Efficient, nasty action scenes can't overcome mostly bland characterizations and a half-baked story.
Jane Campion's wonderous film "The Piano" arrived at this year's Cannes Film Festival so already wreathed in glory that another director, Abel Ferrara, groused: "They might as well have met her at the airport and given her the prize, and let it go at that."
In the end, "The Piano" shared the Palme d'Or with "Farewell My Concubine," and now seems well-positioned to pick up some Academy Award nominations, especially for actors Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel.
Having seen it again just last week, at the Hawaii Film Festival, I am reminded what an odd, strange film it really is. It tells the story of a 19th century Scottish woman named Ada, who stops talking at the age of 6 ("Nobody, not even I myself, knows why"), and arrives with her young daughter on a godforsaken coast of New Zealand to be married to a man she has never met. She expresses herself through her piano, and through the daughter, a willful little girl with a careless notion of truth.
The new husband proves distant and impotent, but a scruffy neighbor, a British whaler who lives with a Maori tribe, is seduced by the music of her piano. He buys it from the husband, and then starts a campaign to win the bride's love - by trading her one piano key for each favor. Removing her blouse is worth two keys. The height of eroticism
There is a moment in the movie that is among the most erotic I have ever seen. The whaler, played by Harvey Keitel, has paid her a key to lift her skirt up above her knees while she plays. Of course, as a proper Victorian lady, the skirt is only the first of her countless layers of clothing. But as she plays and he peers under the piano, he sees a tiny patch of her skin revealed through a tear in her stocking. And he touches that little pink oversight with trembling reverence.
"That was one of the challenges," Jane Campion told me one afternoon during the Cannes festival. "I was trying to re-examine what erotic is. To see if you can create it in a half-centimeter square flesh. Of course, what amazed me when we were researching the costumes was something I hadn't really clicked on: Victorian women wore crotchless underwear, so that under these very elaborate and formidable gowns, their bottoms were completely bare. And the men knew that!"
One of the most amusing moments in the film comes when a formidable old local woman has to relieve herself in the woods, while her companions hold blankets to shield the view. Taking off a dozen layers of underclothing under the circumstances would not have been practical.
"Otherwise, she'd be at a loss, wouldn't she?" Campion smiled. "I'm thinking that the men must all have known that. I'm sure everyone was permanently eroticized by the idea and no wonder: just a little ankle to suggest so much more. These days, with pantyhose and panties, it's certainly not the same idea." A Victorian twist
If this spicy talk gives you the idea "The Piano" (opening Friday in Chicago at the Fine Arts) is a film about sex, you would be right, and wrong. The movie is powerfully erotic, but in a repressed, twisted, Victorian way. The heroine's muteness only adds to the mystery. She does not talk (except sometimes in a voiceover, which she says is "not my own voice, but the voice of my mind"). But she has a ferocious will, and scribbles notes on a pad she carries always ("That is my piano! MINE!"). And she uses sign language with her daughter, who speaks for her, and is also capable of making up the most extraordinary stories on her own.
Jane Campion and I spoke in one of those vast, half-used salons that a Victorian-era grand hotel, like the Carlton in Cannes, has squirreled away in its farther reaches. The sun slanted in through potted palm trees, the furniture was so overstuffed you had to lean forward to be seen, and in a distant corner, Holly Hunter was playing the piano as if unaware that anyone might be listening (which she certainly was not).
Hunter is a very compact, definite, determined woman, able to evoke the very souls of those 19th century heroines who faced down whole continents with starchy little smiles. If there is one thing certain about the approaching Oscars, it is that Hunter will win one of the nominees for best actress.
How did you decide on her? I asked Campion. Hunter, after all, is better known for her Southern characters - for the intense TV producer in "Broadcast News," and the proud, bloodthirsty mother of "The Absolutely True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom."
"Well, at first, it wasn't an obvious choice," Campion said. "I met a lot of women I think could have done interesting things, but Holly has a kind of interior world. Actually, not a big interior world, not like you'd say was a universe, but a very definite one. In this role, she has to communicate with her eyes, her empathy and her vulnerability. And Ada, the character, can be very chilly."
Part of the mystery, I said, is wondering, "What is she thinking now?"
"And that was hard for both of us because we're both really big, expressive types. Holly being mysterious is almost unimaginable. But we sorted it out, and as we were watching rushes, we'd keep talking, and we just noticed that it didn't work for Ada to move her face around a lot, like some deaf people do when they sign.
"It worked for her to have a certain restraint all the time, and a pride, and even when she's savaged and her finger is cut off, even then the most important thing to do is to keep that sense of herself, that pride and that sort of pathos in her holding herself together."
Ada's husband, played by Sam Neill, is a distant, pathetic man who doesn't understand the first thing about women or about himself. When he discovers that Ada is having an affair with the neighbor, his first instinct is not to rush in upon them in rage.
Instead, he fits his eye first to one chink in the wall and then to another, finally ending up beneath the house, listening to them. First, he debases himself in this way, and only later does he fly out in rage. A full-blown romance
The Keitel character seems at first sight untamed (he has decorated his face with Maori tattoos), but is revealed as sensitive, even romantic. It is one of the film's surprises that his bargain with Ada, at first so mercenary, a key for a peek, turns in the end to full-blown romance.
"He's sort of vaguely part of the colonials, but not really," Campion said. "A whaler who has settled ashore, and is comfortable with the settlers, but outside them. He's not a Maori, either. The face decoration is a half-hearted thing; he doesn't have the full tattoo that they have. Perhaps the pursuit of this woman is the only thing that he's ever really given his hundred percent to."
When Ada plays the piano for him, I said, the music releases his better nature. It expresses beauty and truth, and that's why he finally can't go through with his bargain, can't prostitute her for her piano.
"I think the bargain outweighs its usefulness for him," Campion said. Extraordinary performance
And then there is that extraordinary little girl, Flora, played by Anna Paquin, who probably has more dialogue in the film than any of the adult characters, and who is instrumental in bringing about the resolution of the plot.
In some notes she wrote for the film, Campion recalled the day she saw Paquin's audition tape: "There was this tiny little girl, probably the smallest of all I'd seen - and extremely shy. I almost turned it off.
"I thought this girl was never going to be able to cope with this huge speech. I just about fell off my chair when she began. She just looked into the camera and never blinked. She told this long, extremely impassioned story of how Ada lost her voice and you totally believed her."
When you were writing the screenplay, how did you hit upon the notion that the central character would never speak? And why did her muteness seem to add to the story?
"You'd have to go back to the first intention I really had, which was to find a story that would work for me in talking about love. Since I've never really had an easy time with narrative, I was looking for a story which would give me some devices that I could use. I thought of the film working in a kind of gothic, romantic genre - which my spirit just loves.
"And when you're trying to tell a romantic gothic story, you try to put situations in their most extreme form. So I thought, what if she doesn't speak? She doesn't speak and so the piano is going to be so important to her. She must have it in order to live. That would mean she'd do a lot more - she'd do anything to get it back. Whereas if she could speak and say, 'That dirty old man over there,' the whole story would be over."
So much of what she feels is so much better for not having to be said.
"That was the next challenge. Holly manages to capture Ada's aloofness with no sense of the handicapped person. It's the rest of the world that's handicapped by speaking."
"The Piano" is Jane Campion's third feature, after her debut at Cannes 10 years ago with a program of shorts that announced her as a major new voice. Then came "Sweetie," the story of a strong-willed, mentally disturbed young girl who disrupts her family.
And the extraordinary three-part "An Angel at My Table," based on the autobiography of New Zealand writer Janet Frame, who survived long years of wrongful hospitalization for schizophrenia and emerged as her homeland's most important modern writer. All three films are about women who have to find difficult ways of expressing themselves to people who don't want to listen to them.
"Yes," Campion said. "They have powerful spirits but no clear path of expression. The story tries to find them a way of discovering one."