs first. As Gail Jones explains, Baines “opens Ada’s jacket, but instead of the usual codes of ravishment, dives beneath her hooped skirt to give oral pleasure.”2

The contours of desire in The Piano encompass both selfish and selfless acts, of touching that gives and takes. Ada grows skilled at negotiating her own terms within the bargain. She determines the quantity of keys Baines must give her for every interaction between them. A partner in the negotiation, she is better able to take pleasure in the exchange. Baines has also imparted a vital lesson. Ada learns how to mobilise touch as a bargaining tool. When their affair is discovered and Ada is imprisoned in her house, she uses her tactile knowledge to secure her temporary freedom. Sneaking into Stewart’s room at night and caressing his chest, back, and buttocks, is certainly more than the “eroticized sexual foreplay”3 Reshela DuPuis suggests it is. Ada’s touch is not conferred on Stewart only as an expression of her longing for Baines, but of her unique power. She touches him to get what she wants.

In the end, Baines understands the corrupting nature of touch when that touch is not reciprocated willingly. He returns Ada’s piano to her, deciding, “The arrangement is making you a whore and me wretched.” Baines does not want to abuse or possess Ada, but to know who she is, and more importantly, how she feels. What Ada wants is a greater mystery. But when she actively returns to Baines, without pressure, touching him for her own pleasure as well as his, we come closer to knowing what this is.

 

The Piano (1993 New Zealand, Australia, France 116min)

Prod Co: Jan Chapman Production, CiBy 2000 Prod: Jan Chapman Dir: Jane Campion Scr: Jane Campion Phot: Stuart Dryburgh Ed: Veronika Jenet Art Dir: Gregory P. Keen Prod Des: Andrew McAlpine Cost: Janet Patterson Mus: Michael Nyman

Cast: Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, Anna Paquin, Kerry Walker, Genevieve Lemon

 

Endnotes

  1. Sue Gillett, “Lips and Fingers: Jane Campion’s The Piano,” Screen 36 (Autumn 1995): 278-9. See also Vivian Sobchak’s foundational article on film phenomenology, “What My Fingers Knew: The Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh,” Senses of Cinema 5 (April 2000), http://sensesofcinema.com/2000/conference-special-effects-special-affects/fingers/
  2. Gail Jones, The Piano (Sydney: Currency Press, 2007): p. 52.
  3. Reshela DuPuis, “Romanticizing Colonialism: Power and Pleasure in Jane Campion’s The Piano,The Contemporary Pacific, 8 (Spring 1996): 72.

About The Author

Joanna Di Mattia is a writer and film critic. She has a PhD in Women's Studies from Monash University where her research examined anxiety about masculinity in contemporary American cinema. She contributes to a number of publications and her writing reflects her interest in the aesthetics of desire, sexuality, and the pleasure of looking.