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Set in 1850, Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) leaves her native Scotland with her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) to fulfill an arrangement with her father and a frontiersman named Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill). Ada hasn’t spoken since she was six, and no one knows why, even Ada. The narration we hear is not her spoken words but those in her mind. Upon arrival in the rugged, weather beaten village, Ada finds life a challenge, especially when her new husband refuses to let the piano in their home, abandoning it on the beach where they landed. Stewart’s neighbor, Bains (Harvey Keitel), an Englishman who has adopted the ways of the local Māori, offers to take the piano in exchange for some land and lessons from Ada. Stewart agrees, unaware that Baines, having seen the way the music changes Ada, has become attracted to her, and longs to have her near. Soon, Baines negotiates the return of her piano for lessons that are far more about intimacy than music.
Written and directed by Jane Campion, The Piano is an unusually hypnotic drama of staggering beauty and terrifying darkness. Hunter, in a role that is entirely without voice (save for the limited voiceover), is fearless, creating a character of incredible strength and passion. Paquin, just ten-years-old at the time, is achingly good, and gives one of the greatest child performances in the history of film. Both won Academy Awards for their work. A richly rewarding film, The Piano haunts long after and remains a work of art far removed from most in the medium.
When Stewart, who is a shy and indifferent man, claims there is no room in the house for the piano, it turns the already unhappy Ada cold and even hostile. She is lost without it, it being the only real way she can communicate, at least in her mind. As it lies crated by the seashore, she grows further despondent until Baines takes her to see it and gets a chance to play it along the water’s edge. Baines witnesses a remarkable transformation in the usually subdued woman and becomes enchanted, despite being married (His wife is living in Europe and not returning). He brokers a deal with Stewart for some land in exchange for the piano, and for Ada to provide lessons. An agreement is made and soon, the piano is installed in his own home, tuned and ready for her to play. The catch is, he doesn’t want to learn, only to listen. On her first day, when he sees her exposed neck, he can’t resist and lays a kiss upon her skin. It shocks her and she recoils, but he has a proposition. She can earn back the piano one key at a time if he can do things while she plays. The implication is obvious. Her need for the piano more important than her own body, she agrees.
Bains watches her for a few more lessons, slowly becoming lost in her image and the sensual music her fingers elicit. His lust for her is unbearable. On one occasion, as she plays, he asks her to lift her ankle length skirt and she does, a small bit, but not enough. He eases himself onto the floorboard beneath the piano as she continues on the keys, telling her to lift it higher. She does, this time above her knees and we see her stockinged legs and booted feet. He leans back and admires their shape and notices a tiny hole in the threads of her black leggings. He reaches and gently caresses the rim of the tear and the small patch of pale skin shimmering in the sea of ebony. She play on.
Ada is a powerful presence in the village, a mute, proper European woman in a land of mud of and rain. Flora follows her around like a shadow and the two are like an orbiting satellite around the comings and goings of the townspeople. Bains is a good man, uncultured but honorable, falling into the life of the native people and finding happiness in the dank shallows of the forest. The two collide like celestial bodies, the slow attraction building in luminous layers as time progresses.
Baines does not know how to feel about Ada, only that when he saw her play on the beach, it excited him. He doesn’t really even know why, only that there, before him, is a woman who can’t speak, yet with only the keys of a piano, says more to him than a thousand words could. It creates a rush, an unquenchable desire to be with her.
Ada on the other hand, is indifferent to Baines, initially furious with the deal that has her beloved piano lodged at his home. She think of him as a dirty man, unkempt and unable to care for the instrument. When she arrives to see the piano in tune, clean, and ready for play, it impresses her. But when she lays her fingers to the keys, she knows that she must have it back, that the only salvation to living in her new home is to be able to play. Baines offer is obviously sexual. She understands that from the start, and so does he. How sexual is not questioned, only that while she plays, he be allowed to do things.
It is a slow seduction, one that Baines knows he will play, and for exactly how long, given that the agreement is only for as many black keys as are on the piano. He let’s it build softly, only watching her at first, but it’s not long before he must do more.
This moment is crucial in conveying the true meaning of his intentions and her acceptance of it. His request for her to lift her skirt is a challenge really. What is her limit? How far will she let him go? And how badly does she want the piano? When she complies, even a little bit, he knows he’s already won, though by what degree, it’s hard to tell. Seduction works on more than one level, and Baines is falling victim to his own trap.
He lays himself on the floor, a vulnerable position that conveys two things: one, that he is stooping, he will do anything to see her body, to feel satisfaction, to see her in ways unlike how she presents herself, and two, he is willing to let her dominate. That is the role he seeks, for her to succumb but to also control. That is the purpose of the music. It sets the tempo and the rhythm, but also is the breath that keeps the moment alive. One note off, or if stopped all together and the message is clear.
The hole in the stocking is the real prize and represents so much about this relationship and where it is going. When Ada raises her skirt, we see her legs wrapped in black stockings and yet this tiny open mark revealing her flesh jumps out like a bright light in the dark. Our eyes leap for it, just as his does. There doesn’t need to be a word spoken about it, as we feel its power instantly. It draws us in, the hint of skin, the promise of sex, and holds us enraptured just as it does for Baines. He can’t resist the need to touch her, and his finger plies along the frayed edge first before finding its mark like a kiss on the cheeks before the lips and then much more. It’s the most sexual moment in the film, despite their graphic physical affair that comes later.
This sensational moment is a highlight in the film, a touching, powerfully seductive sequence that is also gripping for its character development. We learn much about Ada and her trust, needs, ambition, and humanity. She is a woman who hides behind a muted voice and yet is the loudest in the room even in her silence. Baines becomes tortured by his own lust, and yet we discover that this is much more than it appears. Where it goes and what its devastating consequences become, start here, under a piano with a tiny touch of skin.
Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill