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One Hour Mark: The Piano

This is a curious image from 1:00:00 into Jane Campion’s masterpiece The Piano (1993). It’s from a performance within the film – a Bluebeard shadow play that’s just been interrupted by several angry Maoris. The main characters are all in the audience, but for the time being all of the film’s attention is devoted to the chaos onstage. And because this is such an intelligent, well-made movie, even a seemingly insignificant frame like this can speak volumes about the film’s positions and ideas. In its context and composition, I’m seeing a lot being said visually here about race and gender roles in New Zealand.

First, and most obviously: Bluebeard. The plot of the shadow play is a pretty clear parallel the film overall, which contains many outdoor scenes saturated with blue; the wealthy colonist Alistair (Sam Neill) is a stand-in for Bluebeard, while his mute wife Ada (Holly Hunter) is “the sweetest and youngest of all [his] wives.” This is overtly a film about gender relations, power play, and self-expression, with this amateurish performance as a theatrical oversimplification of the rest of the plot. So we also have a reality/fiction divide here, especially since Alistair isn’t so melodramatically grotesque and evil.

Then, continuing along these lines, there’s the reaction of the Maori tribesmen, who perceive the performance as reality. The film’s characters intrude on its own sly self-reference, ruffling up the show and destroying the illusion. Look at the heavy paint on the actors’ faces, and compare it to the ritual self-marking of the Maoris (or “Tā moko”). This frame is a great illustration of gender and race dynamically intersecting. These Maoris don’t appreciate the artificiality of the British traditions imposed upon them, and are reacting violently. But the violence isn’t against the British colonists; it’s against the fictional villain Bluebeard, and the intent is to rescue an imperiled woman. So we simultaneously have a colonist/native culture clash and an exhibition of heroic masculinity.

The charging Maori cries out to Bluebeard as he approaches the stage, and how this cry is rendered in subtitles makes this reading even more explicit: “Coward – bite on my club! … Let’s see how this feels up your arse!” The Maori is metaphorically threatening to rape Bluebeard in the mouth and ass. It’s the collision of highly stylized western storytelling with Maori warrior tradition, and when the shadow play illusion is broken up, it has a “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” effect. As you can see, the actor playing Bluebeard is exposed in his elaborate, ridiculous costume with an expression of terror on his face. He’s vulnerable, he’s immobile – anything but the in-control patriarch he was a moment before. Bluebeard has been totally emasculated by the Maori warrior.

This conflict between masculinities plays out in how the image is put together: the British actors, all rendered impotent, stand and stare at the Maori, who’s the focal point despite being blurry and in motion. He is the active member of this tableau. Yet this whole scene is ironic when you consider the fate of the Maoris as a people. (I’m reminded of a movie I saw last year called Utu, which was entirely about Maori attempts to fight British oppression.) I don’t know to what extent Campion intended The Piano as a broader allegory for New Zealand’s colonial history, but it’s easy to read some complex commentary on nationality, sexuality, and gender. In the end, Ada leaves the possessive Alistair for happiness with George Baines (Harvey Keitel) – and George, an outcast amongst the colonists, has the Tā moko. So I don’t think it’s too extreme to say that the ending might be foreshadowed when the Maori warrior disrupts Bluebeard’s façade of masculine power.

On a broader level, The Piano is a passionate, beautiful, heart-breaking film. I love Campion’s work, having seen her early tale of familial dysfunction Sweetie and her biography of writer Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table. Both ask questions like The Piano‘s: what is a woman’s place in the world? What is her relationship to the men around her? And in both films, as in The Piano, she engages these problems through the lush, potent realm of visual metaphor. As a filmmaker, Jane Campion is a master of exploring female subjectivity.

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