The Piano: The Isolated, Constricted Self

The Piano holds a mirror to our constricted lives while at the same time sparking a silent burning will to feel passionately alive and to love fully.

The Piano: The Isolated, Constricted Self

Jane Campion, Writer and Director. Miramax, 1993.

By Donald Williams, Jungian Analyst (Boulder, Colorado)

Jane Campion says of THE PIANO, "I think that the romantic impulse is in all of us and that sometimes we live it for a short time, but it's not part of a sensible way of living. It's a heroic path and it generally ends dangerously." Certainly American culture shares this romantic impulse, and despite the Victorian setting of The Piano, we are no less isolated, constricted, even contorted, than the characters animating Jane Campion's film. We want to hear stories of passion but most of us learned to smooth over conflicts, to mute our excitement, and to express our sexual and loving selves guiltily or immaturely. Our values and impulses are as tangled as any Victorian tale. As a culture we value compassion and "good works" but we reward self-aggrandizing ambition. We value independence but reward the corporate deferential self. We champion individualism but submit to work in cubicles and go home to confining cells of credit card debt. We seek liberation from isolation and emptiness through the acquisition of money and consumer distractions, and when security and purchased pleasures fail to satisfy us, the fear of emptiness prompts a renewed, often more costly pursuit of happiness. As Americans we are much like Stewart in The Piano whose brush with passion leaves him saying, "I want myself back; the one I knew." (Campion, 115) He wants the self who stoically tolerated isolation while steadily working to acquire more land. The Piano holds a mirror to our constricted lives while at the same time sparking a silent burning will to feel passionately alive and to love fully.

The Piano won the Cannes Palme d'Or award and eight Academy Award nominations. Jane Campion received the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, Holly Hunter the Oscar for Best Actress, and Anna Paquin the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. The film provokes opposing reactions--a transcendent experience for some, a distressed or bored "didn't get it" experience for others. It is strangely difficult to say with conviction what this film is about. We remember its emotional tone and its images longer than its storyline. Images are the language of the psyche. We remember the image of an abandoned piano on an isolated beach, the surf sweeping around its legs, far from rescue, and the image haunts us. Or we see the piano plunging into the ocean, floating down in the water to a bed of perpetual silence.

The moving force of The Piano is Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter), a woman mute--no one knows why--since she was six years old. Ada leaves Victorian England for a marriage arranged by her father to join a husband-to-be in New Zealand. Traveling with Ada are her daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin), whose history remains a mystery to us, and her piano. Her husband, Stewart (Sam Neill), arrives a day late at the desolate beach where he arranged to meet Ada and Flora. When Stewart and his Maori helpers begin carrying her belongings up from the beach, Ada writes on the pad she carries around her neck, "THE PIANO," and Stewart, mistaking muteness for deafness, shouts back, "TOO HEAVY." There the piano will remain until Stewart leaves to survey his land and Ada, through force of will, prevails upon Baines (Harvey Keitel), the rough-looking Englishman turned half native, to take her back to the beach where she can play her piano. Ada's passion and will then proceed to endanger and transform everyone she touches.

Jane Campion said that she set out to explore the transforming power of eroticism and passion with three Victorian characters who had nothing--no words, stories, or codes of conduct--to prepare them for the power of sexuality. Yes, this sounds like the film I saw. The film, however, seems to be about many things, about the isolated, constricted self, about women in a patriarchal culture, about native culture and natural instincts under Western colonialism, about sexual and emotional repression, about loneliness and longing, about the relationship between passion and intimacy, about love and sacrifice, and about the failures of love.

The Victorian setting of the film places it close in time and theme to the sexual repression that generated Freudian theories of the unconscious and eventually psychoanalysis of all persuasions. The oppressive constraints on women, sexuality, and emotions forced life to assert itself in tortured symptoms. Remember that psychoanalysis began with an exceptionally intelligent and creative young woman who was confined as was customary to a "monotonous existence" in a puritanical family. She was left alone with no place to turn but to her "private theater" where she entertained and comforted herself with creative fantasies--not unlike Ada with her music. After tending her father who was dying of tuberculosis, "Anna O." (Bertha Pappenheim) developed hysterical symptoms, and Dr. Josef Breuer (Freud's one-time mentor) was called in to treat her. Breuer asked to be left alone with Bertha, then closed the wooden shutters, and pulled a chair close to Bertha's bed. He placed his long, sensitive fingers on her forehead, hypnotized her, and asked her to talk to him. He did not, however, instruct her to give up her symptoms, which was the usual treatment for hysteria at that time. Instead, Josef instructed her to talk to him in any of the languages she knew. And she began to talk.

With each succeeding visit, Bertha told her story, sometimes in German, sometimes in English. When she was angry and would not speak, Josef asked her to talk about her anger. When she would not eat, he fed her. His genuinely kind and gentle presence day after day soothed her. She looked forward to his visits, and she continued to talk. She introduced him to her "private theater." When Josef was present, the world was real, and she was alive and "in contact." Finally, she had found someone to follow her in a foreign language--hers--and to enter her world and match her intelligence and passion. Dr. Breuer, however, was frightened by the passion aroused in his patient and in him. When Bertha hysterically claimed to be pregnant with his child, Dr. Breuer fled her house and never treated hysterics again. But Freud was inspired by Breuer's experience and found there the seeds of psychoanalysis--repressed memories, talking, and listening. Psychoanalysis began at the turn of the century as sessions still begin today--with stories of constriction, isolation, and the emotions we defend ourselves against.

Jane Campion emphasized the power of sexuality--as Freud did--but I want to suggest another complementary interpretation of The Piano, one more compatible with Jung's broad insight that every individual, family, and culture casts a shadow, a cluster of emotions, ideas, and behaviors that are forbidden. The shadow is anything judged unacceptable or incompatible with our beliefs. As much as we have changed since the Victorian era, we still forbid certain feelings and ideas, and these forbidden "lives" will still seek some way, however contorted, to find air and light.

THE PIANO confronts us--passionately--with the harsh restraints that we face even in a "therapeutic" society. Every family, for instance, permits the expression of some emotions and some ideas while prohibiting the expression of other emotions and ideas. In one family it is acceptable, even necessary, to express aggressive criticism, competition, and ambition but forbidden by example and by fear to express tenderness or empathy. In another family, just the opposite is true. In a great many families sexual and angry feelings, thoughts, and impulses are unacceptable--they cannot be talked about. The restriction is often so complete that everyone acts as if such experiences did not even exist.

A great many people enter therapy saying, "I had a fairly happy childhood, a normal family," when in fact, to maintain their membership in the family, they had to believe that they were happy, normal children with normal parents. Perhaps they had to "shut down" in order to accept a father's beatings or a mother's emotionally vacant eyes. Perhaps they shut down any hint of intense emotion in order, at all costs, to protect and spare anxious parents. These are the familiar stories that therapists hear. No matter how rich our cultural soil may be, most of us are still surrounded by entangled families at home, by workplaces where we must contort ourselves to survive, by impossible bureaucracies, unspoken rules, endless telephone menus, and if we fall ill, the managed healthcare we pay for will become as elusive as Kafka's castle. As Americans we like to see ourselves as self-contained individuals (Cushman, 2), but as Jung long ago diagnosed us, we suffer from a loss of meaning, value, and soul. We can feel as easily trapped, empty, and bereft as do Ada, Stewart, Baines, and the others who must struggle as they move through the unyielding tangle of vines, tree trunks, and branches as they trek their way through the mud that sucks up their steps, holds them back, and splatters their dark, binding, Victorian clothes.

The Piano shows us abandoned, isolated, constricted characters who suffer in silence but who will do almost anything to feel alive and to preserve that aliveness. Jane Campion's characters are as emotionally constricted as the crated piano on the isolated New Zealand beach, as isolated as Ada who can play the piano but cannot or will not speak. The piano can express the full range of human emotion--playful, sad, romantic, spiritual, passionate, lonely, violent, tender--but not when it remains boarded up, not when it is bartered away for land. Words can express these emotions, too, but not if we do not know the words or cannot speak them--and this is often our fate today, our cultural heritage. As Americans, we grow up with forbidding restrictions--so forbidding often that we cannot know that we are angry, or sexual, lonely, creative, or passionate. The constrictions work so well that we scarcely notice them.

Consider for a moment Flora's improvisation on her mother's muteness. She tells the following story: "Mother used to sing songs in German and her voice would echo across the valleys . . . That was before the accident . . . One day when my mother and father were singing together in the forest, a great storm blew up out of nowhere. But so passionate was their singing that they did not notice, nor did they stop as the rain began to fall, and when their voices rose for the final bars of the duet a great bolt of lightning came out of the sky and struck my father so that he lit up like a torch . . . And at the same moment my father was struck dead my mother was struck dumb! She never spoke another word" (Campion, 31-32). Flora's insight is penetrating. In this fantasy her father died and her mother was struck dumb as punishment for their passion, for the joy of their own voices. Many people and families do not tolerate passion well, not in the Victorian era nor in America today. As much as we may long for passionate experience, it is too frequently considered dark--shadowy--and dangerous to our security. Passion, too, is easily confused with sex in our culture, and we know that sex is dangerous.

THE PIANO is not restricted to its theme of sexual passion. Other emotions, thoughts, and actions are constricted, reined in: anger, fear, despair, spontaneous play, joy, adult tenderness, empathy, compassion, gratitude, jealousy, ethical conflicts, etc. The release of sexual passion in THE PIANO both incites and inspires other emotions, lifting the restrictions that have kept these emotions in check.

At the beginning of the film, we hear Ada's childlike voice, the voice in her head, saying, "I have not spoken since I was six years old. No one knows why, not even me. My father says it is a dark talent and the day I take it into my head to stop breathing will be my last.... The strange thing is I don't think myself silent, that is, because of my piano" (Campion, 9). Her voice is cut off, her memory is repressed, and she presents us with a mystery that no one can fathom. Ada will do anything to have a voice--she stops at nothing to reach her piano. When pressed, she uses Flora for her voice, and when released by Baines, she uses her hands and her body to say what she must say. Most of us in western culture, however, are more like Stewart than Ada or Baines: We prefer our stoicism and order to the dangers of excitement or love.

In the first onscreen image we see Ada in England, looking at the world through her splayed fingers, just as later she will see everything through boarded windows or through the tree trunks, vines, and branches of the New Zealand bush. In the background, we see a man trying to lead Ada's daughter, Flora, on a pony that stubbornly refuses to move. Later, Ada stands at a window in the moonlight and touches the curtain in an unconscious farewell.

Immediately the film cuts to an underwater view of the bottom of a long wooden boat cutting across the sea. Silence. Down under. Dream-time. In another moment we see the "riotous"--passionate!--sea pounding an empty stretch of the New Zealand coastline. The beach is framed by steep cliffs and a dense forest. Seamen carry Ada McGrath in a large Victorian skirt on their shoulders through the rough surf to the beach. Others carry her ten-year-old daughter. Ada watches anxiously as the men struggle to carry her crated piano to shore. We see Ada sign to Flora and Flora speak to the seamen for her mother: These two feminine figures present a stubbornly united front, intending, if necessary, to stay where they are until they starve. Ada's husband is not there to meet them, and they do not know if he will ever arrive.

Later, with the boat now looking small in the distance, Flora becomes "aware of herself and distant, from both the boat and her mother" (Campion, 16), and she runs frantically back up the beach to her mother. Cut to Flora sleeping in her mother's lap beside the piano while Ada's hand finds a way through a hole left by a broken board to reach a small stretch of piano keys. The camera shows us her hands close-up on the keys, hidden behind the boards. She begins the notes of the melody that will haunt the film. The comfort of the piano heightens their isolation. Suddenly, the rising tide sends a wave rushing under the crated piano--nothing is safe. This opening image captures the isolation that torments each character, and this isolation is the emotional core of the film. Great distances divide everyone. Later, sexuality breaks through all obstacles--Campion's theme--to transform people and open channels to every stifled impulse or feeling.

While pursuing the theme of isolation and constriction, I want to mention how and why screenwriters create clusters of emotional images and achieve psychological depth. Good writers do not weave images tightly because they learned to do this in English departments or film schools; they do it because this is how the psyche works. Good drama possesses a core conflict and an emotional tone that will inevitably influence a writer's choice of characters, actions, images, settings, and dialogue. As psychoanalysts affirm daily, images, words, and actions are not arbitrary; they carry unconscious but intelligent, meaningful responses to the world we experience. As Jungians assert, images are the natural language of the unconscious, of the unconstrained Self.

The multiple images of isolation and constriction in THE PIANO point to a central psychological complex. Carl Jung considered any unresolved conflict or ongoing psychological injury a "complex." A psychological complex (originating, say, with childhood neglect) can be triggered by any related experience (rejection or loss, for instance). When an experience approximates the original wound, the complex intrudes unexpectedly and can suddenly dominate our thoughts, feelings, and actions. The awakened complex carries an emotional tone or a familiar set of feelings. Psychological complexes commonly organize what we see, hear, remember, think, and feel. They attract specific feelings and repel others. When depressed, for example, we naturally notice experiences, ideas, and memories that confirm our depressed convictions, and we fail to notice anything too hopeful.

Within the first minutes of this consummately crafted film, we see images of the core complex that structures and colors everything that follows. The injury shared by each of the major characters--Ada, Flora, Stewart, and Baines--is emotional isolation. Along with this isolation come the threat of loss, abandonment, loneliness, and failed connections with others. Ada and Flora are abandoned, left alone to wait at the edge of a wild sea for a stranger to arrive, God knows when. Their smallness and loneliness in this epic setting haunts us.

Other images of isolation, constriction, and failure to connect are just as movingly portrayed. These images seem fated and grow in power as they cluster and accumulate:

The next scenes show us people who are encumbered by the constrictions of culture, of unnatural Victorian clothing in a harsh natural environment. Ada struggles through mud and dense bush with petticoats, pantaloons, a hoop skirt, bodice, and delicate boots. Stewart's suit is splattered with mud but he wears his best clothes and a formal top hat nonetheless. This is a tortured wedding processional. After arriving at Stewart's home, it is time for the wedding pictures, and Ada, in a wedding dress, weaves her way over planks and logs while torrential rain pours across the mud and the dense bush outside Stewart's hut. She and her husband pose for their wedding photograph in the drenching rain. Clearly, nature is stronger than culture. Once inside, Ada pulls the dripping wet dress from her, ripping part of the gown in contempt.

Along with the constrictions of culture that separate people from themselves and from each other, there are the limits of language. Stewart cannot speak the Maori language and misunderstands their motives almost as often as he misunderstands Ada. Neither does he understand Baines, who identifies more closely with the Maori than with their small group of English companions. Baines, unlike Stewart, can speak the Maori language but he cannot read. Ada hears and understands everything that is said but she does not understand with the heart: painfully we watch her fail repeatedly to appreciate the separate needs and feelings of her daughter and of others. Ada treats Flora often as an extension on herself, often as her voice, as the one who speaks for her, and at other times she neglects her. The Maori are clearly puzzled by the English, but on the other hand, they may be the only people who know themselves: they are in their world, unashamed, freely curious, free to think their own thoughts.

Ada, more isolated in her own world than anyone, nonetheless experiences the most intense passion. Despite her silent will, she will do almost anything to express herself through the piano. Virtually autistic and separated from her piano, she carves piano keys onto the wooden table top in Stewart's kitchen and "plays" these piano keys she has etched. Flora sings, accompanying the silent piano. Ada hides the keys with the tablecloth when Stewart enters. Stewart reaches his hand under the tablecloth--as Ada reached through the crate to her piano--and his hand explores the keys. Along with him, as he discovers the intensity of her passion, we feel the emotional and erotic tension.

Despite the hold that the confined Ada has on our attention, Stewart and Baines in their own ways will also do almost anything to break their isolation, to feel alive and not alone. Stewart marries, sight unseen, a mute woman from England and dedicates himself passionately to the acquisition of land. Baines, on the other hand, seeks the society of the Maori, learns their language, forges genuine friendships, and marks his face as they do. Much like Ada, Stewart, and Baines, we contort and constrict ourselves, repress our vitality, and yet we still look for ways to feel alive as relentlessly as plants look for the light.

Everyone experiences some sense of being cut off from others, disconnected, but we see the greatest tension within Ada as she suffers the separation from her piano like a child separated from her mother. Finally, in an exercise of indomitable will, she prevails with Baines, and he takes Ada and Flora back to the beach while Stewart is away. When her fingers touch the keys and she begins to play, we see Ada smile for the first time, a warm, animated, and unexpected smile. And in the distance we see Flora dancing with grace and innocent joy as she waves seaweed from her outstretched hands, and the seaweed is caught up in the wind like beautiful ribbons. As Baines stands by and watches, he is drawn irresistibly to Ada. Upon their return, Baines trades Stewart land for the piano, and with the help of Maori friends he brings the piano to his hut. He barters with Ada and offers the piano back to her in exchange for "lessons." In his lessons he will study her, but never the piano.

If we follow the rest of the film, we experience one obstacle after another that interrupts self-expression, understanding, insight, and almost any clear human connection. And when Baines and Ada do finally learn to love each other, it sets off emotions that no one is prepared to manage. The following is a list of moments--images--that continue to capture feelings of isolation, failed vision and empathy, frustrated desire and love, despair, rage, and loss.

All of these images cluster around the core sense of isolation, silence, and loss. The characters are isolated by emotions and longings they cannot express, by physical obstacles, by misunderstandings, and by the constrictions of character that are as inevitable as fate. Ada maintains her isolation by willfully not learning to speak. She isolates herself with her piano and her daughter whom she uses as an intermediary between her and the world. Strangely, it is Ada, who is self-absorbed, ruthlessly willful, and more attached to her piano than to any living person who transforms everyone. Virtually autistic except at the piano and only erratically with her daughter, the most emotionally unattuned character forces each person out of their isolation. She awakens sexual passion in Baines, and without knowing it, inspires his love. He in turn teaches her to love and to experience feelings and thoughts that sometimes transcend the music she plays. Her passion and emerging ability to make contact with others besides Flora also forces her daughter to experience herself independently of her mother and to experience her own will, her own longings for a family.

Stewart barricades Ada in his hut and prevents her from seeing Baines. One night she walks into Stewart's bedroom with a candle (echoes of Eros and Psyche). She pulls the sheets back while he sleeps, and tenderly strokes his neck, shoulders, and chest. Stewart's eyes well up with tears as he experiences her "like a nurse spreading ointment on a wound" (Campion, 89). Stewart breaks their connection--the emotions are too overwhelming for him. He decides to trust Ada but it is short-lived, and the images of isolation, longing, and passion move toward their finish:

Stewart enters Ada's room, disconsolate, remorseful, still angry. He holds the lamp up to see Ada in bed, and he studies her face (another reference to Eros and Psyche). Ada hears nothing that Stewart says. When he straightens her gown, he touches her leg, keeps his hand there, and becomes unexpectedly aroused. He undoes his belt as he watches her, feverish and unconscious. When he begins to move on top of her, he is startled and ashamed when he sees her staring directly at him. He quietly withdraws but not before sensing that Ada is "speaking" to him.

In the scene where Stewart's sexuality suddenly asserts itself, he is shocked to "see" Ada for the first time. He leaves carrying a candle in a lantern and walks past the ghostly tree stumps to Baines' hut. Stewart has come face to face with a mystery beyond words. Ada has opened Stewart to his loneliness, to jealousy and rage, to sexuality, and finally to an uncanny compassion. He asks Baines, "Has Ada ever spoken to you?" Then we learn how she has spoken to Stewart. He explains, "I heard her voice. There was no sound, but I heard it here," as he presses his forehead with his open hand. He continues, "She said, 'I have to go, let me go, let Baines take me away, let him try and save me. I am frightened of my will, of what it might do, it is so strange and strong'" (Campion, 115).

Stewart has experienced passion, despair, intimacy, and understanding beyond anything he ever imagined. But he wants himself back. He will rely on his goal to acquire land and prosper to contain the loneliness and the longing he cannot satisfy. He is unattuned to others but not insensitive. Stewart knows how terribly alone he is. Out of love for Ada and an awareness of his limits, he chooses solitude. He tells Baines to leave and to take Ada and Flora with him.

Only through their sacrifices do the characters resolve their internal conflicts and unexpectedly transcend their isolation. We again see a growing coherence to the images that cluster around the act of sacrifice. To appreciate the sacrificial theme we need to return to the theme of the symbolic association between the piano keys and Ada's fingers, to the piano keys that possess Ada's love and Ada's fingers that erotically touch the keys and later touch the naked bodies of Baines and Stewart. Baines is aroused watching Ada's fingers stroke the polished ivory. The piano keys are bartered and sacrificed, piece by piece, in the agreement between Ada and Baines: Baines agrees to return the piano in exchange for one visit for each black key. His generous sexuality, affection, and open curiosity first awaken Ada's sexuality, later her love.

Later, Ada betrays Stewart when she sends a piano key to Baines with the words engraved: "Dear George, You have my heart, Ada McGrath" (Campion, 94). Flora betrays her mother's wish and gives the piano key to Stewart. In a rage Stewart chops off Ada's index finger with an axe. When he tells Flora to give the wrapped finger to Baines, it is with the warning that "if he ever tries to see her again I'll take off another and another and another!" (Campion, 104). Stewart's violent threat is a hellish transformation of the bargain between Ada and Baines. With each variation in this cluster of sacrificial associations, we sink deeper into grief and despair.

When Baines, Ada, and Flora leave on a boat ferried by Baines' Maori friends, Baines insists on taking the piano despite Ada's protests that the piano is contaminated and the protests of his friends who believe the weight of the piano will tip over the boat. In the rough sea Ada signs to Flora: "She says, throw the piano overboard." "PUSH IT OVER," she mimes, and the oarsman echoes her, "Yeah . . . push the coffin in the water" (Campion, 120). The Maori maneuver the piano into place and heave it overboard. As loose ropes once holding the piano "snake" past Ada, she curiously places her foot within the loop. The rope catches her up, pulls her over, and she hangs in the water as she sinks with the piano. Suddenly she begins to fight against the rope, she slips it off her foot along with her shoe, and she struggles to the surface. This is the final sacrifice. She sacrifices her willful isolation for an attachment to other people and to life. Later, she will even learn to speak: "I teach piano now in Nelson . . . I am learning to speak. My sound is still so bad I feel ashamed. I practise only when I am alone and it is dark" (Campion, 122).

Sacrifice precedes the powerful resolution of the impossible conflicts in this film. Stewart sacrifices Ada to restore her and he regains himself. Flora finds her own voice when she risks the complete sacrifice of her mother's love. Baines sacrifices land, then the piano, then Ada, and after regaining her, finally sacrifices his old identity entirely for Ada and her love. On Ada's side, she sacrifices the piano for her love of Baines, for Flora, and for her own will to live. She unexpectedly finds the voice she silenced as a child and the love she perhaps never knew.

Affectionate hands and violent hands, erotic impulses and emotional longings, sexual fingers, piano keys, obstacles of every kind, and unexpected sacrifices are bound tightly together in this film of isolation and the transforming powers of sexuality and love. The film moves as relentlessly as the rough swells that pound the beach and wash up to and rush around the piano. In the final dream-like scene, we see the piano on the floor of the sea with Ada floating in surrender above it, and we hear her voice: "At night I think of my piano in its ocean grave, and sometimes of myself floating above it. Down there everything is so still and silent that it lulls me to sleep. It is a weird lullaby and so it is; it is mine" (Campion, 122).

The universal acclaim for THE PIANO, its many awards, and the depth of reactions of those who liked the film touch a hopeful chord. The characters in this film speak powerfully to us with their actions, their hands, a piano, and few words. How different this is from our American never- ending and always-talked-about quest for relatedness and our determination to confront and resolve family "issues!" This film finds its depth with a small but universal story and with recurring, shifting images that accumulate emotional force. With these images THE PIANO takes us into the director's dream and a dream of Western culture. In the opening minutes of the film, when, from underwater, we see the hull of a long wooden boat move swiftly above us, we know that we have entered a dream wholly. We can hope that this film of isolated, disconnected selves who risk everything and transform will inspire emotional courage in us to touch others and risk being touched. This film may help us to respect our dreams and stories and to say about them, like Ada: "Mine is a strange story and so it is; it is mine."


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