In 'The Piano,' the men are objects and a woman has the fantasy

MOVIES

November 19, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Hmmmm . . . another country heard from.

For close to 80 years, the sexual imagination of the cinema has been almost exclusively male: women were objects, trophies, damsels in distress, whom the hero saved, won and bedded, then usually abandoned as he went back to his buddies, his animals or his guns.

Even in the post-feminist decade, a woman's sexual imagination almost never made it to the screen, at least in undiluted form. Now, with "The Piano," that changes.

This weirdly erotic film comes from no part of the male brain, that I assure you. It's passionate, dense, vivid, but the fantasy it represents appears to be entirely female in origin and nature. The men are the hunks and the sexual domination they enact upon the woman is powerfully felt and even nurtured by her; at the same time, primordial sexual myths seem to be lurking beneath the surface, one of them the taming of a savage, another the tasty abandonment of the unworthy man.

So it's no surprise that the movie also feels connected with 19th century literature by great women writers: the haunted Brontes seem to wander through its jungle glades, maybe there's even a hint of Mary Shelley, but all of it liberated to a more intense and explicit evolution. Wherever we are, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

Actually, we're in New Zealand, late in the last century. A Scottish mail-order bride is being rowed ashore, a woman made of stern stuff. Plain, unbending, determined, proud, she's also self-mutilated. She doesn't talk, for no known reason. She communicates entirely through her feisty daughter, the occasional note and her piano.

Holly Hunter inhabits the role of Ada as if implanted there by one of the Sisters Grimm or by the Widows of Night and Fog. She is utterly determined to cling to her selfhood in a century and a land which has no vocabulary to even conceptualize such concerns. That selfhood is summed up in the piano. She has traveled half the world to a new life lugging the crate with her; she cannot abandon it, even though the somewhat baffled chap who is to be her husband -- Sam Neill -- insists that she leave it on the beach for he has no way to get it inland to his shabby jungle mansion.

Director Jane Campion extracts maximum symbolic resonance out of the incongruity of piano and nature, the sublime and the raw: that instrument, locked in its crate, seems magically out of place against the mounds of sand and the heaving blue ocean, particularly when photographed through a telephoto lens that foreshortens distance and disorients the eye; it's as if we've stumbled onto an unknown work by Henri Rousseau. Clearly there's something more in the crate than a musical instrument; the melodies that will ultimately be played will be sexual.

In the rude and muddy society of colonial New Zealand, dominated by a Victorian dragonness of propriety, the relations between the sexes are completely circumscribed. But when Ada finds a man who'll move her piano to his shack, she knows she's on to something.

Harvey Keitel's Baines seems to have wandered in from the nearest Joseph Conrad novel, a true outcast of the islands, who wears a dappling of aboriginal tattooing on his face as evidence of his penetration by the primitive. And yet he's moved by the piano . . . and its owner. He's the beach and the sea; she's the crated instrument.

He strikes a strange deal with her: She will come and "teach him" to play but for every lesson he will sell her back part of the piano, a black key at a time. But the two of them in the fetid jungle alone and damp, the sweltering humidity and the hum of the fecund insects, the riot of green just outside the door . . . well, it's more than a body can take, and soon they've launched off on a sex game of unsurpassing weirdness as he tries to coax her out of a garment per key.

Where are we now? What place is this? We seem to be in a zone of Victorian fetishism, with her underthings somehow symbolizing his yearnings. Yet as degrading as this may seem, she is somehow drawn equally to the torment of his wanting and his utter inability to express in words what he so desperately wants.

Of course her husband is hurt and must have her back for punishment, setting up the violent third act. One thing, however, that sets "The Piano" apart from other movies is its deployment of male beauty as object. For example Neill, surely one of the most purely beautiful men alive, with those perfectly regular features, those nice teeth and all that smooth hair, is degraded by his own prettiness. Meanwhile the conspicuously ugly Keitel is idealized as a sweeter, more hulking figure; he's the one that has to do the frontal nude scene!

Whatever "The Piano" may mean, it's a powerfully compelling tale about sexual obsession and tormented connection between the sexes.

"The Piano"

Starring Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel

Directed by Jane Campion

Released by Miramax

Rated R

***

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